The Vatican has released a preparation document for the 2015 Synod on Marriage and the Family, and, as they did for the 2014 synod, the meeting’s organizers are asking for wide consultation “at all levels” of the Church on a variety of topics, including pastoral ministry to lesbian and gay people.
The National Catholic Reporter described the document, known as a lineamenta:
“The document is part a summary of the last meeting, known as a synod of bishops and held at the Vatican last October, and part a series of 46 questions meant to help prepare for the next synod. The Vatican synod office is sending the document in coming days to bishops’ conferences around the world.
“In its preface, Tuesday’s document states that the questions are aimed ‘an in-depth examination of the work initiated’ at the last synod.”
(An Italian language text of the document is available by clicking here. When an English language version becomes available, we will let you know about it.)
In several spots, the document calls for participation by the laity, perhaps most strongly in this statement:
“The episcopal conferences have the responsibility to continue to examine … thoroughly and seek the involvement, in the most opportune manner possible, all levels of the local Church, thus providing concrete instances from their specific situations.”
As for LGBT issues, the document makes use of the term “persons with homosexual tendencies” to describe lesbian and gay people. Despite this inaccuracy, the questions that relate to this topic hold some promise for productive discussion and possible changes in pastoral practice, as well as some problems. The document states:
“The pastoral care of persons with homosexual tendencies poses new challenges today, due to the manner in which their rights are proposed in society.
“How can the Christian community give pastoral attention to families with persons with homosexual tendencies? What are the responses that, in light of cultural sensitivities, are considered to be most appropriate?
“While avoiding any unjust discrimination, how can such persons receive pastoral care in these situations in light of the Gospel? How can God’s will be proposed to them in their situation?”
The positive side to these questions is that the first three are very open-ended. They provide opportunities for people to answer freely and from their own experiences. The emphasis on what is “appropriate” in light of particular cultures allows for a diversity of approaches to be discussed and appreciated.
On the negative side, the final question can be interpreted as pre-supposing knowledge of what God’s will is for this group. I hope that is not how it was intended, but I also recognize that that may be the way it is interpreted by people who will answer the question.
Another troublesome aspect is the first sentence’s contextualizing LGBT ministry within the context of civil debates. What I am afraid that this framing will do is allow people to respond in ways which hedge on pastoral ministry because they fear that any acceptance of LGBT people would be an endorsement of a civil or political agenda. Pastoral ministry should not be hampered in such a way. Church ministers should do outreach to LGBT people because the Gospel requires that they do so at all times. They should not worry that their welcome of LGBT people would be confused with any political or social agenda in secular society.
It is interesting that these questions are not focused on pastoral care towards LGBT people, but to families with gay and lesbian members. I hope that will include families which are headed by gay and lesbian people, and not just families headed by heterosexual couples who have LGBT children.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA commented on the new document in a Religion News Service article:
“LGBT people certainly need appropriate pastoral care that starts from a position of acknowledging our moral equality with all other people, and that accepts the reality of our lives and the families we create. But we are not a problem for the church to solve. We are human beings, baptized members of our church, God’s beloved just as are other members of the church.”
Regardless of the merits or drawbacks of these questions, the real import will be in whether bishops actually do the wide consultation that is called for by this document. In 2013, the U.S. bishops did very little in terms of consulting the laity in preparation for the 2014 synod. Now that they have had more time to consider options, they should have no excuse not to do the wide consultation the Vatican requests. The Bishops of England and Wales have already laid out a process for such a consultation a month ago. The U.S. bishops could easily emulate their model.
And, of course, we repeat that the 2015 meeting must include Catholic LGBT people speaking for themselves to the synod of bishops. The 2014 meeting suffered greatly because of that omission.
According to Vatican Radio, there are about four months before the bishops have to submit the results of their consultation to the synod organizers:
“All the results of such consultation must be returned to the Synod Secretariat by April 15th so that the working guidelines, known as the ‘Instrumentum laboris’, can be published before next summer.”
If you do not hear from your diocese or parish that they are taking steps to do consultation, please contact your pastor and bishop and request that they do so. Better yet, just answer the synod preparation questions yourself and submit your responses to your local bishop.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry