This post is the fifth in Bondings 2.0’s reports from the Synod on Marriage and Family in Rome. New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo will continue to send news and commentary from this meeting. Previous posts can be reached by clicking here.
So far, there has been little news from the synod about many of the vigorously debated topics from last year: LGBT issues and divorce/remarriage. Many bishops have noted that this year, the synod will focus instead on broader issues facing the family. My own interpretation is that they might want to be steering away from topics that perhaps might question doctrine, and instead focus on issues where doctrine is non-controversial.
The main topic discussed so far has been the concern with language. I assumed that the concern about language had to do with the use of specific terms such as “homosexual tendencies,” and other reporters here told me that was their assumption, too. At today’s press briefing, though, we learned that the concern about language was at a much more general level. Bishops are concerned that the synod document not sound too negative about family problems and that the synod text be less abstract and more focused on common, everyday phenomena. Manila’s Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, a speaker at the briefing, pointed out that a word like “catechist” can mean different things in different cultures.
At he press briefing, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville observed that the language of the Instrumentum Laboris (the synod’s working document) failed to “inspire” people, that it was often too abstract. He cited the example of Pope Francis, who, he said, “has the capacity to touch the hearts of people.” He also offered an example that was included in the report from his small group discussion concerning language:
“Expanding the words to explain the ‘Good News regarding the family,’ we sought to speak less of ‘crisis’ and more of ‘lights and shadows.’ “
[The reports of 13 small group discussions, broken down in language groups can be found here. The English language groups are titled by “Anglicus,” the Latin word for “English.” I will try to synthesize more of these reports once I can get them basically translated and read.]
There’s been talk in the synod about the need for a ‘new language’ on marriage and the family. What does that mean?
[We need] a new way of speaking about the situation of those who are same-sex attracted or in a same-sex partnership of some kind, or those who are divorced and civilly remarried.
I personally think it’s just not in touch with reality to say there is no good in those relationships. I understand that there’s no continuum between good and evil, but that’s all theory. The reality is, and any pastor knows this, that when you meet people in these relationships, it’s not black and white.
Keeping Church teaching intact can still open up a vast field of pastoral creativity. It’s a challenge to the pastoral imagination. More and more, this synod seems to me to be a summons to that kind of thing. Our danger, and not just the bishops but others in the Church, is to think that we’re condemned to dance in chains unless we can change the Church’s teaching.
There is a Catholic pathology sometimes of all or nothing. If it doesn’t conform to our ideal of what a marriage is, then somehow it’s nothing. It’s a Catholic absolutism. . . .
What about the issue of the need for a more positive, inclusive language about homosexuality, without getting into precisely what that language would be?
I think there would be very large support for that, something like 70/30. There’s very strong support for a less condemnatory approach, and language is at the heart of that. There’s a desire to include [people], without taking on board the claims of what’s sometimes called ‘gay ideology.’
That may involve not just words, but also the language of gestures, of which the pope himself is such a master.
What do you mean by ‘gestures’? I assume you’re not talking, for instance, about blessing ceremonies for gay couples?
No, absolutely not. There’d be no support for that kind of thing, any kind of comparability between marriage and same-sex unions. I doubt there would be a bishop in the hall who would support that.
What I have in mind, for instance, is simply being ready to sit down and talk to people who are gay or in same-sex unions. In other words, not treating them as some kind of diabolical plot, but recognizing their human face and the cry of need, in the belief that somehow the truth of God is to be found there and not in some disembodied world that takes its leave of human experience.
In the press briefing on Wednesday, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput said:
“I hope we find language that we can all agree to be both faithful to the church’s teaching and faithful to love and support of people with same-sex attraction.”
Unfortunately, I don’t think he realizes that his use of the term “people with same-sex attraction” is exactly part of the reason that gay and lesbian people don’t experience love and support from Catholic leaders.
As Chaput’s quote illustrates, language is very important, and I do hope that the synod comes up with new language that is inclusive and welcoming. For instance, the report from English language group “C” stated:
“. . . [W]e had a lengthy discussion about what we meant by ‘the family,’ which is nothing if not basic to this Synod. Some thought it would make more sense to talk of ‘families,’ given the many different kinds of families we now see.”
And English language group “D” commented on what the synod’s final report should look like:
“. . . [I]t’s important to speak in a way that will draw people’s attention.
“Still others thought that the text lacked anything that would attract people. If the document is destined to the general public, they felt that stories from family life, or the lives of the saints along with illustrations, should be included to make the material more compelling. They stressed the need to review the language of the document and ensure that it appeals to both men and women, leaving no one out.”
Language is important, but it is not the only thing the Church hierarchy needs to do to address issues of marriage and family. My biggest worry as I read and listen here in Rome is that the synod will spend all their time on trying to put better language on old doctrines and pastoral practices. It reminds me of the message I heard frequently from bishops during the U.S. marriage equality debates: the problem is that we haven’t communicated our teaching on marriage effectively enough. What these bishops failed to understand was that the problem is not the language or presentation which makes people disagree with the Church or feel alienated from it. The problem is that people are hurt and diminished by the Church’s doctrines and pastoral practices.
I hope and pray that the synod does a lot more than only look at language, and start to look at more creative ways of welcoming and affirming ALL families through new pastoral policies and initiatives.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
National Catholic Reporter: “Synod bishops express confusion in group reports, cardinal calls it healthy”