After Synod on the Family, Catholic Church Faced with Choice on LGBT Issues

Rev. James Martin, SJ

Rev. James Martin, SJ

The Synod on the Family is over and Catholics await the possibility that Pope Francis will write an apostolic exhortation on family life derived from the bishops’ deliberations. Many are curious whether the pope’s document will mirror the Final Report or deviate away towards a much hoped for, more merciful approach. Below are more reactions to the synod, and you can find Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of the Synod on the Family here.

At the moment, the church finds itself with a pastoral choice according to Jesuit Fr. James Martin. In an essay in Time magazine, he wrote about the church’s current “inclusion problem.”

The choice, in an overly simplified form, Martin wrote, is between a “John the Baptist method” which “asks for conversion as a prerequisite for joining the community” and the “Jesus method” where it is “community first, conversion second” as the story of Zacchaeus displays. The former seeks purification, the latter stress mercy. These are “helpful templates” for the church today, said Martin, who observed:

“As I see it, the movement for Jesus was always from the outside-in. He went out to those who were officially excluded or who felt excluded—in his time, that meant primarily the sick and the sinful—and brought them in. He restored them to the community. This is something the church may need to do more of: welcome, meet people where they are, and listen. Certainly conversion is in order for everyone—including me. But how can we change hearts if we don’t welcome them first?”

The National Catholic Reporter‘s editorial on the Synod highlighted how some voices were absent, including those of LGBT people. This choice to not meet people where they are and listen to stories left the deliberations seriously deficient, said the editors. Commenting on Pope Francis’ desire for the church to journey together, they wrote:

“It is essential to note here that the sense of ‘together’ is yet missing a significant component. . .[W]hile there may have been a more respectful tone when speaking about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, there was no attempt to actually consult members of that portion of the Catholic community.”

The editorial ended by noting the “kind of change possible” in the church after this Synod, saying the final report posits “a radically decentralized understanding of church authority” and “equally momentous change” in bishops’ self-perception.

Massimo Faggioli

If and how change emerges from the synod will depend, in part, on how the meeting is received by the people of God, according to one expert. Theologian Massimo Faggioli took up the question of reception, now applicable to synodal processes, in Commonweal where he wrote:

“The reception of councils and church teachings involves the laity and the sensus fidelium: without the laity there is no reception in the synodal Church. But it will be most interesting to see how the reception of this Synod and of Francis’s post-synodal exhortation and decisions will be the fruit of the work of the bishops.”

If legal scholar Douglas Kmiec’s reading of the Synod is any indication, reform-minded Catholics may not gladly receive the Synod’s report or Pope Francis’ possible upcoming apostolic exhortation. He wrote at the National Catholic Reporter:

“The synod’s brief discourse of same-sex marriage is equally hurtful [as its treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics]. It is a cruel hoax to say that the church is welcoming of those of same-sex orientation and yet in the same breath not give any acknowledgment of the poignancy of that human relationship.  Is it not an extraordinary act of love for one human being to say to another: ‘I want to walk with you, to be your support, to care for you in illness and to share in your joys?’ That statement is no less extraordinary when it is made between two of the same gender. When the church declares itself closed and disapproving of such relationship, it separates itself from the welcoming nature of Christ, and instead, sets itself up as judge with a standard that is disregarding of the Thomistic advice not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

In Kmiec’s estimation, at this point, Pope Francis and the Synod Fathers have answered the question, “Who am I to judge?” with “We will.”

Robert Mickens

In terms of how the synod will affect the bishops, Robert Mickens of the National Catholic Reporter suggested the Synod’s real outcome was the outing of bishops’ real views before Pope Francis. Such acts clarify what reform in the church will really mean going forward. Mickens explained:

“In other words, the pope has gotten to know the bishops much better and is now in a stronger position to distinguish those who are on board with his vision of renewing and reforming the church from those who are not.

“But if the more than 250 bishops (there were also non-bishop synod fathers) who were at this latest synod assembly are truly representative of the worldwide episcopate, Francis may have a difficult road ahead.”

Worth noting is Pope Francis’ continuing transformation of the episcopate with more pastorally-focused and merciful prelates replacing conservative predecessors. John Allen of Crux notes two such appointments coming just days after the Synod’s conclusion.

In Bologna, Italy, he replaced a hard-line conservative with “Matteo Maria Zuppi, well-known in the city of Rome as a fixture in the center-leftCommunity of Sant’Egidio, known for its work in ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and conflict resolution.”  In Palermo, Francis “tapped 53-year-old Corrado Lorefice, another figure well known in Italian ecclesiastical circles for his anti-Mafia activism, his efforts on behalf of the victims of prostitution and human trafficking, and his writings on the Church’s “option for the poor.”

These replacements, as has been noted from early on in his papacy, may be Francis’ lasting impact on the church and may clear a path for more inclusive LGBT pastoral care.

Sidney Callahan

Sidney Callahan wrote in America about what the Synod means not for the institutional church, but for families and added a historical reminder helpful for Catholic families hurt by or divided over current church teachings:

“The Christian family is proclaimed in Catholic teaching as ‘the domestic church.’ How fitting then that after the recent synod Catholic families can be more closely modeled on Vatican II’s more open vision of the church. Families too can be inspired to be more accepting, inclusive, just and personally responsive to individual conscience. . .

“Unfortunately in the course of human history, Christian values were often distorted, co-opted and overthrown by powerful regimes. . .In many of these struggles those on the side of core Christian values might have to oppose established powers, including the church.”

The Synod’s failure to invite women to participate fully generated much criticism.  Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese’s question about why a lay brother was allowed to vote, but no woman religious (who would be canonically equal to a lay brother), written about in America, is one example. As Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson has suggested on several occasions, the Catholic Church will not evolve on LGBT equality without also evolving on equality for women.

Questions of gender justice in the church are certainly worth consideration by LGBT advocates. One adviser, Sr. Carmen Sammut, who heads the International Union of Superiors General, raised an interesting point about the bishops’ deliberations compared with the institutional discernment processes common to women religious’ communities. She told the National Catholic Reporter:

” ‘For me, the weakness for this method was that there was no real time allowed for a real discernment process. . .When you have such very big differences, how do you bring all that together?’ “

She added there was “no ideal family out there,” asking a question pertinent to all Catholics as we come to understand, affirm, and support families in their diversity:

” ‘How do you become free enough to go beyond fear?’ “

So what is next for LGBT Catholics? Will the church, its leaders and its families alike, be able to move beyond fear into the freedom of the Gospel where all people are welcomed, nourished, and celebrated?

GLAAD hosted a Google Hangout recently to discuss the topic of the future of the Catholic LGBT movement in the wake of the synod, welcoming Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry, Marianne Duddy-Burke of DignityUSA, and Ross Murray and Janet Quezada of GLAAD to the conversation. You can watch the discussion below or by clicking here.

What do you think? Is the choice for the church between the “John the Baptist method” and the “Jesus method”? Will Catholics receive the Synod’s report? Are bishops changing their tone? What is next for LGBT Catholics and their families? Let us know in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

13 replies
  1. Brian Kneeland
    Brian Kneeland says:

    My only hope is that Francis remembers the first meeting of the Synod and then writes something kinder and gentler for LGBT members and for anyone in families suffering!

  2. John Calhoun
    John Calhoun says:

    In his paper “Sexual Relationships; Where Does Our Morality Come From?” (, Bishop Geoffrey James Robinson, Emeritus Auxiliary of Sydney, Australia begins: “The thesis of this paper is in three parts: 1. There is no possibility whatsoever of a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject of homosexual acts unless and until there is first a change in its teaching on heterosexual acts; 2. There is a serious need for change in the Church’s teaching on heterosexual acts; 3. If and when this change occurs, it will inevitably have its effect on (its) teaching on homosexual acts.”

    My own observation is that Bishop Robinson is correct in his thesis; that the Church’s teaching on human sexuality is seriously deficient both in its understanding of human sexuality as such and in its relationship to the Gospel and of our goal of coming ever closer to God in Jesus, the Christ.

    How the Church as a whole and the episcopacy in particular grapples with Bishop Robinson’s observations remains unclear and unspoken in or out of Synod or Council.

  3. Diane McKinley
    Diane McKinley says:

    We must continue the conversation in our churches, or start it if we’ve been silent. Speak from love, speak with frankness with other church members; we must speak with our priests, offer the help and support that only we can offer. Have courage, listen to the Holy Spirit, he is at work in us.

  4. David Lange
    David Lange says:

    Does not this dichotomy apply to broader societal issues as well? White police & black youths – control vs. encouragement? Homelessness – hide the problem vs. support the victims? Economic injustice – exploitation vs. teaching & fairness?

  5. Paula Mattras
    Paula Mattras says:

    As long as bishops do not want to learn from prime sources (LGBT) or research, I do not see much movement there. When I think of those like Sister Jeannine Gramick, the late Father Bob Nugent and Frank DeBernardo (and others equally committed – too numerous to name here) who have toiled tirelessly over many years to educate and advocate because justice, love and mercy are their motivation, I do believe there will be acceptance in the future. Good comes from God and good will come from good. We are all God’s children, made in His image and likeness. When one absorbs that, it teaches one that the image and likeness of God must have a very broad spectrum as we can cite many differences in all. I know how much I love my son and also know there are many like him whose parents have rejected them, thrown them out of their homes, because of teaching on the subject absorbed without critical thinking. “Love one another as I have loved you” was not an offhand comment. It was a loving command. I pray for enlightenment for all.

  6. Anton
    Anton says:

    This reminds me of two stories about differences of approach”
    A man who had been avoiding church for years happened to run into his pastor downtown. He couldn’t avoid him, so when he met him he said: “Father, you know why I don’t come to church any more?” “No, why?”
    “It’s full of hypocrites!” “You’re right! But there’s always room for one more.”

    A man who hadn’t been to synagogue in a long time ran into the rabbi downtown. Same thing. “Rabbi, give me ONE good reason I should attend synagogue on Shabbat!” “We MISS YOU!”

  7. Ned Flaherty
    Ned Flaherty says:

    Here are three clear examples showing that what LGBT people and their families think, and how they feel and live and die, simply doesn’t matter to the Vatican.

    1. The U.S. bishops withheld the 2014 survey from American Catholics, and instead substituted their own fabricated answers when forwarding summary results back to Rome. The Vatican allowed the American bishops to do this.

    2. No credible authorities on LGBT issues were allowed to present or publish any information during the year-long Synod.

    3. If those who want to keep the final Synod report an eternal secret prevail, then they will have made the entire Synod ineffective, and, in effect, nonexistent. Any outcome that is never communicated to the people it most affects is, indeed, no outcome at all.

  8. Fiona Bowie
    Fiona Bowie says:

    As a non-Catholic Christian I don’t really understand why LGBT Roman Catholics feel the need to spend so much time and emotional energy trying to convince church hierarchies of their right to exist. It seems to me that the rigidity and conservatism of the Church still leaves those on the edge feeling guilty, less worthy, or apologetic. Perhaps it is not a fight worth having? The bishops are not the church, after all, and history shows how self-serving they can be and how often officialdom, in Jesus’s day as well as our own, gets it wrong. If you follow Christ you are Christians, and don’t need a Pope or synod to affirm your right to be who you are.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Yes, Fiona, I personally (and strongly) agree with you, and I’ve posted similar sentiments in the past. But it was pointed out to me, by responding community members, that if your job (i.e., your livelihood) is within a Catholic institution (such as a school or hospital), and if you dissent publicly from very strict and stifling Catholic Orthodoxy, you can be FIRED from your job for speaking your mind. And so the real conflict centers on employment issues, as well as on the embargo of normal spousal benefits for same-sex married couples. Why would someone even WANT to work for a hateful and vindictive employer, such as the Catholic Church is quite capable of being, when it’s behaving at its very worst? Good question. But employment and spousal benefits are largely the crux of the social conflict.

  9. Anton
    Anton says:

    Thank you, Fiona. You’re right on. The relationship with Jesus is what’s important, not the relationship with the church’s hierarchs. It took, what?, 400 years for the hierarchs to admit Galileo was right? It reminds me of the cartoon of the two dinosaurs on an little island and the ark of Noah a distance away already. The caption: Oh, that was today????? LOL


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