Not All Synod Bishops Agree That a Change in Language Would Be Helpful

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.

As I review the blog entries I have posted from here in Rome, I’m afraid that I might be giving folks too positive a view of the synod, especially about discussions around LGBT issues.  There have been a lot of positive messages coming from the synod fathers, no doubt, but I hope I am not giving the impression that those are the only messages that have been expressed here.


Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier

For example, while I  have presented some proposals for making language about sexual ethics and marriage rules more pastoral and inclusive,  that doesn’t mean that all bishops agree with those proposals. At yesterday’s press briefing, Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, OFM, of Durban, South Africa, was asked a pointed question from a reporter who obviously disagreed with any language changes:  “Can you tell me what specific wording, if any, has been suggested for replacing the term ‘intrinsically evil’ [in regard to homosexual acts]?”

Napier’s direct answer was that he couldn’t give any specific wording, particularly because the official synod report will be issued in Italian.  But, then, he went further:

“I think when we look at the problems that we have been studying during these two weeks, there are two possibilities.  The one is to look at it from the pastoral point of view where you are trying to reach out to people and to minister to them.  The other one which has been de-emphasized during this time, even at the synod last year, is the prophetic, where like John the Baptist you say “You’ve got to repent and these are the sins,” and you name them as they are. I think that’s the difference.  This has certainly been a very much more pastoral synod, looking at how can the Church be a servant, a minister to those people in difficult situations. There’s been a lot of emphasis on using language that doesn’t offend, politically correct language, if you like.  I’m not sure that that’s the best way to be prophetic. It is certainly a way of trying to be more pastoral.”

Napier’s answer indicates that he is not happy with a language that is weighted to the pastoral, and has a preference for including language that is more judgmental, which he sees as prophetic.

How many other synod bishops agree with Napier?  Now, that’s a good question!  It’s hard to say since not many have spoken out about the language issue.  But, especially since Napier is a vice-president of the synod, it would seem likely that he has some followers for his ideas.

Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, seems to be in line with Napier’s approach of wanting to maintain a strict judgmental dimension to the way bishops approach family issues. In his official intervention at the synod, he stated:

“Too many have lost confidence in Jesus’s doctrines and doubt or deny that mercy is found in his hard moral teachings. The crucified Jesus was not afraid to confront society, and he was crucified for his pains, teaching his followers that life is a moral struggle that requires sacrifices, and his followers cannot always take the easy options. He did not tell the adulterous woman to continue in her good work, but to repent and sin no more. The Prodigal Son acknowledged his sins before he returned home.”

Both stress the difficulty of following Jesus.  Though didn’t Jesus say, “My yoke is easy and my burden light” ?

A more middle-ground position on the use of a more pastoral approach to language came from Washington, DC’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl.  Although not addressing the topic of changing terminology, Wuerl did discuss the need for church leaders to be more sensitive with their communication style. In a National Catholic Reporter interview, Wuerl laid out his views about language and accompaniment:

” ‘The church’s teaching is quite clear,’ said Wuerl. ‘But the church’s pastoral life is the application of the teaching to where people are. And that’s always been the pastoral challenge of the church.’

” ‘You have to speak with clarity, but then knowing what the fullness of the teaching is, you go out and meet people where they are,” he continued. “And the Holy Father keeps saying to us, “Accompany them.” ‘

” ‘You don’t go out to meet people where they are to scold them,” he said. “You go out to bring them the truth but sometimes to be heard you have to let the person know you know their struggle if you’re going to accompany them at all.’ . . .

” ‘You have to listen in order to know how to say what you want to say so that you’ll be heard,’ said Wuerl.

” ‘I think that’s what the tension is between those who put the greatest emphasis on simply saying it — and saying it over and over again — and those who are saying if it’s not being heard, we have to go out and begin to listen so that we know how to say this in a way it will be heard,’ he said. ‘That’s the difference. In neither case are we changing the teaching.’ “

While certainly not in the same camp as Napier,  Wuerl’s approach also differs substantially from the one described by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, outlined in yesterday’s Bondings 2.0 blog post.  Wuerl has a much clearer stand about holding onto the teaching. He strikes me as someone who just wants church ministers to be more welcoming, but he doesn’t seem ready to me to give up the terminology and categories that official doctrine uses.

Along the same lines as Wuerl is the opinion of Archbishop Thomas Msusa, of Malawi’s Blantyre archdiocese.  In a National Catholic Reporter interview, he stated:

” ‘Pastorally, we have to be very sympathetic with them,’ said Msusa. ‘But according to the teaching of the church, we don’t see us blessing’ same-sex unions.

” ‘In our Christian heritage we received from the missionaries, there is nothing of that inclusive language,’ said the archbishop. ‘And there’s a proverb in Africa that says we have to really be careful because they say: “We shouldn’t be so quick to destroy the fence before understanding why that fence was constructed.” ‘”

” ‘We shouldn’t be afraid to tell the truth, even if sometimes it is painful,’ said Msusa. ‘That is what St. Paul tells Timothy: Tell them, whether they accept it or not. But you have to tell them.’ “

So, the discussion on language and communication has actually been quite wide-ranging, surfacing a variety of opinions.  Cardinal John Dew of Wellington, New Zealand, was one of the first people to raise the issue, calling for less judgmental terminology, and he serves on the commission to write the synod report. We will have to see if his ideas gt translated into the report’s recommendations, and, if they do, if they will be voted for by a majority of the bishops.  As a synod document is only consultative, not definitive, it will then remain up to Pope Francis whether to institute any of the recommendations.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry





6 replies
  1. Loretta Fitzgerald
    Loretta Fitzgerald says:

    Dear Francis, I can’t speak for others, but I find that you have been finding the needle in the haystack regarding your blogs from the Vatican. The concern that you may have been too optimistic regarding the changing attitudes is not true. We are aware of the entrenched attitudes and thinking of most of the bishops. But what you have done is to find the mustard seed that is there.
    Regarding those (likely the majority) who defend their position in Church teaching, I find it most interesting that in doing so they say things like “being faithful to the prophetic words of John the Baptist who cries out, Repent!” and “being faithful to the teachings of Jesus.” What they DON’T say is anything specific against one’s natural orientation that Jesus taught, which of course we know they can’t because it isn’t there. In short, those who see our sons, daughters, friends as intrinsically disordered by virtue of their God given call to love and be loved rely on THEIR words in the CCC and not the inspired living words of sacred Scripture.
    They tie up heavy burdens on us that they themselves can’t carry.
    Finally, I see a parallel between their position on divorce and LGBTQ folks, that is, in both cases they hold up the ideal of a perfect marriage and when good, faithful people of God cannot live up to the ideal they try to cut us off from the Church by word and holding the sacraments hostage. Divorce is a sad and painful reality. It is no more sin than cancer is a sin. I am divorced. It was a difficult marriage and we both worked hard at it for 32 years. He left. It hurt like hell, but it was time. My son is gay. It is cause for great joy. There is no pain or sorrow in his orientation and the committed love he shares with his husband. But the bishops “think” the ideal is marriage between a man and a woman. It isn’t. I know. I tried.
    Thank you for being there and searching for the pearl.

  2. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Regarding Cardinal Wuerl’s statement at the Synod about the challenge to uphold hierarchical standards and getting to know his flock, he doesn’t have that problem at his home in Washington, DC. Since its origin Dignity/Washington has been held at arm’s length by the leaders of the Washington DC archdiocese. There have been multiple written exchanges since the 1970’s with D/W wanting to have a meeting with those who condemn us. However, we always received the same excuse that for any member of the hierarchy to be seen with D/W would lead to public confusion about the stance of the church’s disapproval of Dignity’s belief that same sex love can be unitive, life enhancing, and part of God’s creation. Since 2009 there have been two meetings with archdiocesan staff members in public coffee houses with little more than generalities being discussed. There was also the realization by the diocese that D/W members in fact love the church something they have stated and lived out since they started in 1972.

    In July this year following a statement by Cardinal Wuerl that Pope Francis was encouraging his ministers to be more open to meeting their flocks where they live, we sent a letter of invitation to him to see D/W at worship and to get to know us. This past week we received a response from a diocese staffer that again raises the specter of scandal, that being in the same space with us, was too grave a threat to the Church’s stance of condemnation to consider. The response shows little change from previous letters — with almost the same wording. Interestingly it was the threat of scandal that was used as an excuse to cover-up clergy sex abuse situations for many decades. Perhaps it is time to realize that facing truth and examining it would be a more honorable path. Following are the text’s of the letter from D/W President Daniel Barutta to Cardinal Wuerl and a reply from an archdiocesan staff member.

    Daniel Barutta

    The text of the letters can be found below.

    Letter to Cardinal Wuerl
    July 22, 2015

    Cardinal Wuerl

    P.O. Box 29260
    Washington, DC 20017
    Dear Cardinal Wuerl,

    I noted your statement from a recent news conference where you commented, “Pope Francis has been more inclusive. He keeps saying, ‘Go out. Go out and meet people where they are. And in that encounter, walk with them, accompany them. I think that’s what the church is saying. We all need to walk together as we try to make our way closer to God.’ ” In this new spirit of openness which has energized the Church we all love, we invite you to join Dignity/Washington (DC’s largest LGBT Catholic group) as we celebrate a Catholic Mass at St. Margaret’s Episcopal church on Connecticut Ave. on any Sunday evening at 6:00 PM or at the social following Mass at 7:15 PM. We regularly see you walking by the church on your Sunday evening walk and kindly invite you to come in some evening. You can schedule a visit or just drop in. We have met in the past with Dr. Susan Timoney and Fr. Richard Kramer, but those meetings were conversations in public coffee houses, never opportunities to experience us as we gather as a community around the altar and in fellowship.

    We love the Scriptures, and our Liturgy, and the Faith tradition that has shaped our lives. Indeed, although we have been exiled from Catholic buildings and rejected by Catholic leaders because we want to live our sexuality openly and without apologies, we are still Catholic and we still look to you for leadership. That is why we invite you, in the words of Jesus to his first disciples, to “Come and see” (John 1:39). When the Church has made pronouncements about homosexuality and the LGBT community, they have done so from a distance. Despite the high percentage of gay clergy – or perhaps because of it – Vatican and hierarchical statements about homosexuality and the LGBTQ community have felt like an intellectual exercise in the Catholic theories of natural law and scriptural exegesis, and not, as we are. “Intrinsic disorders” may be a legitimate philosophical category, but it is not a label to put on brothers and sisters. We are, like you and all Catholics, human beings who fall in love and want to grow old surrounded by friends and family.

    Please join us in the breaking of the bread and know us as the Apostles recognized Christ at Emmaus. We look forward to sharing time with you.

    In the Christ’s Peace.

    Daniel Barutta

    Response from the Arch Diocese
    September 3, 201 5
    Mr. Daniel Barutta President
    P.O. Box 15279 Washington, DC 20003
    Dear M r. Barutta,

    Grace and peace to you in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
    Thank you for your July 22, 201 5 letter to Cardinal Wuerl, and please forgive the delay in this response.

    I am glad to know that you have met with Dr. Susan Timoney and Fr. Richard Kramer. Although I trust that these meetings provided opportunities for conversation in a spirit of friendship, I believe that there remains a fundamental disagreement concerning what it means to live as a faithful Catholic in the area of sexuality.

    As the very name of your community conveys, all persons have inherent dignity as bearers of the image of God, willed and loved into being by him. Is it correct that your community is founded upon the assertion that the Catholic Church’s teaching on chastity is inconsistent with her affirmation of the dignity of all? The Church ‘s teaching magisterium does not accept this assertion, and attendance at a gathering such as the one you propose could symbolically communicate the opposite, thereby causing confusion. There are many persons who live with same-sex attraction and who believe that the Church ‘s teaching on chastity leads us to better understand our God-given dignity and its relationship to the meaning of sexuality and love.

    It is clear that issues regarding sexuality are sensitive, touching personal identity and affecting friendships and family relations. I also acknowledge that it can be a challenge to find the best language to convey the Church ‘s teaching. Many persons have been treated badly by others in the body of Christ, and this I sincerely regret. However , every Catholic has the responsibility to seek communion with the Church and to believe what the Church believes. Each one of us is called to the same standard of l life in following Jesus Christ and opening our hearts to the divine love that he reveals. H is love is an invitation to all who seek “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

    Dr. Timoney and Fr. Kramer continue to welcome conversation with you, and may you know the grace and blessings of Our Lord as you seek to follow him.

    Sincerely in Christ,

    William W . Gorman
    Associate Moderator of the Curia

  3. Friends
    Friends says:

    Daniel wrote (to Cardinal Wuerl): “Interestingly it was the threat of scandal that was used as an excuse to cover-up clergy sex abuse situations for many decades.” Absolutely BANG ON as criticism and truthful insight. In some ways — too many — the leadership of the RCC has never moved beyond the intrigues and scandals of the Borgia Popes, and has taken the same approach to those scandals festering within the hierarchy — which is to DENY THEM AND BURY THEM. This is no way to run a Church which purportedly looks for its Guidance to the radical truth-telling of Jesus Himself. We all know the ultimate price Jesus paid for speaking truth to the controlling agents of political power in His own time. How long can this official “corruption by denial” continue within the Church? God only knows — literally. But “speaking truth to entrenched and corrupted hierarchical power” continues to be the prime task for all those who wish to follow the teachings and the examples which were set for us by Jesus Himself.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] to our language in speaking about homosexual persons. . . .I am especially grateful to New Zealand Cardinal John Dew who made a fervent plea to examine our ecclesial language of ‘intrinsically disordered’ […]

  2. […] will not be satisfactory. At one of the synod’s press briefings, even the very conservative Cardinal Wilfrid Napier Fox  of South Africa […]

  3. […] Not All Synod Bishops Agree That a Change in Language Would Be Helpful […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *