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.
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, 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