The countdown begins.
In one week from today, the long-awaited document from Pope Francis which will summarize the 2014 and 2015 Vatican synods on the family and offer his direction for pastoral practice will be released on Friday, April 8, 2016, at 12 noon, Rome time (6:00 a.m. for the U.S. east coast). The Vatican announced the release date of the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, yesterday, according to a news story in The National Catholic Reporter.
And with the countdown comes the million-dollar question: What will Francis say in the document? Catholic prognosticators have been making guesses almost since the second synod closed at the end of October 2015. As Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter noted that about the only details we know are the length of the document and the date it was signed by Francis:
“Information about the exhortation has been scarce. Several reports have indicated it is rather lengthy, perhaps even as long as 200 pages. The pope is reported to have formally signed the document March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph and the day marking the inauguration of his papal ministry in 2013.”
One detail about the Vatican’s announcement that is worth noting is that Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn will be present at the press conference when the document is released. Schönborn, who upholds the hierarchy’s traditional heterosexual model for marriage, has nonetheless said some good things over the years regarding LGBT issues. He made a supportive statement regarding gender identity, supports civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, and re-instated a partnered, gay parish council president who was ousted by the local pastor. Whether Schönborn’s presence is because there is something positive in the document or because he will be there to soften the blow of something negative remains to be seen.
I was privileged to be in Rome for the October 2015 synod, having been given press credentials by the Vatican for this blog, Bondings 2.0. The opportunity allowed me to pay close attention to the many debates that emerged. But that experience, while eye-opening, did not give me any special insight into how the pope is going to respond. Still, I think there are ways of making estimated guesses about what the document might say.
Among the rumors that have circulated since October is one that says there might not be much of anything new in the apostolic exhortation concerning LGBT issues. Despite these topics making a big splash in the media halfway through the 2014 synod, by the time the 2015 synod came around, LGBT issues seemed to have taken a back seat, with concern about the very important issue of pastoral care for divorced/remarried people becoming the more prominent topic of discussion.
As I mentioned in a post from last month, even though LGBT issues per se may not receive any positive developments in this document, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be tangential areas that could make way for further progress. Here’s excerpts from that earlier post:
“Change in the language of church doctrine: In many bishops’ interventions, there was a call for a transformation of language that was harmful, offensive, and inaccurate. What comes to my mind is “objective disorder” to describe homosexual orientation and “intrinsic moral evil” to describe sexual intimacy of a gay or lesbian couple. . . .
“Empowering local bishops to respond pastorally according to their own judgments, given the unique attitudes and practices of their cultures and communities: One of the things that the event of the synod illustrated is how culturally diverse the Catholic Church is throughout the globe. Attitudes and customs about marriage and family are widely divergent–not least of all when it comes to LGBT couples and families. . . .
“A desire for the Church to be more of a listening presence and accompanying friend, instead of a disciplinarian rule giver: This theme is a strong one throughout Pope Francis’ writings, speeches, interviews, and comments, so I think it is very likely that it will appear in some way in the apostolic exhortation. . . .
And, as I noted on Bondings 2.0 last fall, though LGBT issues did not receive much attention in the final report of the synod, that doesn’t mean that the Church hasn’t already begun to change. The simple fact that many controversial topics were at least discussed at this meeting, with bishops differing greatly with one another, means that our church has begun to move into a direction of a more dialogic institution. We still have a long way to go in that regard, no doubt, but at least the process has been started.
Australia’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who participated in the 2015 synod and made some favorable comments there on on lesbian and gay issues, offered these thoughts about the upcoming document to The National Catholic Reporter last month:
” ‘If the pope can get the mix of encouragement and challenge right, he’ll be the unifier that Peter is meant to be, leading us beyond ideological dogfights and confirming us in the faith,’ Coleridge said.
“His reference to ‘ideological dogfights’ refers to many of the debates that took place during the four-week synod last year, when bishops were known to discuss such issues as divorce and remarriage, the use of contraception, and same-sex marriage.”
Despite all the uncertainty about the substance of the document, one thing for sure is that this exhortation is a pivotal moment in the papacy of Francis. In a Washington Post news story, theologian Massimo Faggioli said that the synod events and process:
“was the most important moment in the church in the last 50 years. This was the biggest sign of hope that in the Catholic Church there are ideas and we can talk about it. No one before Francis ever had the courage to think about that.”
But Faggioli also noted that the document will be a telling detail of how the sometimes enigmatic Pope Francis really wants to lead the Church:
“ ‘In three years there is a lot he has accomplished. But there is a lot he has not accomplished,’ he said. The synods and the paper that comes from them constitute ‘one of the most important moments in his pontificate, and how he gets out of this moment of fierce disagreement, [what] comes out of that will say a lot.’ “
Bondings 2.0 will release its own commentary on the apostolic exhortation soon after the document is released on April 8th. Stay tuned!