ROME, Italy–This has certainly been an exciting week for the Catholic Church! Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to make sure that what I am reading is really happening. For many decades Catholics have been calling on the hierarchy to at least have a dialogue about sexuality, marriage, and family issues, and it seems that the dialogue has begun. No doubt, it is imperfect. There are certainly not the dialogue members that need to be there–especially LGBT people and their families. But it is a first step, and that is good.
Of course, I have to also be on guard against getting caught up in some of the sensational headlines, tweets, and Facebook posts that I have seen. Many people, including press representatives, seem caught up in the euphoria of the moment and are heralding changes in Catholic teaching, when such is not the case. We have indeed seen an important opening in the discussion these last few days, with bishops sharing their ideas about marriage and family, and listening to at least some of the laity on this matter. We haven’t seen discussion like that among church leaders at all in my lifetime–and I’m in my mid-50s. But the beginning of a discussion does not equal change.
According to Vatican Radio, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of London, England, welcomed the new atmosphere of discussion:
“Cardinal Nichols pointed out it’s too early to draw any conclusions from these first sessions, yet it does seem clear that this first Synod of Francis’ pontificate is shaping up for a much more honest and down-to-earth discussion than most bishops have experienced here in the Vatican over recent decades.”
One thing, perhaps that we can hope for, is a change in language. On Tuesday, at a press briefing, Basilian Father Thomas Rosica told reporters that bishops had discussed language about sexuality used in church discourse:
“Language such as ‘living in sin,’ ‘intrinsically disordered,’ or ‘contraceptive mentality’ are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to Christ and the Church.”
So many Catholics have been asking for almost 30 years for the terms “intrinsically disordered” and “objective disorder,” which refer primarily to homosexuality, to be changed. Terencce Weldon, at Queering The Church, commented:
“For lesbian and gay people, this is nothing new, but it is something that the bishops needed to hear. Indeed, even some of those who are already aware of the harmful effects and warning against them, may not realize the depth of the damage that is done. They may understand that it is one of the factors that turns many our community away from the Catholic Church, as noted in the press briefing – but do they understand that it is also quite literally, destructive of lives, especially young lives?”
There was also a glimmer that there may be openness to recognizing value in relationships that are not legally or ecclesiastically considered “married.” According to Vatican Radio:
“Fr Lombardi used an analogy from the Second Vatican Council which led to profound changes in the Catholic Church’s relations with other Christians and people of other religious traditions. During the Council, bishops agreed that while the fullness of Christ’s Church “subsists” only in the Catholic Church, important elements of truth and holiness also exist in other churches and faith communities. In a similar way, he said, valid and important elements of true love and holiness can also exist in a relationship that does not conform to the full vision of an ideal Catholic marriage.”
On Wednesday, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, offered the following explanation of what the synod might and might not do. The National Catholic Reporter quotes his reflections at a press conference:
“What we are trying to examine is the pastoral approach that could be done differently. The doctrines remain the same. We are not going to invent new doctrines … or suppress doctrines that the church has practiced for years.”
Kaigama is probably right, but that doesn’t mean that doctrine won’t eventually change. In the church, a change in pastoral practice usually leads toward a change in doctrine, and not the other way around.
Kaigama himself showed the possibility of change. On Wednesday, he told a synod press briefing that the Catholic Church in his country did not support the law applying harsh penalties to people convicted of homosexuality. This is a reversal of his opinions at the time the law was being enacted. The Tablet reports Kaigama’s statements:
“ ‘We are not supporting the criminalisation of people with different sexual orientations,’ Archbishop Kaigama stressed. ‘We would defend any person with homosexual orientation who is being harassed, who is being imprisoned, who is being punished.’
“He added: ‘The Government may want to punish them – we don’t. In fact we will tell the Government to stop punishing those with different orientations.’ ”
This is a surprising change given that some months back the news about his stance was much different:
From Bondings 2.0, on March 7, 2014, quoting a Religion News Service story:
“In a January letter on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy of Nigeria, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos praised Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan for his ‘courageous and wise decision’ in signing the legislation. Kaigama said it would protect Nigeria ‘against the conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent, the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices.’ “
From Bondings 2.0, on February 13, 2014, quoting an Advocate.com story:
“Ignatius Kaigama, archbishop of the Middle Belt region of Jos, told SaharaTV that Catholic bishops in Nigeria ‘thank God that this bill was passed,’ and in a letter sent to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, called the law ‘a courageous one and a clear indication of the ability of our great country to stand shoulders high in the protection of our Nigerian and African most valued cultures of the institution of marriage.’ ”
At the synod press conference, Kaigama defended his record, saying that he only meant to support the law’s opposition to marriage for same-gender couples. The Tablet reports:
“. . . the archbishop said the Church only supported the elements of the law that set out that marriage is between a man and a woman. He added that there had been a “gross misinterpretation” of this by the media.”
Perhaps that is true, but the archbishop must take responsibility for the fact that in a volatile political debate, his supposedly nuanced comments are insufficient and ineffective. Why didn’t he speak out clearly and strongly against the portions of the bill that imposed harsh penalties for orientation? If indeed he did not support the bill in its entirety, why did he only praise the parts he liked and not condemn the parts he did not like? This example shows how silence on the part of church leaders is often complicity in the homophobia which fuels repression and violence.
The synod will surely hold many more surprises. Let’s hope that most of them are more edifying than the much delayed “clarification”of the Nigerian archbishop.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry