Some Hope But Not Much Joy for LGBT Catholics in Pope’s ‘Joy of Love’ Document

Statement of Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry,                                               in response to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life

While Pope Francis’ latest document, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), contains some hopeful passages, it does not inspire joy in LGBT Catholics and their supporters.  As far as sexual orientation and gender identity issues are concerned, the pope’s latest apostolic exhortation reiterates church formulas which show that the Vatican has yet to learn from the experiences and faith lives of so many LGBT Church members or their supporters.

Though the pope calls for church leaders and ministers to be less judgmental and to respect individuals’ consciences, he has not provided a new pastoral approach to LGBT issues or people.

On other family topics such as divorce and co-habitation, Amoris Laetitia, offers some hopeful advice—and if this advice were simply applied to LGBT issues, which would not be incompatible to do, this document would have been much more positive.  Pope Francis calls for non-judgmental pastoral care, assisting people in developing their consciences, encouraging diverse pastoral responses based on local culture, and calling church leaders to be more self-critical.  All these things, if applied to LGBT people and issues, could produce enormous positive change in the church.

Pope Francis

Instead of listening to more progressive voices at the synods who called for greater understanding and dialogue with the LGBT community, the pope simply repeated church condemnations of same-sex unions, adoption by lesbian and gay people, and the complexities of gender identity.

Most egregious is his repetition of the synod fathers’ false claim that international aid to developing nations is dependent upon openness to marriage equality.  No evidence exists for such a claim. Randy Berry, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI People categorically denied this claim last November during meetings with church officials at the Vatican to discuss the persecution of LGBT people globally.

Moreover, Pope Francis’ one statement discussing pastoral care to families with lesbian and gay members is included in a section entitled “Casting Light on Crises, Worries and Difficulties.”  Such a classification reveals an assumption that LGBT topics are simply problems to be surmounted, and it does not recognize the giftedness and grace that occur when a family accepts and loves its LGBT family members.

While Pope Francis repeats church teaching condemning discrimination and violence against LGBT people, the fact that there is no elaboration of this teaching concerning countries that are criminalizing sexual and gender minorities makes these words ineffective.

Many in the Catholic LGBT community had great, but realistic, hopes for this document.  While not expecting a blessing on marriage for lesbian and gay couples, many were anticipating that Pope Francis would offer an affirming message to LGBT people, and not the same ill-informed comments. Many were hoping for something more pastoral from this pope known for warm gestures and statements. Where is the Pope Francis who embraced his gay former student and husband during his U.S. visit?  Where is the Pope Francis who invited a transgender Spanish man for a personal meeting at the Vatican? That Pope Francis is hard to find in his latest text.

The two synods in 2014 and 2015, as well as the wide consultations among the laity which preceded them, served as the research for this new papal document.  Unfortunately, as far as LGBT issues are concerned, there is nothing in Amoris Laetitia that indicates the great call for new approaches to these issues that occurred during these discussions.

Perhaps there is hope in the suggestion made by some bishops at the 2015 synod that the Vatican hold an entirely separate synodal discussion on the issues of sexuality and gender.  While this document has a lot to offer on a variety of important family topics, it did not give adequate attention to LGBT family issues that deserve serious examination by church leaders.

Given the new general pastoral direction of this document, there is potential for further development in regard to LGBT issues.  Much more faithful witnessing of LGBT Catholics and their supporters, as well as continued steps toward dialogue with Church leaders, will further this goal.

In one of the more hopeful parts of the document, the conclusion of chapter 8, Pope Francis actually calls for the continuation of such a dialogue:

“I encourage the faithful who find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other lay people whose lives are committed to the Lord. They may not always encounter in them a confirmation of their own ideas or desires, but they will surely receive some light to help them better understand their situation and discover a path to personal growth. I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen to them with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church.”

Such dialogues can transform those in so-called “complicated situations,” but they can also transform the Church’s ministers and leaders.  This process is a proven method for the development of doctrine in the Catholic Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry

Reader’s Guide Offers Hints to Tomorrow’s Much-Anticipated Apostolic Exhortation

Pope, cardinals, bishops in the synod hall.

Tomorrow, April 8th, is the day that Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), his response to the 2014 and 2015 Vatican synods on marriage and family life.  Many Catholics, especially those concerned with LGBT ministry and equality, have been eager to read what this pope, who is always full of surprises, has to say on issues of marriage, family, gender, and sexuality.

The National Catholic Reporter‘s (NCR) Joshua McElwee has provided information from a guide that the Vatican sent to the world’s bishops this week.  The guide is intended to prepare bishops for the release of Amoris Laetitia, but it also gives a tiny peek into what might be in store in Pope Francis’ much-anticipated document.

The NCR article noted that the Vatican document said that “”The Pope’s concern is . . . to re-contextualize doctrine at the service of the pastoral mission of the Church,” perhaps indicating that nothing will be doctrinally novel in the text, as the Vatican has been saying for months, but perhaps there will be new directions in how to present doctrine.

The reading guide said that the document “encourages not just a ‘renewal’ but even more, a real ‘conversion’ of language.”

Language change was a much-discussed topic at the 2015 synod, and the discussion ran the gamut of bishops calling for a departure from terms like “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically evil” in regard to lesbian and gay people and relationships to calls for simply a more pastoral approach of presenting church teaching.  From what the reading guide states, it looks like the pope will be pushing more for the latter type of renovation of church language than the former.

The guide states:

“The Gospel must not be merely theoretical, not detached from people’s real lives. To talk about the family and to families, the challenge is not to change doctrine but to inculturate the general principles in ways that they can be understood and practiced.”

“Our language should encourage and reassure every positive step taken by every real family.”

The guide further stated that the pope “wants to express himself in language that truly reaches the audience — and this implies discernment and dialogue.”

Using language that just tries to soften the true negative meaning of some of the Church’s doctrines will not be satisfactory. At one of the synod’s press briefings, even the very conservative Cardinal Wilfrid Napier Fox  of South Africa said:

“There’s been a lot of emphasis on using language that doesn’t offend, politically correct language, if you like.  I’m not sure that that’s the best way to be prophetic. It is certainly a way of trying to be more pastoral.”

(For Bondings 2.o posts about the debate on language at the synod, please click here and here and here.)

The reader’s guide offers (and remember, in this post I am quoting from a reader’s guide about the apostolic exhortation, not the exhortation itself) hints that the pope may simply promote a new use of language to soften negative teachings.  For instance, it states:

“Discernment … encourages us to grow from good to better. One of the characteristics of discernment, according to St Ignatius of Loyola, is the insistence not only on taking the objective truth into account, but also on expressing this truth with a good, a constructive spirit.”

Perhaps, though, there will be openings in pastoral practice that may allow for future development not only of language, but of doctrine itself.  The reader’s guide offers two hints that Francis may include material in the apostolic exhortation that lean in this direction.  In three different spots, it states:

  • “Like his predecessors, Pope Francis asks that as pastors we discern amongst the various situations experienced by our faithful and by all people, the families, the individuals.”
  • “For the culture of dialogue, the inclusion of everyone is essential.”
  • “The Pope’s vision of society is inclusive. Such inclusion involves the effort to accept diversity, to dialogue with those who think differently, to encourage the participation of those with different abilities.”

These statements highlight characteristics of Pope Francis’ rhetoric which has given hope to many progressives:  his willingness to acknowledge variety and diversity of life situations, and his emphasis on dialogue and radical inclusion.  These are hopeful steps forward–especially if we remember the darker days of popes who would ignore diversity, dialogue, inclusion, and even sometimes condemn these ideals.  They are hopeful steps that could lead the way for a serious discussion about LGBT issues. But, if they don’t go any further than that in their level of generality, they will only be first steps toward true equality and justice, with much work and advancement still to be done.

On the disappointing side, the reader’s guide notes that the apostolic exhortation will contain a summary of Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” lectures, which it says are an “important source” for the document.   Numerous theologians have pointed out that “Theology of the Body” ideas rest on ill-informed understandings of gender and the role of sexuality in people’s lives and relationships.  If Amoris Laetitia focuses too much on principles based in this type of thinking, it will be a sad disappointment.

Of course, we will know tomorrow what the pope actually has to say.  For some earlier speculation from Bondings 2.0 posts, please see the Related Posts section below my signature.

As soon as the document is released, and we have time to digest its contents, New Ways Ministry will post its analysis and response on this blog, probably some time in the later morning, Eastern U.S. time, on Friday, April 8th.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related Posts

Bondings 2.0:  The Million-Dollar Question: What Will Be In the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation?

Bondings 2.0:  “What Can We Expect from Pope’s Upcoming Document on the Family Synod?

Bondings 2.0: “Bishops at Synod on the Family React to Final Report, Speculate on Next Steps for LGBT Topics

Bondings 2.0:  Not All Synod Bishops Agree That a Change in Language Would Be Helpful

Bondings 2.0:  Australia’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge: Finally, a Bishop Who “Gets It” ! ”

Bondings 2.0:  Will Language Be the Only Thing That the Synod Updates?






The Million-Dollar Question: What Will Be In the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation?

The countdown begins.

In one week from today, the long-awaited document from Pope Francis which will summarize the 2014 and 2015 Vatican synods on the family and offer his direction for pastoral practice will be released on Friday, April 8, 2016, at 12 noon, Rome time (6:00 a.m. for the U.S. east coast).  The Vatican announced the release date of the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, yesterday, according to a news story in The National Catholic Reporter.

Pope Francis leaves the synod hall, followed by cardinals and bishops.

And with the countdown comes the million-dollar question:  What will Francis say in the document?  Catholic prognosticators have been making guesses almost since the second synod closed at the end of October 2015.  As Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter  noted that about the only details we know are the length of the document and the date it was signed by Francis:

“Information about the exhortation has been scarce. Several reports have indicated it is rather lengthy, perhaps even as long as 200 pages. The pope is reported to have formally signed the document March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph and the day marking the inauguration of his papal ministry in 2013.”

One detail about the Vatican’s announcement that is worth noting is that Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn will be present at the press conference when the document is released.  Schönborn, who upholds the hierarchy’s traditional heterosexual model for marriage, has nonetheless said some good things over the years regarding LGBT issues.  He made a supportive statement regarding gender identity, supports civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, and re-instated a partnered, gay parish council president who was ousted by the local pastor. Whether Schönborn’s presence is because there is something positive in the document or because he will be there to soften the blow of something negative remains to be seen.

I was privileged to be in Rome for the October 2015 synod, having been given press credentials by the Vatican for this blog, Bondings 2.0.  The opportunity allowed me to pay close attention to the many debates that emerged. But that experience, while eye-opening, did not give me any special insight into how the pope is going to respond.   Still, I think there are ways of making estimated guesses about what the document might say.

Among the rumors that have circulated since October is one that says there might not be much of anything new in the apostolic exhortation concerning LGBT issues.  Despite these topics making a big splash in the media halfway through the 2014 synod, by the time the 2015 synod came around, LGBT issues seemed to have taken a back seat, with concern about the very important issue of pastoral care for divorced/remarried people becoming the more prominent topic of discussion.

As I mentioned in a post from last month, even though LGBT issues per se may not receive any positive developments in this document, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be tangential areas that could make way for further progress.  Here’s excerpts from that earlier post:

“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. . . .

“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. . . .

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. . . .

And, as I noted on Bondings 2.0 last fall, though LGBT issues did not receive much attention in the final report of the synod, that doesn’t mean that the Church hasn’t already begun to change. The simple fact that many controversial topics were at least discussed at this meeting, with bishops differing greatly with one another, means that our church has begun to move into a direction of a more dialogic institution.  We still have a long way to go in that regard, no doubt, but at least the process has been started.

Australia’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who participated in the 2015 synod and made some favorable comments there on on lesbian and gay issues, offered these thoughts about the upcoming document to The National Catholic Reporter last month:

” ‘If the pope can get the mix of encouragement and challenge right, he’ll be the unifier that Peter is meant to be, leading us beyond ideological dogfights and confirming us in the faith,’ Coleridge said.

“His reference to ‘ideological dogfights’ refers to many of the debates that took place during the four-week synod last year, when bishops were known to discuss such issues as divorce and remarriage, the use of contraception, and same-sex marriage.”

Despite all the uncertainty about the substance of the document, one thing for sure is that this exhortation is a pivotal moment in the papacy of Francis.  In a Washington Post news story, theologian Massimo Faggioli said that the synod events and process:

“was the most important moment in the church in the last 50 years. This was the biggest sign of hope that in the Catholic Church there are ideas and we can talk about it. No one before Francis ever had the courage to think about that.”

But Faggioli also noted that the document will be a telling detail of how the sometimes enigmatic Pope Francis really wants to lead the Church:

“ ‘In three years there is a lot he has accomplished. But there is a lot he has not accomplished,’ he said. The synods and the paper that comes from them constitute ‘one of the most important moments in his pontificate, and how he gets out of this moment of fierce disagreement, [what]  comes out of that will say a lot.’ “

Bondings 2.0 will release its own commentary on the apostolic exhortation soon after the document is released on April 8th.  Stay tuned!

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”

Is the Catholic Church Actually Progressive on LGBT Issues?

Jane Fae

Is the Catholic Church actually progressive on LGBT issues, despite news headlines to the contrary? Yes and no, says Jane Fae,  a U.K. journalist who is a Catholic transgender woman. In a recent essay for Gay Star News, Fae asserts that what matters most is complexity and context of the issues involved.

Because of the complexity, Fae cautioned against LGBT advocates celebrating “bad news” about the Church, such as the contentious debates that took place at the Synod on the Family in October 2015.

Fae said secular LGBT advocates should not rejoice when it seems that the Church is splitting apart.  She wrote:

“The problem. . .is this particular piece of ‘bad news’ [about the Synod on the Family] is equally bad news for the millions of LGBTI people who do not live in broadly progressive countries.”

Why do LGBTI people suffer when the Catholic Church is troubled? Fae suggested any church critique must extend “beyond simple dislike” and include proper understandings of church history and ecclesial politics. Last fall’s Synod on the Family changed little, but those hoping for reforms should have been more realistic about the global church to begin with:

“The demographics of the present church show some 1.3 billion followers with the fastest growing segment in sub-Saharan Africa, an area not exactly known for its celebration of LGBTI values. . .

“Because of its size, the Catholic Church straddles the world, including millions of people whose views on LGBTI rights range from ultra-regressive to highly progressive. Inevitably, it ends up taking a middle of the road position which, equally inevitably, looks very backward from our perspective.”

Fae cautioned against a binary in which the West is progressive and others are “some dark opposite,” describing such thinking as “wrong” and “racist.” Instead, Catholics should consider both how the church fails on LGBT issues and how it leads, depending on the context discussed. She wrote:

“In those areas that are most antipathetic towards LGBTI rights, [the Catholic Church] is frequently a force for progress. Sometimes the main one, sometimes the only one.”

Fae contends that Catholics, including clergy, forcefully defend LGBTI human rights in some pats of Africa and Eastern Europe. She also noted the efforts by LGBT Catholics in London to aid LGBTQI asylum seekers. This is why a divided and troubled Catholic Church is no benefit to the cause of LGBT justice, as Fae explained:

“The church is not going to disappear. And while a split church might be helpful to campaigners in some parts of the world, it would be disastrous for those campaigning elsewhere, in areas where oppression is greatest, and where clergy protect minorities from persecution.”

As for the Synod on the Family, Fae does not consider it a loss. Pope Francis was deftly able to “balance a desire for a far more inclusive church with the need to avoid it splitting up.” For progressive Catholics who want same-gender weddings celebrated sacramentally, it was clearly not a victory. But the synod was a forward step because it avoided schism or disunity, hinted at by certain traditionalist members, while succeeding at shifting language. And to those suggesting shifts in language are not sufficient, Fae finds historical parallels in Vatican II. She wrote:

“Without defining a single new doctrine, just using a new positive vocabulary of spiritual kinship, the council significantly reshaped the church. . .That is the trick that Pope Francis was attempting to repeat.

“He has had few victories so far but the language is shifting. And, if what has gone before is any indicator of what is to follow, where language leads, hearts will eventually follow.”

Living in the Northeast U.S. where LGBT legal rights and cultural acceptance are basically normative, it can be easy for me to forget the harsh realities still faced by millions in our world. Jane Fae’s piece is a reminder that everything is grayer than we might prefer, that context matters significantly, and that change in the church is incremental and happening, even if the pace is painfully slow. You can read her column in full by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry




In Florence, Pope Francis Makes Dramatic Call for the Church to Change; Theologian Comments on How LGBT Change Can Happen

In one of his most powerful speeches about reforming the Church, Pope Francis told a national conference of Italian Catholics that the church must be open to change.

Pope Francis in Florence.

According to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR),  the pontiff told the audience:

“We are not living an era of change but a change of era.

“Before the problems of the church it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally.

“Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives — but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened.It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.”

“The reform of the church then, and the church is semper reformanda  … does not end in the umpteenth plan to change structures. It means instead grafting yourself to and rooting yourself in Christ, leaving yourself to be guided by the Spirit — so that all will be possible with genius and creativity.”

The NCR said that the pope’s comments, offered in the Florence cathedral, were “remarkable in their breadth, emphasis, and forceful nature of delivery,” and that “he was interrupted about a dozen times for applause.”

The pope encouraged the bishops and lay people assembled to be brave and daring:

“Assume always the Spirit of the great explorers, that on the sea were passionate for navigation in open waters and were not frightened by borders and of storms. May it be a free church and open to the challenges of the present, never in defense for fear of losing something.”

The Crux report on the speech highlighted a few statements on dialogue the pope made:

“Dialogue, he said, doesn’t mean negotiation, but ‘seeking the common good of all.’

“ ‘We must not be afraid of dialogue,’ Francis said. ‘In fact, it is discussion and criticism that help us to prevent theology from becoming ideology.’ ”

This talk by the pope, his first major address on the life of the Church since the closing of the synod last month,  undercuts the refrain repeated at the synod that the purpose of the meeting was not to change Church teaching.  While that may have been true for that particular meeting, Pope Francis’ comments seem to indicate that he is open to the possibility of change through means other than the synod.

James Alison

Will this opening on change apply to LGBT issues?  Of course, we certainly hope so.  Recently, The Tablet published an essay by James Alison, a prominent gay theologian, who examined synod participants’ statements and processes for clues to how change may come about.  Alison noted that though the final report may not have shown any change on the traditional approach to homosexuality, this may have been a good thing:

“I suspect there was enough of a recognition that there is no genuine way out of the impasse without raising a question of doctrine, for it to be better to go quiet on the issue, and punt further study and discussion of the matter to the Holy Father – and quite possibly to the new dicastery he has announced dedicated to laity, family and life. If something like this was what happened, then I’d like to say: this is a really big deal. For the first time in my memory, the bishops seem to have faced up to having a genuine problem on their hands that is their problem, not that of LGBT people, and no apparent way out of it without help.”

Alison, in fact, believes that Pope Francis may have foreseen and hoped for exactly that sort of outcome:

“It is here, I think, that we see something of the genius of Pope Francis. I had feared that his statements about not changing doctrinal matters, but focusing on the pastoral, were a sign of weakness in the face of intransi­gent hardliners and would lead to cosmetic solutions. What a joy to be wrong! It seems rather, that he wanted people to run up against the dead ends of many current positions together so not only would they begin to dare to ask each other, and the Pope, the sort of questions which might lead to a more adult discussion of the matters at hand, but it would actually lead to a consensus of teachers realising that they need to, and want to, think more.”

Alison sees Pope Francis’ emphasis on the process of discussion as a significant contribution to the Church, and also, a powerful instrument with which to bring about change:

“The signature achievement of Pope Francis’ synodal process has been, I think, to begin a practical recovery of this element of Vatican II’s breakthrough. He emphasised before, during and after the synod that it is the walking together, which is what “synod” means, that is what it is all about. He let participants understand that the point of the Petrine ministry is to reassure people concerning the presence of the true Master, the one living teaching authority, who is walking alongside them, teaching them starting from where they are, as they discover things that are new and true along the way. In this way, the experiential element of our being taught by Christ will at last be allowed, even by church authority, to be received as what it is.”

As with much of Alison’s writing, this essay is packed with gems for reflection, making it difficult to summarize succinctly.  I encourage interested readers to examine the entire text to get the full flavor of his thought.  (For New Ways Ministry’s version of how the synod has already changed the Church, click here.)

Pope Francis’ speech to the Italian meeting offers great possibility for a church that is more open to new ideas and to responding to pressing pastoral needs, such as LGBT issues. The National Catholic Reporter’s  Michael Sean Winters noted in his column that this speech was

” . . . a kind of re-boot of the vision of the Church he outlined in Evangelii Gaudium, his programmatic apostolic exhortation issued in the first year of his pontificate. He doubtlessly returned to the themes articulated there because they have not entirely been absorbed.”

Winters expressed hope that the U.S. bishops, who will be meeting in Baltimore, November 16-19, would take heed of the pope’s call for change, and offered them this suggestion for the beginning of the week:

“When the session opens on Monday morning, the bishops should set aside the agenda, read this entire talk, pray over it, maybe have small group discussions of it, and then return to their agenda in the afternoon. How do they evaluate their ministry, individually and as a conference, in the light of the pope’s remarks? The Holy Father said this morning, ‘We are not living an era of change but a change of era.’ Will that change of era be manifest in Baltimore next week?”

Regardless of what the U.S. bishops do, this speech by Pope Francis may indicate that the expected apostolic exhortation based on the synod discussions that he will write some time in the future may be more radical than even the most progressive of Catholics have hoped for.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related post:

Queering The Church:  “Has the Synod ‘Opened a Door’ to LGBT Inclusion?”

After Synod on the Family, Catholic Church Faced with Choice on LGBT Issues

Rev. James Martin, SJ
Rev. James Martin, SJ

The Synod on the Family is over and Catholics await the possibility that Pope Francis will write an apostolic exhortation on family life derived from the bishops’ deliberations. Many are curious whether the pope’s document will mirror the Final Report or deviate away towards a much hoped for, more merciful approach. Below are more reactions to the synod, and you can find Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of the Synod on the Family here.

At the moment, the church finds itself with a pastoral choice according to Jesuit Fr. James Martin. In an essay in Time magazine, he wrote about the church’s current “inclusion problem.”

The choice, in an overly simplified form, Martin wrote, is between a “John the Baptist method” which “asks for conversion as a prerequisite for joining the community” and the “Jesus method” where it is “community first, conversion second” as the story of Zacchaeus displays. The former seeks purification, the latter stress mercy. These are “helpful templates” for the church today, said Martin, who observed:

“As I see it, the movement for Jesus was always from the outside-in. He went out to those who were officially excluded or who felt excluded—in his time, that meant primarily the sick and the sinful—and brought them in. He restored them to the community. This is something the church may need to do more of: welcome, meet people where they are, and listen. Certainly conversion is in order for everyone—including me. But how can we change hearts if we don’t welcome them first?”

The National Catholic Reporter‘s editorial on the Synod highlighted how some voices were absent, including those of LGBT people. This choice to not meet people where they are and listen to stories left the deliberations seriously deficient, said the editors. Commenting on Pope Francis’ desire for the church to journey together, they wrote:

“It is essential to note here that the sense of ‘together’ is yet missing a significant component. . .[W]hile there may have been a more respectful tone when speaking about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, there was no attempt to actually consult members of that portion of the Catholic community.”

The editorial ended by noting the “kind of change possible” in the church after this Synod, saying the final report posits “a radically decentralized understanding of church authority” and “equally momentous change” in bishops’ self-perception.

Massimo Faggioli

If and how change emerges from the synod will depend, in part, on how the meeting is received by the people of God, according to one expert. Theologian Massimo Faggioli took up the question of reception, now applicable to synodal processes, in Commonweal where he wrote:

“The reception of councils and church teachings involves the laity and the sensus fidelium: without the laity there is no reception in the synodal Church. But it will be most interesting to see how the reception of this Synod and of Francis’s post-synodal exhortation and decisions will be the fruit of the work of the bishops.”

If legal scholar Douglas Kmiec’s reading of the Synod is any indication, reform-minded Catholics may not gladly receive the Synod’s report or Pope Francis’ possible upcoming apostolic exhortation. He wrote at the National Catholic Reporter:

“The synod’s brief discourse of same-sex marriage is equally hurtful [as its treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics]. It is a cruel hoax to say that the church is welcoming of those of same-sex orientation and yet in the same breath not give any acknowledgment of the poignancy of that human relationship.  Is it not an extraordinary act of love for one human being to say to another: ‘I want to walk with you, to be your support, to care for you in illness and to share in your joys?’ That statement is no less extraordinary when it is made between two of the same gender. When the church declares itself closed and disapproving of such relationship, it separates itself from the welcoming nature of Christ, and instead, sets itself up as judge with a standard that is disregarding of the Thomistic advice not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

In Kmiec’s estimation, at this point, Pope Francis and the Synod Fathers have answered the question, “Who am I to judge?” with “We will.”

Robert Mickens

In terms of how the synod will affect the bishops, Robert Mickens of the National Catholic Reporter suggested the Synod’s real outcome was the outing of bishops’ real views before Pope Francis. Such acts clarify what reform in the church will really mean going forward. Mickens explained:

“In other words, the pope has gotten to know the bishops much better and is now in a stronger position to distinguish those who are on board with his vision of renewing and reforming the church from those who are not.

“But if the more than 250 bishops (there were also non-bishop synod fathers) who were at this latest synod assembly are truly representative of the worldwide episcopate, Francis may have a difficult road ahead.”

Worth noting is Pope Francis’ continuing transformation of the episcopate with more pastorally-focused and merciful prelates replacing conservative predecessors. John Allen of Crux notes two such appointments coming just days after the Synod’s conclusion.

In Bologna, Italy, he replaced a hard-line conservative with “Matteo Maria Zuppi, well-known in the city of Rome as a fixture in the center-leftCommunity of Sant’Egidio, known for its work in ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and conflict resolution.”  In Palermo, Francis “tapped 53-year-old Corrado Lorefice, another figure well known in Italian ecclesiastical circles for his anti-Mafia activism, his efforts on behalf of the victims of prostitution and human trafficking, and his writings on the Church’s “option for the poor.”

These replacements, as has been noted from early on in his papacy, may be Francis’ lasting impact on the church and may clear a path for more inclusive LGBT pastoral care.

Sidney Callahan

Sidney Callahan wrote in America about what the Synod means not for the institutional church, but for families and added a historical reminder helpful for Catholic families hurt by or divided over current church teachings:

“The Christian family is proclaimed in Catholic teaching as ‘the domestic church.’ How fitting then that after the recent synod Catholic families can be more closely modeled on Vatican II’s more open vision of the church. Families too can be inspired to be more accepting, inclusive, just and personally responsive to individual conscience. . .

“Unfortunately in the course of human history, Christian values were often distorted, co-opted and overthrown by powerful regimes. . .In many of these struggles those on the side of core Christian values might have to oppose established powers, including the church.”

The Synod’s failure to invite women to participate fully generated much criticism.  Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese’s question about why a lay brother was allowed to vote, but no woman religious (who would be canonically equal to a lay brother), written about in America, is one example. As Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson has suggested on several occasions, the Catholic Church will not evolve on LGBT equality without also evolving on equality for women.

Questions of gender justice in the church are certainly worth consideration by LGBT advocates. One adviser, Sr. Carmen Sammut, who heads the International Union of Superiors General, raised an interesting point about the bishops’ deliberations compared with the institutional discernment processes common to women religious’ communities. She told the National Catholic Reporter:

” ‘For me, the weakness for this method was that there was no real time allowed for a real discernment process. . .When you have such very big differences, how do you bring all that together?’ “

She added there was “no ideal family out there,” asking a question pertinent to all Catholics as we come to understand, affirm, and support families in their diversity:

” ‘How do you become free enough to go beyond fear?’ “

So what is next for LGBT Catholics? Will the church, its leaders and its families alike, be able to move beyond fear into the freedom of the Gospel where all people are welcomed, nourished, and celebrated?

GLAAD hosted a Google Hangout recently to discuss the topic of the future of the Catholic LGBT movement in the wake of the synod, welcoming Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry, Marianne Duddy-Burke of DignityUSA, and Ross Murray and Janet Quezada of GLAAD to the conversation. You can watch the discussion below or by clicking here.

What do you think? Is the choice for the church between the “John the Baptist method” and the “Jesus method”? Will Catholics receive the Synod’s report? Are bishops changing their tone? What is next for LGBT Catholics and their families? Let us know in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry