Trying to Interpret the Language of the Synod

October 13, 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.

Father Thomas Rosica, CSB

One of the things that I am learning from covering the synod here in Rome is that there are a lot more questions and perspectives on family than I would have ever imagined existing.    Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, there are a lot more pastoral strategies possible to address this diversity, and some can have an impact on LGBT issues, even if they are not directly intended to do so.

At the press briefing today,  Father Thomas Rosica, CSB, reported on the interventions and reports made by synod English speakers on Saturday afternoon.  Part of the challenge of getting information from the synod discussions is that any materials comes through one of of several language reporters, who summarize what was said, though without identifying who said it.  While not an ideal situations, it must be said that of the four language reporters (Italian, English, French, Spanish/Portugese), Father Rosica is always the most thorough and detailed in his reports, providing what I consider the best information.

The downside is that since we don’t receive the full texts of comments or even who said them, we are left to wonder if the remarks are intended to address a particular issue, leaving us to speculate.

Rosica reported today on an interesting pastoral observation and strategy presented by one of the synod fathers.  The unnamed speaker pointed out that there seems to be a “nothing or all” mentality in the synod, meaning that either the bishops should change nothing about the church’s approach to certain issues or it has to change everything about that approach.

The speaker indicated that neither is a real option, and suggested that the bishops look at a “great scope of pastoral possibility and creativity” available as responses to certain pastoral situations.

Of course, my ears perked up at this suggestion, immediately thinking that there are many creative pastoral possibilities that bishops can institute in regard to LGBT issues.

My speculation that the speaker may have been referring to LGBT issues was confirmed as more was said about this idea.  The speaker suggested that the pastoral approach of proclaiming a Church truth in public,while privately and pastorally bending and being merciful to individuals no longer holds.  He also added another insight: the difference between sin and sinner doesn’t work any more for sexuality.  As I understood this last part, you can’t separate “sinner”  from “sin,”  loving one, while rejecting the other.  Or , to say i another way: you can’t condemn sexual behavior without also condemning the person, or perhaps,  stated more positively, you can’t accept a person, without accepting their sexuality.

Whether or not the speaker was addressing LGBT issues is impossible to say for certain, however, even if he wasn’t, I don’t think it is much of a stretch to see how these concepts are naturally applicable to such issues.

Fr. Rosica also mentioned a number of other ideas presented that seem applicable to LGBT issues, regardless if they were intended as such:

  • For God,no human being is a stranger.
  • The sexual act and human sexuality represent only one part of family and marriage
  • The Church must be  an accompanying mother who reaches out to all

The biggest surprise for me was hearing that a bishop described the need for the Church to recognize that in the contemporary world there are new “family structures,” such as  single parent families, mixed faith families, families separated by migration, families which include caring for grandparents, families where grandparents are the primary caretakers, and–here’s the surprising part–families of same sex couples.  Rosica reported the bishop’s thoughts:

“Many families are simply left out of our pastoral strategies and we have to develop pastoral strategies for the many different situations that families find themselves in today.

“We have to reach out to those that do not fit our traditional categories. New families can no longer remain alienated from the church and the church cannot remain absent from these new situations.”

The diversity of perspectives here has made me realize that there may be a variety of approaches to more positive pastoral care for families with LGBT members.  Pope Francis has said that God is a “God of surprises.”  Perhaps a positive response on LGBT issues from this synod may surprise us all in the creative way it is formulated.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Synod Fathers on Gay Issues Couldn’t Be Any Further Apart Than They Already Are

October 12, 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.

As God rested on the Sabbath, so too do the synod participants.  As a result, there was no discussion on Sunday, and no press briefing.  This pause gives me a little time to report on some of the interviews that journalists have done with synod fathers.

Of course, my interest is in what the bishops in these interviews say about LGBT issues.  It is amazing how far apart some of them are.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, of Munich, was interviewed by German television last week, and The National Catholic Reporter offered highlights.  Of LGBT issues, Marx said:

Pope Francis had met with an opponent of same-sex marriage but had also embraced homosexual partners on his U.S. visit, which many Catholics found most confusing, his interviewer remarked. Views on same-sex partnerships and same-sex marriage differed greatly from country to country, Marx said.

