The Bishops’ Synod three week assembly on marriage and family has now concluded. It’s now two years since the process began, and it’s not over yet. (We still must wait for Pope Francis’ response, which will be published as an Apostolic Exhortation). Meanwhile, LGBT opinion on the results of the assembly and its implications for ourselves, are sharply divided. Some see the the near total absence of even any reference to LGBT concerns as a disappointing “no change”, while others see this very silence as a promising sign, that bishops recognize the need for real change, after dialogue with lesbian and gay people, and sound theological reflection.
Whichever interpretation turns out to be correct, three notable responses suggest that for Quest, the synod assembly has opened up a major opportunity, which we should be ready to use: the English bishops’ representatives have returned with supportive statements, James Alison has written of his belief that the bishops’ avoidance of the subject in the final document is a sign that they recognize the need for further real engagement, and Cardinal Kasper has said that although there has been no change in doctrine or the rules on communion for the divorced and remarried, nevertheless, doors have been opened. Taken together, we may conclude that at least for British lesbian and gay Catholics, a door has opened up a crack. It is now up to us to force the opening wider, and make our way through it.
We need to consider not only the formal document that was issued, but also the general tone of the assembly, and especially Pope Francis’ wiords before, during and at the close. Constant themes were the importance of listening and accompaniment, and “synodality” as a journeying together, of the whole church, quite explicitly including not only pope and bishops, but also priests, other religious and laity. There was also a new emphasis on respect for conscience, with the final document leaving space for the “interior forum”. Finally, Pope Francis strongly criticized those bishops (and others) whose approach to Catholicism is simply to spout about “rules” and “sin”. Instead, the emphasis should be on listening, and on God’s mercy.
In his reaction to the Synod, Cardinal Nichols suggested that the reason homosexuality was not discussed, was that sexuality is really a separate issue to “the family”, and one which needs deeper study. Later, in a diocesan pastoral letter, he issued a formal apology to all those who have been turned away by harsh past words or practice – that clearly includes ourselves – and issued a promise that those wanting to return, would be welcomed. Bishop Doyle of Northamption, in his reaction, noted that the assembly would have benefited from hearing directly from LGBT people. He’s obviously ready for dialogue, and Cardinal Nichols has already begun meeting with us and other LGBT Catholics.
In an article for The Tablet, James Alison points out that while the assembly has not issued any major endorsement of gay Catholics, its silence on the matter shows that it has avoided two other paths that would have been worse:
- There has been no restatement of the existing offensive elements in Church teaching, but has emphasised the often neglected insistence on “respect, compassion and sensitivity”. The was a clear statement that same-sex unions are not comparable with marriage – but there was no criticism of the relationships themselves.
- Equally, their has been attempt to move forward with simple cosmetic changes, such as introducing more sensitive language. Many of us might have hoped for this, but Alison points out correctly, that it’s just not possible to make the language acceptable, while the underlying doctrines are inherently unsound and offensive.
Avoiding these two unsatisfactory responses, therefore, could be taken as an indication that at least a significant (and growing) number of bishops understand the need for more comprehensive revisiting of the entire structure of Catholic response to same – sex orientation, and that this theological reflection will require paying attention to the experience of lesbian and gay people, and to the findings of natural and social sciences..
While there was little attention paid to LGBT issues specifically, there was a great deal with regard to the question of communion for divorced and remarried people. This was a topic that had been heavily promoted throughout the process by the German bishops, with Cardinal Walter Kasper articulating the argument in favour of relaxing the rules. The conservative opposition to the proposal has welcomed the final documents failure to endorse the principle as a defeat for Pope Francis and the progressives, but Kasper himself sees it differently. He points out the the final document was very carefully crafted, to include only clauses that could achieve a two thirds majority, which they all did. One of those clauses accepts the value of considering each case individually, and leaving decisions to discernment in the “interior forum” – and that the results of that discernment will not be the same in every region. That leaves the door open for individual priests and bishops to offer communion to specific people, without changing any general rules. In effect, that is precisely what happens now in many parishes, but spelling it out creates the space for priests to do so more freely and more openly. Exactly the same principle applies to LGBT Catholics. Emphasising the importance of listening, accompaniment and the interior forum will encourage supportive parish priests to be more openly inclusive – and gives LGBT Catholics ourselves to nudge other priests and bishops in the direction of greater support.
So, there could be hope for some positive movement, but to take full advantage, we need to do some hard work ourselves, as a national committee, as regional groups, and as individuals in local areas. We have already begun a process of meeting with individual bishops, but we should be looking to engage with all, in every diocese. It’s also not enough to meet only with bishops. The renewed emphasis on collegiality and synodality suggests that we engage also with diocesan pastoral councils where they exist, and with local priests and parish councils. (The document does emphasise the importance of “pastoral support” to families with gay or lesbian members. We can help parishes with this).
The door has opened a crack: it’s time to open it wider, and to force our way through.