Will Language Be the Only Thing That the Synod Updates?

This post is the fifth 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. Previous posts can be reached by clicking here.

So far, there has been little news from the synod about many of the vigorously debated topics from last year:  LGBT issues and divorce/remarriage.   Many bishops have noted that this year, the synod will focus instead on broader issues facing the family.  My own interpretation is that they might want to be steering away from topics that perhaps might question doctrine, and instead focus on issues where doctrine is non-controversial.


Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle and Fr. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesperson.

The main topic discussed so far has been the concern with language.  I assumed that the concern about language had to do with the use of specific terms such as “homosexual tendencies,” and other reporters here told me that was their assumption, too.  At today’s press briefing, though, we learned that the concern about language was at a much more general level.  Bishops are concerned that the synod document not sound too negative about family problems and that the synod text be less abstract and more focused on common, everyday phenomena.  Manila’s Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, a speaker at the briefing, pointed out that a word like “catechist” can mean different things in different cultures.

At he press briefing, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville observed that the language of the Instrumentum Laboris (the synod’s working document) failed to “inspire” people, that it was often too abstract.  He cited the example of  Pope Francis, who, he said, “has the capacity to touch the hearts of people.”  He also offered an example that was included in the report from his small group discussion concerning language:

“Expanding the words to explain the ‘Good News regarding the family,’ we sought to speak less of ‘crisis’ and more of ‘lights and shadows.’ “

[The reports of 13 small group discussions, broken down in language groups can be found here.  The English language groups are titled by “Anglicus,” the Latin word for “English.”  I will try to synthesize more of these reports once I can get them basically translated and read.]

Bishop Mark Coleridge

But that doesn’t mean that we won’t see new language about LGBT issues and people. In an interview with Crux, Australian Bishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane offered some hopeful possibilities:

There’s been talk in the synod about the need for a ‘new language’ on marriage and the family. What does that mean?

[We need] a new way of speaking about the situation of those who are same-sex attracted or in a same-sex partnership of some kind, or those who are divorced and civilly remarried.

I personally think it’s just not in touch with reality to say there is no good in those relationships. I understand that there’s no continuum between good and evil, but that’s all theory. The reality is, and any pastor knows this, that when you meet people in these relationships, it’s not black and white.

Keeping Church teaching intact can still open up a vast field of pastoral creativity. It’s a challenge to the pastoral imagination. More and more, this synod seems to me to be a summons to that kind of thing. Our danger, and not just the bishops but others in the Church, is to think that we’re condemned to dance in chains unless we can change the Church’s teaching.

There is a Catholic pathology sometimes of all or nothing. If it doesn’t conform to our ideal of what a marriage is, then somehow it’s nothing. It’s a Catholic absolutism. . . .

What about the issue of the need for a more positive, inclusive language about homosexuality, without getting into precisely what that language would be?

I think there would be very large support for that, something like 70/30. There’s very strong support for a less condemnatory approach, and language is at the heart of that. There’s a desire to include [people], without taking on board the claims of what’s sometimes called ‘gay ideology.’

That may involve not just words, but also the language of gestures, of which the pope himself is such a master.

What do you mean by ‘gestures’? I assume you’re not talking, for instance, about blessing ceremonies for gay couples?

No, absolutely not. There’d be no support for that kind of thing, any kind of comparability between marriage and same-sex unions. I doubt there would be a bishop in the hall who would support that.

What I have in mind, for instance, is simply being ready to sit down and talk to people who are gay or in same-sex unions. In other words, not treating them as some kind of diabolical plot, but recognizing their human face and the cry of need, in the belief that somehow the truth of God is to be found there and not in some disembodied world that takes its leave of human experience.

In the press briefing on Wednesday, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput said:

“I hope we find language that we can all agree to be both faithful to the church’s teaching and faithful to love and support of people with same-sex attraction.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think he realizes that his use of the term “people with same-sex attraction” is exactly part of the reason that gay and lesbian people don’t experience love and support from Catholic leaders.

As Chaput’s quote illustrates, language is very important, and I do hope that the synod comes up with new language that is inclusive and welcoming.  For instance, the report from English language group “C” stated:

“. . . [W]e had a lengthy discussion about what we meant by ‘the family,’ which is nothing if not basic to this Synod. Some thought it would make more sense to talk of ‘families,’ given the many different kinds of families we now see.”

And English language group “D” commented on what the synod’s final report should look like:

“. . . [I]t’s important to speak in a way that will draw people’s attention.

“Still others thought that the text lacked anything that would attract people. If the document is destined to the general public, they felt that stories from family life, or the lives of the saints along with illustrations, should be included to make the material more compelling. They stressed the need to review the language of the document and ensure that it appeals to both men and women, leaving no one out.”

Language is important, but it is not the only thing the Church hierarchy needs to do to address issues of marriage and family.  My biggest worry as I read and listen here in Rome is that the synod will spend all their time on trying to put better language on old doctrines and pastoral practices.  It reminds me of the message I heard frequently from bishops during the U.S. marriage equality debates:  the problem is that we haven’t communicated our teaching on marriage effectively enough.  What these bishops failed to understand was that the problem is not the language or presentation which makes people disagree with the Church or feel alienated from it.  The problem is that people are hurt and diminished by the Church’s doctrines and pastoral practices.

I hope and pray that the synod does a lot more than only look at language, and start to look at more creative ways of welcoming and affirming ALL families through new pastoral policies and initiatives.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

National Catholic Reporter: “Synod bishops express confusion in group reports, cardinal calls it healthy”


16 replies
  1. Martin
    Martin says:

    Thank you, Frank, for these excellent Synod Reports – too bad you can’t stay for the whole 3 weeks! It might be worth noting that the broad rather than specific issue of language and Synod documentation could be due to the fact that the Small Groups, in the Synod’s first week, are dealing with Part 1 of the Working Document. This section is very much laying out a general and wide vista for discussion on the family. Parts 2 & 3 get more specific, and we may well see then the more specific rejections of phrases with which LGBT people, parents and families are only too familiar.

    • bwelch3
      bwelch3 says:

      Take note of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia comment, “I hope we find language that we can all agree to be faithful to the Church’s teaching and faithful to love and support of people with same-sex attraction.”

      This is an example of Abp Chaput’s fixation on same-sex attraction. Same-sex attraction is categorized as a disease akin to alcoholism. He and many of his fellow bishops of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops use that reference in their advocacy and support of Courage International’s 12-step program to promote a lifetime commitment to celibacy by its members. He and many other bishops have categorized homosexual persons as defective creatures, defective humanity, defects in God’s creation, And the result of original sin. There is no room for acknowledgment and discussion of homosexual orientation or affirmation and support, including a pastoral ministry for Catholic homosexual persons and members of thier families. In fact, bishops with such mindset participating in the synod of bishops don’t want it to be part of the agenda. Why take up time, energy, funding or be concerned with ministry and dialogue with defective persons and defective humanity.

      To complicate matters further, we also have Catholic bishops and cardinals who have counselled parents of Catholic gay and lesbian children to withdraw their affirmation and support to such children or risk the damnation of their own souls for eternity.

      For more details on the advisory and support role of archbishop Chaput and the Office for Life and Family to the Philadelphia Chapter of Courage/Encoureage go to http://phillycatholiclife.org/.

  2. Tom
    Tom says:

    This is starting to appear to be exactly what I hope it would not. Rearranging the deck chairs on a vessel in a storm tossed sea does not make your ship safer. If, as the Cardinal from Brisbane said, you meet people in same sex relationships and you know it’s not all black and white and ‘ every pastor knows that’, then why can they not muster the courage to make it different now?

  3. paulaczech@comcast.net
    [email protected] says:

    Can’t thank you enough for the updates – as upsetting as they are. It’s a dance of avoidance, avoidance of the most basic human elements of our GLBT brothers and sisters. These prelates have heard confessions of heartbreak when GLBT confess their orientation. Why in God’s name anyone should feel they have to “confess” that is a mystery to me. I never confessed that I was heterosexual. I didn’t even know that I was…….I just knew I was a girl and so were my friends. Our “opposite sex attraction” divorced folks aren’t getting much more. I’m beginning to suspect that many of the prelates actually do believe the church is for a select few who just happened to be born heterosexual; married loving spouses for life and never used contraception. God help us. Paula

  4. Sister Lea
    Sister Lea says:

    Like you, Frank, “My biggest worry…is that the synod will spend all their time on trying to put better language on old doctrines and pastoral practices. (As before in the marriage equality debates) what the bishops fail to “understand is that the problem is not the language or presentation which makes people disagree with the Church or feel alienated from it. The problem is that people are hurt and diminished by the Church’s doctrines and pastoral practices.”

    I would say that the problem goes even deeper than this. The problem is that one side of the Church speaks a very different language from the other. The problem is different languages from two different cultures, two different ways of thinking about God, Church, People, the World.

    The hierarchic, orthodox Roman Catholic culture and the evolutionary, collegial Vatican II culture are in many ways diametrically opposed to each other…much as a wave is not a particle in physics, yet light is both, depending on how you view it.

    Much, if not all, of the polarization tearing the Church apart in the past 30 years is due to the effort to integrate two very opposite views on theology, governance, and liturgy. For this reason, I strongly advocate, with others, the raising of Vatican II to operational rite alongside the 20+ Eastern Catholic Rites in union with Rome. These rites have different perspectives on theology, governance and liturgy AND continue to remain part of the universal Catholic Church.

    This project of bringing together the wisdom of all those who have and continue to build on the foundation of Vatican II will require many minds and voices…a kind of “build it and they will come” on the internet. With this project, we emphasize that diversity of rites is good for both Rome and the universal Church which includes ALL of us.

    To this end, we offer you and your readers the opportunity to view the presentation below, to visit our website, https://RiteBeyondRome.wordpress.com, and to contribute their thoughts, work, concerns and/or objections to this project.

    The Introductory presentation on exploring Vatican II as an alternative Catholic Rite can be found at the web address above. Click on the link “Exploring the Way 4 Vatican 2 Rite” on the opening page of that site.
    You can reach us at [email protected].

    Looking forward to hearing from all.

    Sisters Lea and Consilia

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Lea, I checked out your site. Interesting idea, but I wonder if it amounts to “reinventing the wheel”. The Anglican and Episcopal Churches already have valid Apostolic Lineage through the Presiding Bishop of Utrecht — who serves as co-consecrator for all major Anglican bishops. And Utrecht has valid lineage, since it was created by Rome to serve as an observation post inside the Reformation. Resurrecting the Vatican II approach to liturgy thus would seem to me to be replicating something which already exists — and thus is readily available — in the Episcopal Church in the United States. And a footnote on Montini (Pope Paul VI), who gave us the arbitrary and clearly wrong-headed anti-birth-control encyclical: he is widely reported to have had an ongoing intimate romantic relationship with a younger cleric, prior to becoming Pope. Whether his homosexual liaisons continued into his Papacy is an open and unresolved question. But the bitter irony of having a closeted gay Pope writing an encyclical which forbids heterosexual Catholics to use medical contraception — even in the face of an exploding human population which is about to crash the ability of our planet to sustain such a population — should not be ignored. “Papal Infallibility”? I have my doubts. So did the much-beloved (and bold and courageous) European theologian, Fr. Hans Kung — who was effectively silenced by Rome for “speaking truth to power” in a bold and forthright manner. Against this backdrop, I’m not quite sure what the creation of a “Vatican 2 Rite” within the existing RCC would accomplish. The structural problems involving the legitimate and illegitimate uses (and abuses) of alleged “Papal Authority” are the primary issues that need to be addressed.

      • Sister Lea
        Sister Lea says:

        Friends, thanks for visiting https://ritebeyondrome.wordpress.com and for your comments above. Really appreciate your challenging input!

        As for a Vatican II Rite “re-inventing” the wheel, here’s the issue: Many good disaffected Catholics have joined the Anglican and Episcopal and other Churches, but many others refuse to give up on our brother Rome.

        The option of a Vatican II rite in union with Rome is more about staying within the family AND being Catholic AS Vatican II has called us, not only in liturgy but also in governance and theology. It’s not simply about inclusivity; it’s about a different way of being Catholic, staying within the family, challenging it by example, being challenged by it…yet not so proximate that it can control or punish us.

        AND it’s a family thing; the name and the tradition and the great and terrible history of the Catholic Church belong to us AND we will own its failures and learn from them and have our own failings. Yet there is a Catholic memory of what Vatican II did for the Church in the days before it was discredited by those who were fearful of freedom and change.

        A Vatican II Rite will be free to address change head on with all the wisdom and resources of its Catholic past and present. And since change is the hallmark of our times, we believe THE TIME FOR A Vatican II Rite IS NOW!

        Is this re-inventing the wheel anymore than a growing family is re-inventing the wheel?

  5. Karyn Jacobs
    Karyn Jacobs says:

    The word is “orientation”, not tendency or attraction.
    We have one Son with a heterosexual orientation and one Son with a homosexual orientation.
    Listen to the parents!
    We love them both equally.

    • bwelch3
      bwelch3 says:

      Karyn, thanks for your input and comment. You are most correct. That’s why parents are so important in the process.

      I invite you to peruse my post above. It contains more details on synod issues.

      Peace, blessings, best wishes to you and your family.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] 2.o posts about the debate on language at the synod, please click here and here and […]

  2. […] I mentioned him in an earlier post from the synod, when he first caught my eye because of some positive remarks he made about lesbian and gay couples.  But, more recently, he has expanded on an important theme that has emerged here at the synod:  a move to less judgmental church language about marriage, family, and sexuality.  I have to admit that when I first heard about this idea, I was more than a little skeptical.  It sounded like trying to dress up old concepts in different terms as a way to attract people.  It also sounded like a theme we have heard a lot of from U.S. bishops, namely, that if church leaders would just present traditional teaching more effectively, people would start accepting it. […]

  3. […] Source: Will Language Be the Only Thing That the Synod Updates? | Bondings 2.0 […]

  4. […] Source: Will Language Be the Only Thing That the Synod Updates? | Bondings 2.0 […]

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