Below is the next installment of 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.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias is Archbishop of Bombay, the head of India’s National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of nine cardinal advisors from around the globe. In the last few years, he has emerged as one of the leading international advocates for better pastoral and civil care of LGBT people. He was the only religious leader in India who opposed an initiative to recriminalize LGBT people, has urged his priests to be more sensitive in their language about LGBT people, spoke out for better pastoral care during last year’s extraordinary synod, and met with the Chair of Quest, the United Kingdom’s Catholic LGBT group.
He is here in Rome for the synod, and I had the pleasure of sitting down with him, one-on-one, for a brief interview on Sunday night to talk about the pastoral outreach to LGBT people, criminalization laws, church doctrine and language, and his own personal journey.
In the last couple of years, you’ve made some very positive gestures in regard to LGBT people. In what ways has your understanding of LGBT people evolved over the years and how did that happen?
Initially it began with involvement in civil law with banning homosexuality. I felt that was not right–indiscriminately putting everybody in same category. Therefore, I spoke, saying the Church was not in favor of this. This was a bit of a surprise to many people because of what they think the Church teaches. You must make a distinction with an individual, who is absolutely part of the Church, who we must care for, and who might have a [homosexual] orientation. You can’t put them in chains, or say we have no responsibility whatsoever. The law was struck down, but now it’s back again.
Subsequently, I met a few people also. I realized their goodness, that many people do not realize. They are often painted one way and the images are bad. My own view is that the Church has to be all-embracing, inclusive. and take care of everybody. Our moral principles are clear. I would be too worried that we are breaking our moral code or that the Church’s principles are shattered because we say that we are pastoral. The Catechism has said also that they must be cared for. Some people say you are going too far.
In one way, it’s very Catholic position to welcome. To not be welcoming is wrong.
To not be welcoming would not be a Catholic attitude. It would not be Christ’s attitude, certainly. We have to be very compassionate, understanding, and open to people.
When I read about your stand on the civil law, I read that you were the only religious leader in India to oppose re-criminalization. How did you find the courage to be the only one?
I was convinced. I think gradually others will come to see what I am saying. It’s so clear in my mind. This is what the Church would want. I’m convince that eventually it will be de-criminalized. It’s a question of time.
Did you receive a backlash or criticism for your stand?
Not much. There were a few. There were some theologians who said they disagreed with me. But that was an intellectual discussion, and I was happy about that because it allowed me to sharpen my thoughts on the matter. But there was no campaign against what I said.
In the U.S. we have many parishes who have set up ministries of welcome to LGBT people. What advice would you give to those parishes and pastors working with LGBT people?
I honestly would think that they would know more than me. From experience, you always learn how to do things pastorally. Homosexuality is not fully out of the closet in India. The atmosphere is not so open in the civil society to be able to have people openly come and declare themselves. As a matter of fact a gay association asked me if I would say Mass for them. I said, “Absolutely. No difficulty whatsoever. I said to them they should keep in mind that they would suddenly be coming out into the open. For me, it’s not a problem.
Do you see any gifts that lesbian and gay people bring to the Church?
I haven’t met enough to make a generalization. But the people I have met have impressed me very much by their sincerity , wanting to help the Church, generosity, Is this specific to them or just because they happen to be who they are? So, I can’t generalize. But all I have met have been good people, wanting to dedicate themselves to work for the Church. When I say “for the Church, ” I mean “for people, through the Church’s charities.”
Let’s talk about the synod. Do you think there is going to be any progress made on lesbian and gay issues this year?
I can see there is a great hesitation from the synod fathers to really touch this topic. Therefore, I can see that the synod will probably say that we must receive them in pastoral care. Full stop. Something very gentle and limited. I don’t expect us to be able to say very much more specific on this.
Do you think it would be possible for the synod to make a statement about criminalization since that is happening around the globe?
I feel clear about it and strongly about it. One of the criticisms of the synod is that it is too Euro-centric, and we are carefully looking into that. It’s difficult at this stage to start shifting the whole focus. I’m saying this because I know that Africa is very sensitive about this topic. There’s very clearly a North American-European stance on this topic. How we as a Church, as the universal Church, can take something on board, is something that we have to consider. That is really key.
How about language? There’s been reports that some bishops are proposing getting rid of words like “disorder” and “evil” in relation to LGBT people?
It should be done gently. I’m glad you brought this up. I think there would be an acceptance of saying “Let’s use gentler language, not judgemental language.” The response to this view is “Are you condoning it?” I personally feel that it would help us to have a more clear, objective view of this matter.
Would it have been helpful to the bishops for lesbian and gay people, couples, to speak to the synod the way married couples have spoken?
Personally, I would have thought it would have been an enrichment. I would have been happy to hear them, and I think that it would help all the synod fathers to understand. I think most have never had direct contact or discussion. I have a feeling about that. For them, it’s just a theoretical opinion, but you really don’t come down to the person. When you really see a person,you speak to a person, and understand the anxiety. I often think about what Our Lord’s approach be in that circumstances: sympathetic, understanding.
The whole thing about the origin of sexual orientation has not been studied in-depth. Some say that it’s a choice. I see that it is not a choice for many people, so it’s not fair to say it is. In that sense, we are not open enough.
In my ministry with LGBT people, I meet a lot of LGBT people who are thinking of leaving the Church or finding it difficult to stay in the Church. What would you say to them?
I would say the Church embraces you, wants you, and the Church needs you. You are not someone who is a burden to the Church. The Church needs you. You are part of us. We’d like to help you, we’d like to see you more clearly. We are struggling to see how to help you more with pastoral care
I’d also say, “Don’t get discouraged.” At the last synod there was just one official intervention on this topic; in group discussions it would come out much more. This time there were a few more. So, I would say to[LGBT people], “Hold on. It is certainly not the end. We are still in the process, and we will find a way.
What advice would you give other bishops who may be opposed to any changes on LGBT people?
I would say to the bishops to meet with people. That’s important. Meet with people. That would help us–and me also– to see flesh and blood–that this is not an academic problem but a real problem. It’s not an academic case where you say “A equals B, and B equals C.” There are so many ramifications.
I would say to them that the Church is an all-embracing mother. The Church is mother and teacher. The mother does not send her children away, no matter what.
You gave me a chill when you said that last sentence. It was beautiful. In the. U.S. Church one of the biggest groups that pushes for the rights of LGBT people are the mothers and the fathers. We say they are a bridge because they are very dedicated to the Church and very dedicated to their children.
The parents suffer a lot, but they understand their children. So we can’t be legalistic. We cannot change church teaching or doctrine. I’m not sure we have the final word. We have to continuously study ourselves: Scripture, morality, canon law to see what we could do.
Thank you for your time. I’m sure you are very busy.
When we first started, I said “Why are we having a synod for three weeks?” Now, I’m saying, “Three weeks is not enough!”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry