Bishops who participated in the Synod on the Family in October have had much to say since the Final Report was released and Pope Francis concluded with a Mass during which he exclaimed, “Today is a time of mercy!”
Below are reactions, organized by country, that emerged from church leaders in the final days of the Synod and in the week since. You can access Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of this historical event here.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna said gay advocates might be “disappointed” by the Synod’s final report, according to The New York Times. Progress did not occur because “cultural differences must be respected,” he said, perhaps an allusion to the strong opposition from many African and Eastern European bishops to any inclusion of LGBT people.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, dubbed “Star of the Synod” by Bondings 2.0 for his interventions and blogging efforts, affirmed that there is still a need for new language around homosexuality even if teachings remain the same. USA Today quoted him:
” ‘If you say that an act is disordered. . .you’re saying that I am intrinsically disordered. And at that point you have alienation and a sense of exclusion. . .Can we find a way of saying the same thing that, in fact, is positive, less alienating, less excluding and more accessible to many if not most people?’ “
You can read more about Archbishop Coleridge’s insightful understandings about the language used to express church teachings here.
Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent wrote a letter to diocesan pastoral ministers and said, in part, that “the time when the Church was out to judge or condemn is over.” He reiterated this during a press conference, reported The New York Times, saying:
” ‘It is a welcoming church, it is a church listening to the people and also speaking in clear terms. . .I think this could be the beginning of a new church.’ “
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster (London) compared the “sense of vibrancy” he felt at the Synod to Vatican II, which he experienced as a seminarian in Rome. He told America that the church has entered its “next period of refreshing its pastoral stance and [is] saying that we must find specific, detailed ways in which the great mercy of God becomes real to people in their lives through the ministry of the church.” Commenting on the Synod’s limited engagement with homosexuality, Nichols said:
“That’s true, and I think it’s because a kind of logic emerged that this synod must be about the family, and I think the struggles, the upsets and the challenges that a person faces with the same-sex orientation don’t strictly fall within the parameters of the family, except in as much as they are a member of a family into which they were born. But I’m afraid that it didn’t get the attention that I would have hoped but I understand why.”
Nichols added that LGBT topics are “highly politicized,” making it challenging to respond pastorally without being perceived as political by some bishops. According to Queering the Church, Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton apologized on behalf of England’s delegates for not getting better results on LGBT issues, repeating earlier criticisms he himself made against the Synod :
“I’m very sorry for the LGBT good people who were looking to the synod for something. It was really hard for people of same sex attraction. It wasn’t blocked. There was just so much to deal with.”
Germany’s bishops said the Synod was “not the end, but a colon” in a statement translated into English at In Caelo et In Terra. In that vein, they acknowledged the church must “say honestly where we have failed as Church” in ways that “led to harsh and merciless attitudes” and “caused people pain,” including those with a homosexual orientation. They offered reflection questions about about how to bring the Synod home:
“How do we open, and not close, the way towards Christ? How do we fully integrate people in the Church? How do we become a Church with open doors? And how do we relate to families in the most difficult situations, such as refugee families, to make a life in dignity possible for them, as the Gospel shows? How can we encourage a new spring in the pastoral care of families in general?”
Abbot Jeremias Schröder of the Congregation of Sant’Ottilia, one of ten religious delegates to the Synod, made relevant comments about a lack of historicity in the bishops’ discussions. Regarding marriage’s history in the church, he told Crux:
” ‘You find that a church wedding in the Western Church comes in about 1,000 years ago, not in the beginning as some people say. . .The way of dealing with failed marriages has been very different throughout history as well. . .And just to spell that out, to make it clear we are living in a history that has shaped and evolved, and not just in a constant tradition that’s been immovable for 2,000 years, I think that would have helped.’ “
He said further that speaking of gay Catholics as “intrinsically disordered” is not a “helpful phrase.”
Berlin’s Archbishop Heiner Koch, in a news story in the Austrian Catholic newspaper, Kathpress, said the German bishops pushed as hard as they could on LGBT issues, without success [English translation thanks to Terence Weldon at Queering the Church]:
“African and Eastern bishops especially have expressed very restrictive views about homosexuality at the Synod. Some put forward positions for which there had been vigorous opposition. ‘Our German representatives said clearly that we do not share this judgement and cannot abandon our ideas on human dignity,’ stated Koch, who is also family bishop of the German Bishops Conference..
“At the same time Koch pointed out that in addition to cultural differences, political constraints sometimes make dialogue more difficult: ‘In many totalitarian states there are far-reaching consequences if you speak out in public about, for example, treating homosexuals as human beings.’ “
Koch also said the discussion on homosexuality in the Church must continue to go forward, and that we must remain in conversation.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family which oversaw the World Meeting of Families in September, told Crux that when it comes to LGBT Catholics or those who are divorced and remarried:
“We continue to walk together, to support and stimulate each other in this path where every journey and every seed of goodness must above all be valued and supported, whatever the story of the wearer.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. was interviewed by Religion News Service shortly before returning home. Asked about LGBT issues’ absence, he replied:
“I think the initial mistake back in the 2014 synod was that the conversation about respecting gays and lesbians got mixed in with the issue of whether there should be same-sex marriage. Those are two different issues altogether. One is a basic part of Catholic teaching: Of course you respect everyone, made in the image and likeness of God. Now if you’re going to talk about institutional things, that wasn’t clearly spelled out. And I think that left a sort of a taint in the synod.”
He added that it will take time to “develop into more practical applications” the Synod’s call to respect LGBT people, but the Church need not wait for another synod to do so. Wuerl also had an interesting comment about living church teaching in its fullness, readily applicable to LGBT topics which are too often reduced to sexual ethics and exclusive pastoral practice:
“Yes, we have a very clear teaching and yes, we announce that teaching. But at the same time, that teaching includes the mercy of God and the care of the individual believer. Those two elements of the same reality are what the pope has lifted up and made visible in a way they haven’t been in a long time. If you are not able to minister to that person where that person is, you are not completing the teaching.”
Less positive are comments from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia whom USA Today reported as saying “same-sex attraction is not part of God’s plan,” though he admitted the language of intrinsically disordered “isn’t useful anymore” and should be retired “until we get over the negativity related to it.”
In my estimation, what is far more interesting than the words of bishops who attended the Synod on the Family, be they positive or negative when it comes to LGBT issues, will be how church leaders at all levels and across contexts concretely act upon the Synod’s report and the broader movement towards a merciful church that is, to quote Pope Francis, “home for all.”
Words are important, but the real test for the Synod is what impact it begins to have in the daily lives of Catholics and whether the church can more vibrantly channel God’s love while diminishing the obstacles it imposes to life in Christ.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry