Memphis, Tennessee’s Bishop Terry Steib, SVD, issued a pastoral letter at the end of January, in which he suggests that Pope Francis’ expected apostolic exhortation on family life may offer a new approach to some controversial issues, including LGBT ministry. The 12-page document also offers advice for how church members can respond to new realities, and for continuing discussion and discernment in the church.
In A Compassionate Response, Steib noted that the pope’s upcoming response to 2015’s synod on the family will most likely affirm church teaching on marriage, but may have some new pastoral directives included. Steib wrote:
“Indications seem to point to the Church adopting a new approach which affirms the teaching about marriage and family that has been handed on to us from the ages, but with a more compassionate approach.”
Steib noted that an example of this new approach would include Francis’ recent reform of the annulment process, but that divorce was not the only controversial topic that may be discussed He described the new reality of marriage equality across the U.S. as another example:
“The Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, ruling on same-sex unions raises many questions. To be sure, in the face of this ruling, the Catholic Church continues to uphold the vocation of matrimony as a free and loving union of one man and one woman in a relationship of permanence and fidelity that is open to children.
“At the same time, we, the Church, uphold an ongoing commitment to the dignity of all persons, including those with same-sex orientation. Referring to persons with same-sex orientation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, ‘They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.’ “
Pope Francis is expected to release his apostolic exhortation in response to the synod before the year is over. One report suggests that it may be released as early as this month, with March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph under the title “Husband of Mary” as a likely opportunity.
Steib introduced his pastoral letter by explaining the reason he wrote it:
“In the spirit of the Year of Mercy and of the Holy Father’s visit to our country this past September, I would like for us to reflect on a number of particular challenges that we now face.”
The first issue he addresses is the change in society’s understanding of marriage over the past 50 years, including the extension of marriage equality, resulting in the Catholic Church and the government now having two different definitions. Steib affirms current church teaching on marriage, but does not spend the letter defending it. Instead his approach seems to be about how Catholics should respond to a society which does not mirror the church’s teachings. Commenting on the homily Pope Francis gave at the synod closing Mass on the Bartimaeus gospel story, Steib asked:
“I wonder how often we miss those opportunities to, ‘bring people into the compassionate Mercy that saves.’ Do we recognize those sacred moments when the Spirit is at work in an individual who is sincerely seeking God—an individual who may look to any one of us for support, for understanding, for accompaniment on the journey of faith? Do we, like Jesus with Bartimaeus, see their yearning and open the door to God’s love and compassion; or are we more likely to point to the reasons we believe they do not yet measure up?”
Steib identifies what he sees as the main cause of what prevents people from doing outreach to those who may be different from them:
“Fear. It is most often the culprit that keeps us from a loving, compassionate response. Fear. It shows up when our natural tendency to reach out to someone is paralyzed by misunderstanding and misconception. Fear. It undermines our freedom to trust that God is at work in another human being, and to recognize that our first and overall response must be to love and respect the invitation of God to and in that person.”
The bishop noted Francis’ call for the Catholic Church to transform itself into an institution that is more open to new directions:
“Pope Francis pointed out that if the Church is to be a teaching church, it must also be equally and at the same time a learning church. ‘The “sensus fidei” (sense of faith) makes it impossible to rigidly separate the “ecclesia docens” (teaching church) and the “ecclesia discens” (learning church) because even the flock has a “nose” for discerning the new paths that the Lord is opening up to the church.’ Here the pope shines a light on the call of a pilgrim church to move forward into new territory, and with open eyes, to see a new horizon ahead. Such a mission, he insists, must be thoroughly collegial at all levels. This is essential in creating the oasis of mercy.”
Steib offers advice for how to make the church more like this new reality:
“Perhaps the first virtue of listening is a profound humility, acknowledging that, for the time being, we “see in a mirror dimly,” and that at the moment, “… we know only in part.” Because of this, we set aside our fears, our prejudices, and our hard-heartedness and ask God’s help as we learn to listen with an open mind and gentle heart to one another, especially to those who may not have been heard before.”
One of Steib’s conclusions is that the Church, if it is a humble listener, needs to be open to the development of doctrine:
“We are an ecclesia discens (learning church) precisely because of this principle of the development of doctrine which trusts that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the Church leading us forward. Following from this we realize thatan effective teaching and ministering church must be a humble, listening church—genuinely rooted in the tradition, yet attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This is exactly what the pope is doing, and he challenges all of us to do the same at every level of church life.”
Steib, who in 2005 opened a diocesan office dedicated to LGBT outreach and ministry, has written a pastoral letter, which, while not questioning the church’s teaching on marriage, shows the way to a new way of being a church that could eventually become more open to full equality for LGBT people. The letter will not satisfy those who want changes to happen more quickly, but I think that Steib’s approach is laying groundwork that is important for real change to take root.
What I like best about Steib’s letter is that it seems primarily directed to people who have closed minds about new issues in the Church, such as LGBT topics. In effect, he is gently coaxing them to open up their thinking and attitudes and to encounter people and realities that would otherwise not do. That’s an important step, and a great contribution.
The other thing that I like about the letter is that Steib primarily equates “mercy” with “humility,” which is how I have been interpreting most of how Pope Francis uses the word “mercy.” Mercy isn’t pity or forgiveness. Mercy is about being humble enough to recognize the need that all people have for redemption, including ourselves. It’s about being humble enough to recognize that the other person may have a truth which I don’t know.
Bishop Steib did not write the exact letter that I would have liked to see, but he did write one which I think can help transform some of the harder hearts in our Church.
You can read the full text of Bishop Steib’s pastoral letter, which includes footnotes for the speeches of Pope Francis which he quotes, by clicking here.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry