Three of Europe’s top prelates gathered with colleagues in Rome earlier this week, reflecting on how they could implement more pastoral responses to contemporary family issues at the upcoming Synod of Bishops at the Vatican in October.
About fifty bishops and lay theologians gathered at the Pontifical Gregorian University for the closed day of study and reflection, invited by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, Bishop Markus Büchel of St. Gallen, and Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseilles. The three are the respective episcopal conference presidents of Germany, Switzerland, and France. According to Catholic News Service, the purpose of the gathering was to:
” ‘enrich thinking about the biblical and theological foundations of the themes and clarify the issues at the heart of the current debates on marriage and family’ “
A statement from the Swiss bishops explained how this goal played out during the daylong meeting:
“[R]eflection on a theology of love to which sexuality is understood as a precious gift of God for the expression of love. What is needed is a further development of the theology of love, which is linked to the tradition of the moral-theological distinctions and integrates new insights of anthropology such as sociology.
“The third part of the study day focused on the challenge to accept and theologically understand the biography of the gift of one’s own life: in a socially and highly complex pluralistic society, individuals take a greater responsibility for shaping their own lives. Often they no longer follow traditional patterns. The personal life plans and the judgment of individual conscience play a greater role…
“All presentations and the discussions were able to show the beginnings of a localization of marriage and family in the Church and world. At the same time the study day has made it clear that further discussion on the future of marriage and family is necessary and possible, and is enriched by a further intensive theological reflection.”
Those gathered expect the issues of LGBT and divorced/remarried Catholics to resurface in October, and they find the church’s current approaches insufficient. La Croix quotes one participant as summing up the day’s reflections in a few words:
“The strongest words were mercy, hospitality, forgiveness, support, gradualness, divine pedagogy. The words we objected to: regulations, formalism, strictness.”
Scripture scholar Annie Marie Pelletier spoke highly of the day, telling La Stampa:
“It is a real sign of the times…I was struck by the freedom of speech and the richness it brings. . . .[W]e have shown that the real problems are those fully in the life of the Church in contemporary society, with the idea that we will have a credible word – and faithful to Christ – only if we approach these topics by listening…
“[I]n order to remain faithful to the tradition, we must say things differently. This is true fidelity to tradition and is obviously more expensive than imagining the tradition and repeating the same thing.”
“French Jesuit Thomasset Alain [who] believes that the ‘Christian conscience’ has the right to enter into conflict with the Magisterium in ‘responsible dissent’. . .
“The German moral theologian Eberhard Schockenhoff [who] is campaigning for, among other things, a new approach that [emphasizes that] homosexuals ‘deserve support and a positive response’ from the Church.”
This meeting follows both the German and Swiss bishops’ recent calls for reform, as well as Cardinal Marx’s personal advocacy on behalf of LGBT people. Marx, a close adviser of Pope Francis, has called for the church to see the whole person in discussing sexuality and admitted church teaching develops over time. German bishops recently announced a new policy of not firing LGBT church workers who come out or marry a same-gender partner.
Commenting on German Catholics’ replies to the Vatican’s second synod questionnaire distributed last autumn, the German bishops’ report said many respondents identified a divide between the Vatican’s idealized family and the reality of Catholics’ lives today. Respondents criticized the absence of questions on homosexuality and contraception. German bishops also noted “very high” expectations that the Synod would overcome this divide, reports The Tablet, with Bishop Heiner Koch of Dresden suggesting Vatican officials would be “well-advised to get down to a really committed, sound and communicative preparation.”
Switzerland’s bishops similarly summarized the responses from 6,000 Catholics in their nation. The bishops called sacramental marriage a “model minority” (according to an unofficial translation) and say Catholics want the church’s pastoral initiatives to respond to realities, including:
“Partnerships for gays and lesbians should have a place in the church, so this is a further request to the Church. Although equality with the ecclesiastical marriage is rejected by a majority, there is still a high level of support to a blessing of these partnerships.
This past week’s meeting at the Gregorian University is a clear sign the bishops are listening to Catholics who love the church but are extremely dissatisfied with its pastoral approaches to LGBT people and other marginalized communities. Such a meeting could not have occurred under the two previous papacies, but Pope Francis is allowing space for genuine encounter, dialogue, and visioning to happen. While it is still possible that the synod may become a case of crushed expectations. there are still signs of life and renewal all over this global church if only we pay attention — and Cardinal Marx’s strategy meeting is certainly one of those prominent signs.
For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of the 2015 Synod on the Family, click here or subscribe to the blog in the upper right hand corner for regular Catholic LGBT updates in the coming months.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry