Over the next few weeks, Bondings 2.0 will be preparing a number of posts related to the upcoming extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family, to be held at the Vatican, October 5-19, 2014. This post is the first in the series. Future posts in this series will be identified by the word “SYNOD” in the headline.
I sense that the general mood about the upcoming Vatican Synod on Marriage and the Family, October 5-19, 2014, in Rome, is summed up best by the title of John Wilkins’ Commonweal article about the meeting: “Great Expectations.”
There is a strong feeling among a lot of Catholics I meet, especially those who work for LGBT equality in the Church, that this meeting could be a turning point for a welcoming and just ministry. The expectations are understandably high: Pope Francis, who called the meeting is certainly the most gay-friendly pope of modern times; the Vatican asked bishops to consult with the laity in their dioceses about various topics concerning marriage and the family, including pastoral outreach to families headed by same-gender couples; many bishops and church officials have already made many statements about their new openness to same-gender couples; some of these more gay-friendly bishops, in fact, have been appointed as synod participants.
I acknowledge that I often have those same great expectations, but in other moments, I remind myself that change in the Church happens slowly, and that perhaps the best thing to hope from the Synod is one more further step down the road to full equality. And by the way, this synod is, in fact, an extraordinary synod, which is in preparation for a proper synod on these topics to be held October 4-25, 2015, where many more bishops will be participating and where all the real decisions will be made.
Pat Perriello, in The National Catholic Reporter, offers the following suggestion about what to expect from this year’s synod:
“Although it is true that no definitive answers will come out of the October session of the synod, it is still critically important. October will set the tone of whether the bishops are inclined to move forward or to stand still. It will take a supreme effort by Pope Francis and his allies to move this lumbering giant of the church. It will also take the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Michael Sean Winters, columnist for The National Catholic Reporter, recently did a four-part series of essays on the upcoming synod, and devoted the second part to gay and lesbian issues. In one sense, he offers his own “great expectations”:
“The Synod cannot be silent on an issue like pastoral care for gays and lesbians. But, I hope that whatever comes from the Synod does not to read like it was written by an anti-gay bigot. I hope that the thoroughly misunderstood language about “intrinsically disordered” will be dropped as counter-productive and offensive. I hope the Synod will, without qualification, affirm the innate human dignity of all God’s children, including His gay and lesbian children. I also hope that on this issue, as on others, the Synod will help reawaken a less act-centered understanding of human sinfulness, that isolates certain actions, usually violations of the sixth and ninth commandments, while neglecting all else. I hope they will abandon the idea that the Church should oppose gay rights in civil legislation – it is time to disentangle the Sacrament of Matrimony from civil marriage. And, most importantly, I hope the Synod will follow the Holy Father’s lead and ask itself how it can bring the great news of God’s mercy to those Catholics who are gay and lesbian. For any of this to happen, the Synod Fathers must be attuned to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, whose presence was vouchsafed to the Church by Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, will the Synod bear fruit, on this issue and any other. “
As he arrives at this conclusion, Winters makes some interesting points about the Church’s relationship with lesbian and gay people:
“In the history of the Church, no group of people, except the Jews, have been treated worse than gays and lesbians. And, like the Church’s treatment of the Jews, it is sometimes difficult to discern whether the Church was merely reflecting cultural biases extant at the time, or generating the animus on its own, or, more often, a mix of both. . . . [T]he dominant story of how gays and lesbians have been treated in Western culture is framed by a singular fact that turns out to be wrong. For centuries, people, including churchmen, believed that gay acts were the result of an aberrant choice, an instance of a heterosexual person engaged in a perverse act. We now know that a certain segment of the population, probably no more than three or four percent, experience homosexuality not as a choice but as a given, and for them, acting on their desire is not aberrant. That may not fit our moral categories, but there is no denying the fact that our cultural and ecclesial understanding of homosexuality has been distorted by a factual mistake for a very long time.”
And as for the U.S. bishops, Winters states:
” . . . [N]othing excuses their response to the same-sex marriage phenomenon. It has been pathetic. If you know this one discrete thing about a person – he or she is gay – then, well, I am not going to bake her wedding cake and I am not going to allow his partner to get health care benefits. The response from the bishops is all the more remarkable because they certainly were less combative when the states began enacting no-fault divorce laws in the late 60s and early 70s. The issue of homosexuality seems to have hit a nerve.”
Columnist Jamie Manson is not quite optimistic about the Synod, noting that no LGBT people are among the lay people who have been invited as observers, and that many of the others are people with strong track records defending natural family planning. But Manson offers a corrective from moral theologian Sister Margaret Farley, RSM, about how synod participants might conduct themselves:
“Farley coined the phrase ‘the grace of self-doubt’ as a way for religious people to resist the temptations of self-righteousness and certitude. The grace of self-doubt is essential for individual and ethical discernment because it recognizes that our moral theories often prove limited when applied to real-life circumstances.
“It is grace, she writes, that ‘allows us to listen to the experience of others, take seriously reasons that are alternative to our own, rethink our own last word.’
“Farley believes that the laity, clergy, theologians and church leaders should participate in a shared search for moral insight. ‘The voice of the church is muted,’ she explains, when ‘it does not represent the wisdom of a genuine discerning church.’ “
I consider this to be very wise counsel. I think should be coupled with the advice of Cardinal Walter Kasper. The German cardinal had been invited by Pope Francis to address a February 2014 consistory of cardinals in preparation for the synod. Entitled “The Gospel of the Family,” Kasper’s talk urged the cardinals to be open to modern realities and cautioned them against retrenchment. In his Commonweal essay,John Wilkins cites a part of Kasper’s talk, which I hope all synod participants will take to heart:
“[Kasper] reminded them that there were ‘great expectations’ in the church—and also, he might have added, in the world. If the church did not take steps but stayed where it was, it would cause ‘terrible disappointment.’ As ‘witnesses of hope,’ they must not be led by fear of change. Let them show ‘courage’ and ‘above all biblical candor.’ He warned: ‘If we don’t want that, then we should not hold a synod on this topic, because then the situation would be worse afterwards than before.’ ”
Let us keep the synod bishops our prayers that they may be open to the possibility of change.
What are your expectations of the Synod? What would you like to see happen? What do you think might be possible to happen? What do you think will happen? Post your reflections in the “Comments” section of this post.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry