Allowing Local Strategies Sounds Like a Good Idea–Except If You’re in Newark

October 14, 2015

Below is the next installment of 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.

Today, I would like to look at a creative strategy being discussed here at the synod in Rome that may bode well for LGBT people. An idea that has been proposed by several bishops in several different ways is to allow for more local decision-making on pastoral approaches to some of the family issues considered more controversial such as divorce/remarriage and LGBT issues.

Bishop Johan Bonny

One of the first bishops to raise this question was Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, who made headlines at the end of 2014 when he became the first Catholic bishop to call on the Church to bless same-sex couples.  In Caelo blog carried an English translation of the text (original can be found here) of Bonny’s synod intervention on October 5th.  Here’s the relevant passage:

“In their local Churches bishops encounter a great variety of questions and needs, to which they must provide a pastoral answer today. Across the world, faithful and pastors have made use of the Synod and the questionnaire to present their pressing questions to the bishops and the Pope. Those questions clearly differ between countries and continents. There is however a common theme in those questions, namely the desire that the Church will stand in “the great river of mercy” (IL 68, 106). It is important that the Synod give space and responsibility to the local bishops to formulate suitable answers to the pastoral questions of that part of the people of God which is entrusted to their pastoral care. The individual bishops’ conferences have a special role in this. The Synod not only deals with ‘the family as Church,’ but also with ‘the Church as family.’ Every family knows what it means to work on unity in diversity, with patience and creativity.”

Michael O’Loughlin of Crux wrote a good article on the subject of local pastoral decision-making in which he connected the idea to changes that have come about since Pope Francis entered the scene:

“For decades, some bishops and theologians have complained of what they see as an excessive concentration of power in Rome, and the need to empower bishops’ conferences and local churches to handle more matters on their own.

“What has changed under Francis is the sense that movement in the direction of greater ‘collegiality,’ meaning shared authority, is possible.”

O’Loughlin also quoted another synod proponent of local decision-making:

“Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila said cultural differences might precipitate the need for various solutions, but always with unity in mind.

” ‘There is unity of the faith, one Church, one doctrine, but the situations differ,’ he said. ‘There was a serious proposal to see what space could be given to the bishops’ conferences to address issues somehow peculiar to them, but always in the light of the common faith.’ “

Abbot Jeremias Schroder, OSB

At today’s press briefing, Abbot Jeremias Schroder, OSB, arch-abbot of the Benedictine Congregation of St. Odile, Germany, said that many proposals for decentralizing pastoral strategies have been raised many times during the synod discussions, especially around dealing with cohabitation and pastoral outreach to homosexual people.  He said that the German Catholic public are very concerned with the issue of outreach to divorced/remarried people, and “that seems to be an area where regional pastoral solutions could be envisaged.”

He then went on:

“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.”

[You can view a video interview with Schroder in which he discusses the idea of local decision making by clicking here.  His discussion of this topic begins at about 1:05.)

I have to say that I have been very intrigued by this idea, and I left the synod press briefing feeling excited by this possibility.  But by the time I got back to my guesthouse room and re-connected my computer, I saw a story that made me wonder if local decision-making is really a good idea.

David Gibson of Religion News Service had posted a story with the headline:  “NJ archbishop sets rules for barring Catholics from Communion.”   Here’s the gist of it:

“Even as Pope Francis and Catholic leaders from around the world debate ways to make the Catholic Church more inclusive, Newark Archbishop John Myers has given his priests strict guidelines on refusing Communion to Catholics who, for example, support gay marriage or whose own marriage is not valid in the eyes of the church.

“In the two-page memo, Myers also orders parishes and Catholic institutions not to host people or organizations that disagree with church teachings.

“He says Catholics, ‘especially ministers and others who represent the Church, should not participate in or be present at religious events or events intended to endorse or support those who reject or ignore Church teaching and Canon Law.’ “

Myers’ local decision-making shows the downside of a decentralized approach.  It allows local bishops to be exclusionary in their pastoral ministry.   I mentioned this problems somewhat the other day in my post about criminalization laws for LGBT people.  In some cases in the world, bishops give tacit approval or even strongly support such laws, which are obviously opposed to Catholic teaching.  In these cases, it is good for the universal Church to have some oversight to fraternally correct bishops whose policies, pastoral or political, are not in line with Gospel values.

But, as I’m learning here at the synod by hearing so many different cultural perspectives of our universal Catholic Church, solutions don’t have to be binary:  Plan A or Plan Z.  In fact, there seem to be a great variety of ways to approach a problem, more than my puny mind has ever imagined, that’s for sure.  We just need to both trust and facilitate the Holy Spirit by letting all the voices and all the perspectives speak their truths so that we can arrive at good solutions for all.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry




Two Catholics: One Inside and One Outside the Church

October 4, 2012

Two stories came across my computer screen this week, both first person accounts by Catholics, both of whom support marriage equality, but both who have different relationships with the church.   While it would be irresponsible of me to speculate further about why each of these writers has a different approach to Catholicism, I did find the juxtaposition of their two stories interesting since they raised a lot of questions for me.

Not In Spite of Being Catholic, But Because of Being Catholic

Dan McGrath

Dan McGrath, a Minnesota Catholic, wrote on Sojourners magazine’s blog that he is voting “no” to the state’s proposed constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality, and his essay explains his decision:

“When I was 10 my parents divorced. A couple years later my mom came out to my family as lesbian. By then she no longer felt welcome at church and stopped going to mass, though she has remained a deeply spiritual person. This one case of social exclusion is deeply meaningful to me, but is nothing compared to political decision by church leadership to spend millions of dollars to limit the freedom to marry in Minnesota. By doing so church leaders seek to permanently exclude gays and lesbians from the civil rights and benefits straight couples enjoy.”

Like many Catholics who support LGBT equality, McGrath is often quizzed as to how he can remain loyal to his church:

“Some have asked how I can embrace a faith whose leadership has taken such a hard line against gay and lesbian equality, and which is painfully quiet on the threat to limit voting rights. I understand why people ask this question. For me, my decision to vote no is not in spite of my Catholic faith, it’s because of it. . . .

“I’m a religious person because I need help figuring out how to apply the values I believe in to the real world. Prayer, reflection, the sacraments, and regular attendance at mass are important elements of the Catholic faith. But a great thing about being Catholic is that there are also countless examples of how others live faithful lives that one can look to for inspiration.”

McGrath attributes his faith and his commitment to social justice to his aunt, Sister Kathleen Ries, a long-time community organizer.  Her example helped him to see faith as an integral part of life, and it is that sense of integrity which still motivates him today:

“My choice to vote no has everything to do with being Catholic. The marriage amendment says that gays and lesbians should not have equal access to the financial and social rights and benefits my wife and I enjoy. Nothing in my faith experience justifies this. The voter restriction amendment will set in place permanent barriers to the civic participation of all voters. The fact that it will quiet, if not silence, the voices of those who are poor, homeless, unemployed, in foreclosure, elderly, people of color, and students makes this amendment morally out of bounds.

“Another great thing about being Catholic is that by practicing our faith in community we help each other live the values of the gospel. This is why we Catholics can see how our lot in life – and the fate of our souls – is tied to the fate of others. This sense of purpose and interconnection is what I want for my daughter. I’m voting no because that’s what my faith – and my family – have taught me to do. I’m voting no for my faith and my family.”

A Spiritual Refugee

Tom Moran

Tom Moran, a columnist for Newark’s Star-Ledgeris also a Catholic, and he also supports marriage equality, but his experience with church leaders has moved him in a different direction than McGrath.

In his column, Moran relates how his early faith formation from his father stressed faith as a way of serving the poor.  Yet, he did not receive reinforcement for this aspect of faith from future church leaders:

“In the decades since, I have fled a million miles from the church, and have never found a new religious home. I am a spiritual refugee.

“One in three American adults was raised in a Catholic family, but fewer than one in four identify as Catholic today. No other church has shed so many followers, according to surveys by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“So if I am a refugee, I am walking on a road that is crowded with others who feel the same way.”

Newark’s Archbishop John Myers’ recent statements against marriage equality re-fueled the sense of alienation that Moran feels toward Catholicism:

” [Myers] said, all Catholics must embrace his views. And those who refuse should not take Holy Communion.

“I’ve gone through stages when it comes to the church, bouncing between anger, estrangement and exasperation. It started when one of my six sisters, at age 10, wrote the Vatican a letter asking why she couldn’t be an altar girl. She never heard back. But the dinner discussions on that planted seeds of revolt in all of us.

“They flowered as I began to understand the church’s views on birth control and divorce, which put even my mother on the wrong side of the law, and taught us how Catholics cope with the hierarchy.”

Moran relates the story of his mother’s decision to stick with Catholicism, but he is not so optimistic that others will follow her example:

“In the meantime, though, men like Myers will drive millions more onto the refugee highway. He had his own small share of complicity in the sex abuse scandal, transferring a priest who had confessed to abuse to St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark without telling the staff. He refuses to release the names of priests who have been credibly accused, as some New Jersey dioceses do.

“But the fixation on same-sex marriage may do even more damage in the long run. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage, a number that rises to 72 percent among those between ages 18 and 34. Remember, they shouldn’t be taking Holy Communion.”

Moran criticizes Myers for discussing marriage, but never mentioning poverty, and he notes that other Catholics probably do not share the archbishop’s priorities:

“ ‘Catholic citizens must exercise their right to be heard in the public square by defending marriage,’ Myers wrote.

“I doubt most Catholics will see this election in such pinched terms. They know how to sidestep this land mine, too.

“Because if you visit any poor neighborhood in New Jersey, you can see a more vibrant Catholicism at work in schools, hospitals and food pantries.”

Do These Stories Tell Us Anything?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not going to play “armchair spiritual counselor” and imagine why these two men have taken such different approaches to their Catholic heritage.  Similarly, I don’t intend to judge either one as better or worse than the other.  I presume that each has faced his life experience in the way that they found revealed the greatest integrity for them.

Both, it seems to me, have retained their Catholic sense of passion for justice and strong distaste for hypocrisy of leadership figures.  In my life and travels, I have met many folks in situations that are similar to each of these men.  Some find it is the right thing to stay, some find it is the right thing to leave.  What I find interesting, though, is that what they share in common is their belief that the Catholicism they were taught as young people stressed love and justice, and that both think that church leaders are not heeding those messages when it comes to the question of marriage equality.

What do you see in these two stories?

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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