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

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”

4 replies
  1. Susanne M cassidy
    Susanne M cassidy says:

    Great piece Frank, especially the comments about Catholics, inside, or outside the church. I like how you spelled that out
    Thank You

  2. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    Thank you for the updates Francis. It’s good to be reminded that we can’t look at everything through our own cultural lens and that the Synod has to address everyone. It is horrifying to think that in the 21st century things like child labor still exist in a large number of societies. Granted here in the United States kids of farmers are allowed to work on farms before or after school, but, that is radically different to what some children still have to go through everyday in order to help provide for their families. Like you I am hopeful about some of the things being said, but to once again rehash this sacred vs secular, “the truly spiritual” vs. “those influenced by the evil culture” language again and again is getting old. I agree with you, there are more than two sides here. As Catholics who both struggle with the current teachings and who seek to broaden the teachings of the Church into what we understand to be true both about the scientific nature of human sexuality as well as the teachings of the Church. It is sad that the default option seems to be that we are trying to tear down the tradition of marriage vs. trying to help others see a creatively orthodox way to allow LGBTQ people to share in the Sacrament of Marriage that in no way diminishes it’s sacramentality for anyone. And while I realize that Synods as only advisory and opinion expressing bodies, do not actually have the power to further develop or change doctrine, I hope that they will be open enough to the Spirit’s call, to advise language and practical changes that will get us there eventually. Looking forward to the next update.


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