” ‘We must make it clear that we do not only judge people according to their sexual orientation,’ said Marx. ‘If a same-sex couple are faithful, care for one another and intend to stay together for life God won’t say “All that doesn’t interest me, I’m only interested in your sexual orientation.” That is impossible and it is an issue we must discuss — but it won’t be a main subject at this synod. As I have pointed out, the main subject will be the importance of marriage and the family and how to protect them in today’s world.’ “

On the other side, Kenyan Cardinal John Njue, of Nairobi, spoke with Crux, and offered strong words of opposition to any development on LGBT issues that might happen at the synod:

” ‘It is there in the Bible,’ he says, referring to the Church’s teaching against homosexuality. ‘It is clear.’

” ‘I think there is not much option,’ Njue said. ‘There are facts, such as the fact that God created humanity as Adam and Eve. Whenever someone starts running away from their identity, whatever they do will certainly not be the right thing.’

Cardinal John Njue

” ‘If we come to the point of saying that can be changed, there is no logic behind it, with all due respect,’ he said. . . .

“Even while rejecting the idea of criminalizing homosexuality, Njue still insisted on the right of the Church to flag gay relationships as flawed.

” ‘Where there is a mistake, a way must be found to help people who have made the mistake to understand that they have done something wrong and need to turn around,’ he said. . . .

“Africa’s Catholic bishops have sometimes been accused of either ambivalence or silence with regard to such measures, but Njue rejected those charges.

” ‘It’s not a question of criminalizing or condemning, but we have every right to help the person understand that the way you are living is not how you’re supposed to be,’ Njue said.”

I cannot think of two more opposite opinions about gay and lesbian people and their relationships.  My growing sense, though, is that Marx may be right in that homosexuality will not be the major issue of this year’s synod.  My hunch–and it is only a hunch–is that the participants realize that there is little room for negotiation in this area because people’s positions are so strongly held.  If the difference of opinion is obvious to an outside observer like myself, I can only imagine that it is even more plainly obvious to those involved in the private synod discussions.

Marx’s first point, though, is also right:  though homosexuality may not be a major focus like it was last year, it certainly will be discussed.  Last week, an Italian Cardinal insisted that the discussion of gay and lesbian issues is relevant to the family synod agenda.  Crux reported:

Cardinal Edoardo Menichelli

“One of the hot button issues being discussed by bishops is how the Church ministers — or doesn’t — to gay and lesbian Catholics, a topic one cardinal defended.

“Italian Cardinal Edoardo Menichelli of Ancona-Osimo scoffed at the notion that synod delegates should stick only to finding ways to promote orthodox teaching about families.

“When asked by a reporter why bishops were discussing issues related to gays and lesbians, he said, ‘This is part and parcel of the family reality for many reasons.’ “

Wise words from Menichelli.  Though the discussion of families with LGBT members, both as parents and as children, will be a tough one, it is not one that the bishops can easily shirk if they want their synod report to have any relevance to the modern world.  And I’m not even suggesting here that doctrinal change be debated, since obviously that is a non-starter at this point.  But there are so many pastoral challenges that bishops can address related to LGBT people, and they are challenges for which bishops, priests, and other church leaders need guidance.

I outlined some of these challenges in an interview this week with Crux’s Michael O’Loughlin, and so I will simply provide some excerpts from that report to detail what I think the Church needs:

” ‘A change in language and a change in pastoral practice are needed because justice demands it,’ [Francis DeBernardo] says. ‘Justice and Christian charity demand it.’

‘ ‘We have people being excluded from Communion, being excluded from being godparents, being fired from jobs because they marry, being denied leadership roles in parish communities, being excluded at funerals of their relatives,’ he said. ‘Any positive step on issues like that would be wonderful.’

” ‘A success would be a statement of unconditional welcome to LGBT people. That’s needed right now [because] while there is welcome in some areas, there are so many places where officially they are not welcome,’ he said. ‘A statement of unconditional welcome is so needed, and if that’s all we get from the synod, that will still be a success.’

” ‘When I say unconditional, I don’t mean, “We welcome people who follow the teaching of the Church,” or ‘We welcome people but we don’t accept their lifestyle,” ‘ he said. . . .

“But he said the larger issue is ministering to the increasing number of Catholic families who accept their gay and lesbian relatives.

” ‘The Church is faced with a pastoral problem of not just reaching out to gay and lesbian people, but reaching out to people who support and love them,’ he said. ‘That’s particularly true with the younger generation. They are going to lose the entire younger generation if they keep having the harsh and divisive rhetoric of homophobia, regardless of their orientation.’ “

I couldn’t have said it better myself!  Wait a minute. . .    :)

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry



SYNOD 2015 NEWS NOTES: Keeping Tabs on All the Talk

October 11, 2015

Bishops gathered in the Synod hall

Keeping up with the numerous news and commentaries tied to the Synod can be challenging.

New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo is reporting from Rome, attending the Vatican’s daily press briefings and tuning his ear to the buzz, but there is also much ink flying elsewhere. Below is a Synod News Notes with links provided for further reading.

Commonweal’s Matthew Sitman titled his piece “Sex and the Synod.” He wrote critically against R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, who claimed the Synod is simply the church figuring out how to respond to the sexual revolution. Sitman asked in response:

“Can we really look back over the last few decades and be unmoved by the (at least partial) redress of the genuine injustices women and LGBT people faced, to take two prominent examples? And can we really disentangle all that from the ‘sexual revolution’?

“If you don’t think the proper response to a gay son or lesbian daughter coming out is reparative therapy, you are living in a decisively post-Stonewall world, and differ drastically from what many Christians believed not long ago. . .

“The task of genuine Christian discernment in these matters is to sift through the gains and losses of the sexual revolution rather than dismiss it in one swoop and reply only with a steadfast no. Christians, and the church, must be able to distinguish between learning from history and experience and simply being fashionable. There really is a difference.”

Sr. Simone Campbell of NETWORK wrote in The Huffington Post that its time to embrace LGBT people in churches rather than continuing to hurt them, closing with a bit of advice that should be required reading for bishops:

“My advice to anyone who has a hard time accepting LGBT people is to get to know them and hear their stories. . .For me, that means we have to listen to people rather than making assumptions about them. Talk to people. Be open and accept the truth of who people are. That’s all we need to do.”

Gerald O’Connell, who covers the Vatican for America, set out the Synod as the latest conversation about a fundamental choice the church is repeatedly faced with at each moment in history:

“Should the church concentrate more on pointing to the gap between the Catholic moral vision and the lived reality of people in the modern world, or should it concentrate more on walking with men and women precisely in their lived reality, accompanying them and pointing to the moments of grace already present in their lives as the foundation for moving toward the Christian ideal?”

On his blog, Vatican journalist John Thavis agreed  that the not only will the church survive a more open discussion on family life, but that finding a renewed path forward is essential:

“Francis believes, correctly I think, that unless the church changes its language and pastoral approach, it will continue to alienate many of the people it is trying to save. . .At the end of the month, I think we’ll see a final document that is largely positive about the many contributions given and sacrifices made by families today, recognizing that in the modern age the church needs to also work with ‘untraditional’ families in ways that are more welcoming than judgmental.’ “

After one week, Michael O’Loughlin of Crux suggested the Synod may punt on controversial issues altogether based on an interview with Louisville’s Archbishop Joseph Kurtz. O’Loughlin wondered:

“Could national bishops’ conferences come up with their own rules about annulments, Communion, and how to minister to gays and lesbians?”

John Allen, also of Crux, said whatever outcome emerges there is a desire for a positive tone that emphasizes families’ goodness and hopes, rather than failures and despair.

The Synod is still being criticized for who is absent beyond a mass of celibate male bishops and some marginal auditors, which may greatly affect any outcome. Theologian Mary Hunt wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that this “stacks the deck” against women.

What about the bishops themselves? You can read DeBernardo’s daily LGBT-related updates from the Synod and what bishops are saying, available here. Below are some other noteworthy insights, which while not directly addressing LGBT issues, are relevant for how the church is moving forward.

Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, England questioned the bishops’ ability to address family life, saying a holistic conversation requires female perspectives and expressing concern that “there is a big area that we don’t actually understand,” reported the National Catholic Reporter.

Bishop Johann Bonny of Antwerp, who called for the church to bless same-sex relationships last December, expressed a desire for more “space and responsibility” so that bishops could “formulate suitable answers to the pastoral questions of that part of the people of God which is entrusted to their pastoral care,” reported the National Catholic Reporter.

Bishop Heiner Koch of Berlin said the church’s teachings “do not silence the questions in the hearts of people” and said denying Communion makes people doubt God. Though speaking about divorced and remarried Catholics, according to the National Catholic Reporter, his words seem readily applicable to LGBT Catholics and their families too.

Want Bondings 2.0’s ongoing live reports from Rome related to the Synod and Catholic LGBT issues? Subscribe to the blog (for free) by typing your email address in the “Follow” box in the upper right-hand corner of this page, and then click the “Follow” button.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

A Synod Discussion Asks the Question: What Is Mercy?

October 11, 2015

This post is the sixth 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.

St. Peter’s Basilica dome and colonnade on a rainy Rome day.

Not every day here at the synod is an exciting day.  Yesterday was a gloomy, rainy day in Rome, and a kind of lethargy hung over the regularly busy city.  The same kind of malaise seemed to permeate the daily press briefing, with little information being put forth that was of interest to Catholics concerned with LGBT issues.

At the press briefings, Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi gives an overview of what has transpired since the day before.  Today his report was followed by reports from four different sub-spokespersons who reported on what bishops in different language groups said.  Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is the English sub-spokesperson, and he related a long list of different comments from bishops, though, as is the standard practice, the bishops who stated these various comments are not identified.

Mercy, particularly for those who do not follow church teaching, was a major theme of today’s comments from the bishops, Rosica noted.  Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter captured the main highlights of Rosica’s reporting on mercy:

“Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, who assists the press office with English-language media, said one Synod prelate had said: ‘Mercy cannot be encountered unless it is measured against an eternal law.’

” ‘One must seek truth in order to experience mercy,’ Rosica quoted that prelate. ‘And the church must seek truth when confronting the theme of marriage. Means giving people a challenge; it is not covering reality with giftwrap.’

“Another Synod prelate, Rosica related, had said: ‘Unless we acknowledge openly people’s situations, we will not be able to address those situations clearly.’

” ‘Mercy towards sinners is not a form of weakness, nor an abandonment of church teaching,’ Rosica quoted that prelate.”

” ‘We have to learn how to speak the truth in love in many situations, because in many situations people are completely powerless over what has befallen them,’ he said. ‘And our communities of faith have to be communities that welcome people.’ “


Cardinal BaseliosCleemisThottunkal

Also speaking at the press briefing was Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, who is the Archbishop of Trivandrum, in southern India, and the president of the bishops conference of India as well as the head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.  He explained his own view about mercy:

“When we speak of god’s mercy, we also talk about an openness to be converted by God’s mercy.  Persons must be well motivated. The Gospel demands this as a condition.  [We say] “The Kingdom of God is at hand, be converted.”  Jesus said “I forgive you, but sin no more.”

Taken all together these comments show that there is a debate about how mercy is to be understood going on in the synod.  Is mercy something that recognizes reality, accepts that people are sometimes powerless to their situations, and welcomes unconditionally or is it something that “demands” conversion as part of the process?

As far as LGBT issues are concerned, this is a critical point.  Will LGBT people be welcome in the Church only if they agree to follow the church’s teaching–which in many cases would be a violation of their consciences–or will they be welcome as they are with their “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community” that last year’s mid-term synod report described?

Today’s press briefing focused on bishops’ comments on the second part of the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document of the meeting. The second part is entitled “The Discernment of the Family Vocation,” and it focuses on more spiritual, rather than sociological or cultural, aspects of family.  So, we were told that a great many of the bishops’ interventions covered topics such as the importance of family prayer, the family as a place where suffering is shared and comforted, the family as a school for teaching about love and concern for others, the spirituality of the family, the mission of the family to help other families, and the family as the place where the life of faith is lived out every day, the family’s concern with raising children and protecting the elderly, and the vocation of the family.

What struck me as I listened to all these descriptors of the family is that they are all describe families I have met that have LGBT members either as sons and daughters or as the heads of the household. In describing the vocation of family, the bishops are describing the characteristics of ALL families, regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity of their members.  I hope that they recognize that even in their own thinking, the issue of procreation and the concept of gender complementarity are not the fullness, or even the lion’s share, of family life.   If they would recognize this truth, I think they would be more disposed to welcome LGBT families into the Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Will Language Be the Only Thing That the Synod Updates?

October 10, 2015

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.


Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle and Fr. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesperson.

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.]

Bishop Mark Coleridge

But that doesn’t mean that we won’t see new language about LGBT issues and people. In an interview with Crux, Australian Bishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane offered some hopeful possibilities:

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

Related article:

National Catholic Reporter: “Synod bishops express confusion in group reports, cardinal calls it healthy”


Archbishop Discusses African Bishops’ Silence on Criminalization of LGBT People

October 9, 2015

This post is the fourth 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.

Yesterday was my fourth day at an afternoon press briefing for the synod.  Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s main spokesperson briefs the attendees, mostly representatives from the international press, and then turns the microphone over to two or three synod delegates to make brief statements of their perspectives on what has transpired, and to answer questions.


Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle

One of the guests today was Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle, the head of the Accra Archdiocese, capital city of Ghana, in Africa.  Since criminalization of lesbian and gay people is such an important issue in some African nations, I put the following question to Archbishop Palmer-Buckle:

“Many African bishops have spoken vocally against marriage for lesbian and gay couples. Many fewer have spoken as vocally against criminalization laws against gay and lesbian people, though many Catholic leaders see this type of criminalization as a violation of Church teaching on human rights and also as destructive of family relationships. Do you think that the African bishops, or indeed any bishops, would support a statement from the synod condemning the criminalization of lesbian and gay people?”

Palmer-Buckle’s answer:*

“I can tell you that when the Holy Father, the pope, on his plane ride back from Rio de Janeiro, said ‘Who am I to condemn [judge]?, it had huge repercussions in our country. But some governments in Europe said we would not get their money without supporting marriage.  I agree with the Holy Father – that people who are different from us are sons and daughters of God and we have to welcome them and be able to open the doors of the church to them.  In Ghana we do this.  Yes, they are human and they have human rights, and their human rights and dignity should be respected and upheld.”

“We found it sad that some government could violate our sovereignty.  We know that all are sons and daughters of God and have dignity.  We are doing what we can.  It takes time for individual voices like that to be heard, when you are dealing especially with something that is culturally difficult for people to understand. They [Africans] have lived with it for millennia. Attitudes in Africa towards people who are different has been something that has been there for so long. It would be a bit deceptive to think overnight individuals will change their opinion–overnight documents would be written in favor and the rest of it.  I’d say give the countries time to deal with issues from our own cultural perspectives. And I’d like you to know that we must underline that the rights of all the sons and daughters as children of God are to be upheld by the church everywhere.  And we are trying.  “I don’t want to say we have reached there. No, no, no — perfection is not yet something that we have obtained but we are working towards it. Be patient with Africa.  We are growing.”

You can watch the video of this exchange on the following video, posted by the Vatican on their YouTube channel:

I appreciated Palmer-Buckle’s honesty.  He did not try to justify the stance of some African bishops who have remained silent about criminalization, or even sometimes tacitly and overtly supported it.  He acknowledged that accepting homosexuality is a difficult cultural problem that must be overcome.  He was also adamant that the Church should support the human dignity of gay and lesbian people, mentioning it at least twice in his response.  By saying “we are growing,” he acknowledged that the cultural homophobia which may be normative is not the ideal Christian situation for bishops.

He also seemed to be apologizing for the response of the bishops, saying that they were offended by the idea that aid to their countries would be tied to support for marriage equality.  It must be pointed out, though, that supporting marriage equality and condemning criminalization of lesbian and gay people are two separate issues.  According to church teaching, it would be extremely difficult for a bishop to support marriage equality, but, also by Catholic teaching, it would also be extremely easy for a bishop to oppose criminalization and the denial of human rights to lesbian and gay people.

While I understand his perspective that homophobia takes time to heal, especially culturally, we must also remember that lives hang in the balance when homophobia mushrooms into criminalization and institutionalized violence.  Overcoming one’s personal homophobia may take time, but we also have to remember that when homophobia becomes legalized, that people suffer greatly from this.  While I understand his call for patience,  I hope that he and others realize that the longer it takes to eradicate homophobia, the more LGBT people will suffer and pay the price with their lives.

That is why a synod statement opposing criminalization is so important.  The African bishops have shown that they are blinded by their cultural and personal homophobia, and they need to be led by their brother bishops to enact justice by speaking out against criminalization. Justice demands it and lives cannot wait.

Palmer-Buckle did not answer the question about whether the synod would issue a statement about criminalization. Perhaps it is too early in the process for him to be able to say anything with certainty about the matter.  Yet, the synod has been urged to make such a statement earlier this year by the then-fledgling Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC).  You can read about their recommendations by clicking here.

In their analysis of the Intstrumentum Laboris, the working document of the synod, the GNRC stated:

“The inclusion of the unfounded statement that international organisations are pressurising poorer countries to introduce same-sex marriage as a condition of receiving financial aid Para. 132) is scandalously dishonest. Far better for the Church to show its commitment to social justice through the condemnation of global criminalisation of LGBT people, including torture and the death penalty.”

The GNRC offered language to the synod for them to make such a statement about criminalizaiton:

“At a global level, people with variant sexual orientation are unjustly criminalised, tortured, subjected to death penalties, and those offering pastoral and practical care in such circumstances are also often penalised. This Synod of Bishops unequivocally condemns such injustices perpetrated on people and firmly opposes such patterns of criminalisation. It urges governments and civil society to respect the human rights of each person regardless of their sexual orientation.”

A statement condemning criminalization seems like the theologically easiest thing for the synod of bishops to do in regard to pastoral care for LGBT people.  Let’s hope and pray that the more open and honest attitude towards this situation exhibited by Archbishop Palmer-Buckle today will influence bishops who are more opposed to such a development.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

*Many thanks to Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of FutureChurch, a Catholic reform organization, who is also present in Rome, for transcribing the bishop’s answer for me so that I could listen attentively and courteously to his response. Deb is blogging about the synod on her blog, SynodWatch.  Her reports are excellent, and can be accessed by clicking here

Related articles:

Religion News Service:  “African archbishop: We’re not blocking progress in the church”

National Catholic Reporter: “Ghanaian archbishop: Africans not ‘blocking’ discussions at synod”

SynodWatch: “Heartbreaking stories, an Archbishop admits growing pains and the sweet sound of women deacons

Synod Day Two’s Question: Who Is Inside and Who Is Outside the Church?

October 7, 2015

This post is the second 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. His first post can be reached by clicking here

Here in Rome, the synod is basically a closed event.  No reporters or the general public are allowed into the meeting room where the bishops are having their discussions.  But every day at 1:00 p.m., the Vatican spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi, is joined by international staff (including English speaker Father Thomas Rosica, CSB) and a few of the synod participants, to explain what transpired since the day before.

At Tuesday’s briefing,  Lombardi told the assembled reporters that since Monday, 72 bishops had made short addresses to the synod, covering a wide range of topics concerning the family:  economic problems, unemployment, migration, violence against women, care for the elderly, child labor, and others.  The list seemed intended to illustrate a fact that was reiterated several times at the briefing:  the synod would not just be about divorced and remarried Catholics.

Pope Francis presides over the synod.

Lombardi emphasized that Pope Francis had warned the bishops that this would not be a single-issue meeting, just as he stressed that Catholic doctrine on marriage “has not been called into question.  The doctrine is still valid.”

Rosica reported that among the topics covered by the 72 bishops who spoke was a concern about lesbian and gay people.   He said that one message expressed was:  “We do not pity gay persons.  They are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and colleagues.”  He reported that another message expressed about gay and lesbian people was: “These are our children, our family members, our flesh and blood, not outsiders.”

Those messages of affirmation are part of the good news of today.

More worrisome were the remarks by Archbishop ‎Paul-André Durocher, the president of the Canadian bishops’ conference.  Durocher is known as being one of the more pastoral bishops at the synod, and, at first glance his remarks seemed to be balanced.

He explained that many of the bishops see a “growing division between cultural life and and what the church teaches.”  This division can elicit two different reactions, he said.  One way is emphasize what teaching is, so as to make sure that it is not diluted.   The other way is for the church to move away from secular culture, and thus become a ghetto.

Durocher said that  the challenge for the bishops in the synod was “how to hold onto the church teaching and enter into dialogue” with other ideas. Some bishops, he said, will emphasize the teaching and some will emphasize the dialogue.  He described the synod as a “collegial exercise to hold both sides together.”

The problem that I see with this kind of thinking, though, is two-fold.  First, if church leaders want to enter into dialogue, they must do so open to the possibility that their position might change.  Without that openness, they are not really having a dialogue.  They will only be having two separate monologues.  Repeated warnings leading up to the synod have all stressed that there will be no change in doctrine.  If that mantra is serious and not just a message to console conservatives,  then it means that the church leaders really do not want to dialogue with those who hold different opinions from the magisterium.

The second problem is that Durocher imagines that there are only two sides to these discussions: inside the church and outside the church.  He imagines the debate as being essentially between the sacred and the secular,  ecclesia vs. culture.  That simple division is not accurate.

In fact, the most serious debate is not between those inside the church vs. those outside the church, but between those inside the church who want to see changes in certain areas concerning families and those inside the church who want to keep things as they are or even move backward to earlier positions.

It is a serious mistake, one made far too often by church leaders, to see progressives inside the church as being too greatly shaped by secular culture.  If bishops would meet with progressives, they would learn that this group wants change because they have been influenced by the Gospel and the Catholic tradition.  As we say about those Catholics who support LGBT issues, they do so because they are Catholic, not in spite of being Catholic.  They have taken the best principles of Catholic social teaching–equality, human dignity, respect–as well as the best ideas about the goodness of loving relationships for human personal and spiritual growth, and have applied them to the various situations in which LGBT people find themselves.

Although I am most familiar with the LGBT community, I know from talking with others who advocate for the divorced/remarried Catholics and for the equality of women, that the same foundation in Church principles exist.  Faithful Catholic theologians have long argued that the tradition of Catholicism supports changes in the areas of LGBT concerns, divorced/remarried issues, and gender equality.  To imagine that it is only secular cultural forces that want to see these changes is a dangerous mistake which does not recognize how the Spirit of God is moving in the Church.

Among other bits of good news from today, Rosica also mentioned that the problem of terminology also was discussed as a major theme. One bishop said “there must be an end to exclusionary language and a strong emphasis of embracing reality as it is.” A different bishop noted that sometimes “our church can often be a dangerous place,” and suggested the synod explore the question: “How do we make our homes and ecclesial communities welcoming places?”  Though no one referred to LGBT issues, I can’t help but think that this was on the minds of some of the speakers.  Rosica stated: “Some of the interventions suggested we should be more inclusionary in our language, especially in the Jubilee Year of Mercy.” He stressed that some bishops said “The language of inclusion must be our language.”

A reporter asked Durocher about the question of the Church’s prohibition of divorce, inquiring if it was a matter of doctrine or discipline.  The importance of such a question is due to the fact that there have been so many statements that doctrine will not change.  But can a church discipline change?

Durocher’s answer was: “To be quite honest, there might be differences of opinion” on that question, and it “will be debated.  We will discuss it seriously.”   Though the question was asked in terms of the situation of divorced people, it can also be applied to LGBT issues such as the reception of communion, the baptism of children of lesbian and gay couples, allowing transgender people to serve as godparents, and the firing of married lesbian and gay church employees–all of which are matters of discipline, but not doctrine.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

National Catholic Reporter: “Vatican: Pope reminded Synod that divorced and remarried not only issue”


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