What Can We Expect from Pope’s Upcoming Document on the Family Synod?

Pope Francis has been called the “pope of surprises” for all the out-of the-ordinary things he has said and done.  But it is no surprise that his much-anticipated apostolic exhortation in response to 2015’s Synod on the Family is . . . well, much anticipated!  Pope Francis said he would issue the document before Easter, March 27th, and some Catholic Church observers have been betting on March 19th as the release date because that is the feast of St. Joseph under the title of “Husband of Mary.”

Cardinals and bishops in the synod hall. (Francis DeBernardo Photograph)

In anticipation of the document, Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter gathered thoughts from some church observers about the document, but he noted that it is difficult to foresee how the pope might respond:

“[The apostolic exhortation] should sum up the debates and decisions of the closely watched synod meetings, but, as with anything from the predictably unpredictable Argentine pope, it is unknown what direction Francis will take in his writing.”

McElwee reported observers’ thoughts about what the pope might write.  Among the more controversial issues the pope might discuss are divorce/remarriage, contraception, and same-gender marriages and relationships.  While it seems that people are expecting the most substantial input from the pope on the topic of divorce/remarriage, his response to discussions of LGBT issues is also being anticipated.  McElwee quoted Richard Galliardetz, a Boston College theologian:

“Gaillardetz . . . expressed hope that Francis’ exhortation would address lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people positively.

“The theologian mentioned that the report from the 2015 synod was not as open toward gay people as an interim report published from the 2014 synod, which had a section titled ‘Welcoming Homosexual Persons.’ ”

” ‘I hope the pope will recover the gains we saw in the [2014] synod and affirm the graced character of many committed, stable same-sex relationships,’ he said.

“Overall, Gaillardetz said, he hopes the pope will ‘follow his pastoral instincts, which generally lead him to meet people where they are.’

” ‘Modern Catholic teaching has had far too much said on marriage and family that traffics in highly romanticized language often tragically far removed from ordinary human existence,’ Gaillardetz said.”

Regular readers of Bondings 2.0 may recall that I was privileged to have press credentials for the October 2015 synod at the Vatican and reported daily from there during the length of the meeting. In reviewing my posts and notes from the month that I was in Rome,  I’ve come up with a few things that I think (and hope) Pope Francis might include in the apostolic exhortation.

First of all, while I would love to see great change in the church regarding LGBT issues, I don’t think that we will see BIG changes in the pope’s upcoming document.  (Though, I will be the first to celebrate if this prediction turns out to be wrong!).   At the synod, I saw that there are some in-between steps that the Church needs to take before we are able to make any big changes. I’d like to mention three of them which I think stand a pretty good chance of getting mention in the pope’s upcoming document:

Change in the language of church doctrine:  In many bishops’ interventions, there was a call for a transformation of language that was harmful, offensive, and inaccurate.  What comes to my mind is “objective disorder” to describe homosexual orientation and “intrinsic moral evil” to describe sexual intimacy of a gay or lesbian couple.  Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia was the most explicit in his call for such a change.  In an interview, he stated: 

“For instance: The distinction between sin and sinner breaks down, particularly in the area of sexuality. I don’t think we can any longer say that we condemn the sin but not the sinner. “Because, you see … a person will say in the cultures that you and I come from that my sexuality isn’t just part of me, it’s part of my whole being. . . . “So to say that this act is intrinsically disordered is now taken for granted to mean I am intrinsically disordered.”

Empowering local bishops to respond pastorally according to their own judgments, given the unique attitudes and practices of their cultures and communities: One of the things that the event of the synod illustrated is how culturally diverse the Catholic Church is throughout the globe.  Attitudes and customs about marriage and family are widely divergent–not least of all when it comes to LGBT couples and families.  Germany’s Abbot Jeremias Schroder was one of several synod participants who called for this local option, and he used lesbian and gay issues as his example:

“I also have the impression that the understanding of homosexuality, the social acceptance of homosexuality, is culturally very diverse and that seems to me very obviously to also be an area where bishops conferences should be allowed to formulate pastoral responses that are in tune with what can be preached and announced and lived in a given context.”

 A  desire for the Church to be more of a listening presence and accompanying friend, instead of a disciplinarian rule giver:  This theme is a strong one throughout Pope Francis’ writings, speeches, interviews, and comments, so I think it is very likely that it will appear in some way in the apostolic exhortation.   Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago touched on this theme in an interview at the synod, where he described the kind of church leader that he strives to be:

“If we’re really going to accompany people, we have to first of all engage them. In Chicago, I visit regularly with people who feel marginalized, whether they’re the elderly, or the divorced and remarried, gay and lesbian individuals, also couples. I think we need to really get to know what their life is like if we’re going to accompany them.”

Pope Francis (lower left) delivers homily at synod’s closing liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica, on October 25, 2015. (Francis DeBernardo Photograph)

I think there is a good chance that we will see those themes emerge in the pope’s apostolic exhortation because, in fact, he discussed them in his homily at the Mass closing the synod, for which the gospel passage was the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar  (Mark 10).

Of the importance of pastoral language, Pope Francis said:

“The disciples do nothing other than repeat Jesus’ encouraging and liberating words, leading him [Bartimaeus] directly to Jesus, without lecturing him. Jesus’ disciples are called to this, even today, especially today: to bring people into contact with the compassionate Mercy that saves. When humanity’s cry, like Bartimaeus’, becomes stronger still, there is no other response than to make Jesus’ words our own and, above all, imitate his heart.”

He also seemed to be alluding to the issue of allowing diverse, local pastoral responses when he said:

“A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts.”

And he emphasized the theme of being a listening Church:

“Jesus is moved by his request and becomes involved in his situation. He is not content to offer him alms, but rather wants to personally encounter him. He does not give him any instruction or response, but asks him: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mk 10:51). It might seem a senseless question: what could a blind man wish for if not his sight? Yet, with this question made face to face, direct but respectful, Jesus shows that he wants to hear our needs. He wants to talk with each of us about our lives, our real situations, so that nothing is kept from him.”

None of these passages are proof positive that the pope will include these themes in his apostolic exhortation, but I think the fact that he has spoken them already in the context of the synod means he values their importance.

Most importantly, I think that these three steps–change in language, allowing local pastoral decision-making, becoming an accompanying, listening church–need to be taken before we can see any more substantial changes in church teaching and practice in regard to LGBT issues.  As much as I would like quick change, I think that an evolutionary, not revolutionary, progress is more likely the way things will happen.

Given the wide publicity the synod received and the strong anticipation of the pope’s apostolic exhortation, many, many people are eager to learn what Francis will have to say in this docuemnt. Whatever he writes in the apostolic exhortation can shape pastoral care on family and marriage issues for a long time to come.  Let’s pray that the Spirit guides him towards in more inclusive directions than the Vatican has previously taken.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

The National Catholic Reporter: “Church reform requires decentralization, synodality”

The National Catholic Reporter: “Pope Francis preparing document on the family”

7 thoughts on “What Can We Expect from Pope’s Upcoming Document on the Family Synod?

  1. Michael Clifton March 11, 2016 / 1:42 am

    Epowering bishops to respond pastorally according to their own judgements may produce good results in parts of Europe or the US. But what of Africa? African bishops will no longer have any reason to hold back from demanding prison sentences or the death penalty for gays and lesbians. Of course they do that already and Rome doesn’t seem to react in any way. But one of the few points of leverage that we could have with them will be taken away if they are allowed to follow ‘local culture’.

    • newwaysministryblog March 11, 2016 / 4:40 am

      Yes, I agree with you that local control is a double-edged sword. Some oversight would be needed, and I think that the Vatican would still want to maintain some such oversight. More local decision-making could allow for a lot more pastoral innovation to occur, as well as for a lot more pastoral sensitivity, and move us toward a more diverse church. I totally agree with you, though, that there are some bugs along the way that need to be fixed in order for this to work justly.

  2. Don Siegal March 11, 2016 / 5:30 am

    Richard Galliardetz:
    “[,,,A]n interim report published from the 2014 synod, which had a section titled ‘Welcoming Homosexual Persons.’ ”ce

    The interim report sited by Galliardetz was an opening working document. The final document from the extraordinary 2014 synod removed that favorable statement. As I recall, the bishops could not agree and no statement concerning the place of LGBT people was in the closing document of the extraordinary synod of 2014.

  3. saddingo March 11, 2016 / 5:14 pm

    Not long ago the Pope visited some of the most homophobic (and violently so) countries in the world. When he got to these hateful nations what did he do to address the ongoing assaults on LGBT people?
    Nothing.
    He had this wonderful opportunity to remind his fellows that the Catholic religion is a religion of love and peace, not a religion of assault and battery and he chose to say nothing what so ever regarding the ongoing attacks on LGBT people. I mean, we are talking murder here. We’re talking governments that’s imprison gay people for years at a time … for being GAY… and the Pope couldn’t be bothered to take a minute to point out the violence and vengeance is not the way of the Catholic faith.
    I really would be shocked if this synod proved any different from what we’ve seen already from Pope Francis.
    The Pope gave us a “nod” when he said, “Who am I to judge.”
    I think that’s about all we’re going to get.

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