SYNOD 2015: Reading Tea Leaves As the End Approaches

In just a few days, the Synod on the Family will conclude after three weeks of deliberations. What outcome or impact all of this will have in the church as the bishops depart Rome and return to their local churches is less apparent.


Bishops and cardinals in the synod hall. (Francis DeBernardo Photograph)

Many tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of words have been written by the English-speaking journalists and commentators alone, who now turn their attention to outcomes. Below are several observations from outside of Rome particularly relevant to LGBT issues. You can find Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage from Rome by clicking here.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is predicting a negative outcome, writing in the National Catholic Reporter about five reasons he believes doomed the synod from its start. These include: family being too broad a topic, the absence of theologians, to the synodal process itself. In another National Catholic Reporter column, Reese identifies homosexuality as one of only two issues about which there is deep divide among bishops (the other being admission to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics). He wrote:

“Let’s be clear: No bishop is talking about blessing gay marriages. Nor are any bishops talking about the positive aspects of these relationships as they did at the last synod.

“But some bishops would like the church to stop using terms like ‘intrinsically disordered,’ which is heard as demeaning by gays. Even language such as ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ is seen by some bishops as not helpful since sexuality is experienced as intrinsic to a person’s identity.”

Language matters, as Archbishop Mark Coleridge’s statements covered earlier this week suggested, but even on language some bishops remain “obsessive in their opposition to homosexuality.” Reese writes of the U.S. bishop’s 1997 document, Always Our Children:

“This 18-year-old document is light years ahead of where many of the synod fathers are today. The American bishops pretty much ignore it also, wishing it had not be approved but are afraid to disown it.”

Reese’s best hope is that, though ending in disagreement, the synod process begun by Pope Francis will mean these issues are not failures but remain unfinished business. Whether Pope Francis can keep it going is questionable, however, because in Reese’s opinion, “Never in my lifetime have I heard of bishops and cardinals being so disrespectful of a pope.”

Grant Gallicho of Commonweal noted that some view a commission or study group enacted by Francis as the next logical step for contentious issues. It is “highly unlikely,” according to Gallicho, that any document will “include definitive language on any of the contested issues,” but bishops discussing these issues openly and collaboratively may yet bear fruit.

Robert Mickens of the National Catholic Reporter posited that it seems “inevitable that the role of the Synod of Bishops will have to be further developed to play a more incisive role in universal governance. One could even imagine it becoming the main structure through which the Bishop of Rome governs, over and above the Roman Curia.” Future questions on LGBT matters or over who can receive Communion may be addressed in issue-specific synods, as one of the small language groups had suggested.

Another outcome, analyzed by Crux’s John Allen, is the prospect of decentralized decision-making on contentious pastoral issues. In this scenario, national or regional bishops conferences would be free to act or not based on their contexts. In short, “The pope could decide to opt for decentralization, but do so in a highly centralized fashion.” A further piece in Crux features nearly a dozen bishop’s thoughts on decentralization, which you can read here. Whether decentralization would be positive for LGBT issues in the church is a question  discussed partially in a Bondings 2.0 post last week.

The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein suggested that, regardless of the synod’s outcome, Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy and inclusion is already having an effect. For example, she cited London’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols who said England and Wales’ seminaries are already revising curricula to emphasize mercy and help future priests deal with the diversity of modern families. In his words, “we’re getting to something that goes much deeper, beyond intellect. We are moving institutionally in that direction.”

Similarly, theologian Massimo Faggioli told the National Catholic Reporter that Pope Francis is shifting the church’s approach to sexuality, Faggioli has a caveat:

“The idea of the pontificate of mercy is also about the healing of wounds. . .The most dangerous wound in the body of the church in this country is that mentality that there is no common ground between different cultures in the church especially on below–the-belt issues.”

Faggioli’s observations have been, in my opinion, some of the best this synod. You can read more of his thoughts in an essay at America.

The clearest outcome will be a final document promulgated by the synod, although, as John Allen notes in Crux, the audience, content, and release date remain unclear. Of the 10 prelates tasked with drafting this document, only Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias is notably more LGBT-positive as his recent interview with Bondings 2.0 shows. You can access a full list here. In the meantime, an editorial in the National Catholic Reporter said bishops involved should “relish the uncertainty,” writing:

“How revolutionary would a synod document be that says: ‘We cannot reach a global census on many issues, but we rejoice in that diversity and pledge not to let differences divide us.’ The Catholics in London and Lusaka would have to trust each other, even when they disagree. The pilgrim church would continue the journey.”

There is no clear indication of what will happen when the final document is voted on this Saturday. We cannot know whether Pope Francis will issue his own document in a few months. It seems there is no settlement on LGBT inclusion, but perhaps language shifts will be looked upon favorably.  Though these journalists and observers are wise, we should be honest too that much of the commentaries and conjectures are like reading tea leaves. We simply cannot know what will happen.

It is worth noting, too, that the uncertainty is not simply because the process itself lacks a certain transparency (which it does), but because we cannot know the workings of the Holy Spirit in whom we must place trust now. If nothing else, my positive takeaway is that a synod of bishops met and the outcome was totally indeterminable even in the final moments. This is a complete revolution compared to previous synods where, in some cases, final documents were essentially written before the bishops even arrived in Rome. That may not be much, but it is certainly something.

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–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

3 replies
  1. John Calhoun
    John Calhoun says:

    From time to time check the “Frequently Requested Church Statistics” at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate Website . Number of Marriages in 1969 426,309; in 2014 148,134. Somehow I think that reality over time should soothe the present gravity and pain of many a problem. A continuing shrinking clergy, religious, and laity in the pews should make the hierarchy’s puny responses irrelevant. This kind of an immature Church will perish as an effective entity. This is the Merciful Gift of the Holy Spirit .

  2. Gary W. cox
    Gary W. cox says:

    I keep saying I am gone……….. but I keep reading. I have felt welcome at the parish I have attended for the last year. The pastor knew I was gay. I had mentored with a very nice elderly priest who compared me with the prodigal son. I have also been welcomed by the priests / brothers of the Precious Blood. I do not feel wanted or accepted by the church as a whole and likely will not in this lifetime. I have never felt even Baptists were going to hell so I think if I am ever able to attend church on Sunday, I will be more welcomed by Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. I work Sundays so it is Catholic or nothing, has been nothing since the Pope’s visit to the US. Pleas let me know if the Pope is going to let the Ambasador’s trick with the Kim Davis situation just roll off his back. He is the Pope, It is right for him to turn the other cheek. It would also be right for him to send this Archbishop to Siberia to celebrate mass with a few Russians and wild animals. I love the church but all I can do is hit them where it hurts, In the pocket.


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