As I mentioned last week, I’m in Rome for the first part of October to observe the proceedings of the Vatican’s synod on marriage and family topics. Of course, lingering over the proceedings are the strong echoes from last week’s incredible set of news stories: that someone arranged for Kim Davis to meet Pope Francis in Washington, DC; that Pope Francis himself arranged to meet with a former student who is a gay man with a partner, who also met the pontiff; the announcement for a priest at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that he is gay.
As the synod progresses, I’ll be posting here both from news articles, as well as some of my personal impressions. Today, the first day of the synod, there was not much news on any particular topic, especially LGBT concerns. Cardinal Péter Erdő, of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary, who is the synod’s general relator, commented on lesbian and gay issues, though not with much significance or specificity. The National Catholic Reporter noted his comment:
“The cardinal also spoke of the church’s ministry to gay and lesbian persons, addressing the topic of persons with ‘homosexual tendencies.’
” ‘It is reiterated that every persons should be respected in their dignity, independent of their sexual tendency,’ he said. ‘It is desirable that pastoral programs might set aside a particular attention to the families in which persons with homosexual tendencies live.’ “
At the midday press conference, the comments from three bishops, including Erdo, were similarly non-committal. Perhaps the most significant line of the day came from Paris’ Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, a synod president, who said that if people are expecting “a spectacular change in the Church’s doctrine you will be disappointed.”
This sentiment was echoed by Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte, the synod secretary, who said of the meeting:
“It will not lead to doctrinal changes, because it is about pastoral attention, pastoral care. We are about resonating pastorally.”
The cautionary tone of these prelates differed greatly from the more open tone that Pope Francis expressed in opening the first session of the synod. The National Catholic Reporter noted:
“Pope Francis has called on the hundreds of prelates gathered for his second worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops on family issues to remain open in their deliberations to the call of the Holy Spirit, repeating his frequent assertion that God is a God of surprises. . . .
” ‘It is the Church that questions itself on its fidelity to the deposit of the faith, so that it does not represent a museum to be looked at or only to be safeguarded, but a living spring from which the church drinks to quench thirst and illuminate the deposit of life,’ the pontiff said of the Synod.
” ‘The Synod is also a protected space where the Church goes through the action of the Holy Spirit,’ said Francis.
” ‘In the Synod, the Spirit speaks through the language of all people who allow themselves to be guided by God who always surprises, by God who reveals to the little ones that which he has hidden from the wise and intelligent,’ he said.”
Of course, since the Spirit speaks though “all people,” LGBT people should have been invited to speak at the synod. As well as a lot more women. Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland and the mother of a gay son, said at a Catholic LGBT conference in Rome this weekend (more on this event in another post) that she thought that the composition of the family synod as all unmarried men was “absurd” because not one of its voting members ever had to change a baby’s diaper.
On Sunday, at the Mass opening the synod, Pope Francis, commenting on the day’s liturgical readings, re-affirmed the magisterium’s selection of the heterosexual norm for marriage. The Huffington Post reported:
Francis dedicated one third of his homily to the topic of love between man and woman and its role in procreation.
” ‘This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self,’ he said.
“He also spoke of the ‘true meaning of the couple and of human sexuality in God’s plan,’ a clear reference to heterosexual marriage.
“But Francis also stressed that the Church must be more welcoming, charitable, compassionate and merciful to all people, particularly those whose lives have been wounded and who those find it difficult to adhere to all of the Church’s regulations.
“The leader of the 1.2 billion member Church said the person ‘who falls or errs must be understood and loved.’
” ‘The Church must search out these persons, welcome and accompany them, for a Church with closed doors betrays herself and her mission, and, instead of being a bridge, becomes a roadblock,’ he said.”
While I do hope that the Church will at some point make doctrinal change, I think that any positive steps in pastoral care would also be a good next step. Doctrine does not change over night. The first step is dialogue, and Pope Francis has been encouraging that at this synod and through his other messages. Dialogue can bring about change in pastoral practice, which is a very important step. Following pastoral practice is the step of theological reflection on that practice, noting what the Church has experienced and learned. Only after theological reflection will a change in doctrine occur.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry