The Million-Dollar Question: What Will Be In the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation?

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.

Pope Francis leaves the synod hall, followed by cardinals and bishops.

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!

0 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    Thanks, Frank. I agree that it’s really interesting that Christoph Schonborn will be part of the team presenting the document – along with the secretary of the Synod, a married coupleand no other cardinals!
    Let’s not forget that alongside his many supportive statements on gay Catholics, he has also spoken out about the divorced and remarried. His first publicly reported statement on gay couple, that it was time to shift the emphasis from genital acts to the quality of the relationships, was the first by any senior cardinal – and was quickly taken up by many others. At the same time though, he also spoke about divorce, contrasting the refusal of remarriage to divorced people who wanted marriage, with the lack of interest in marriage by so many others, who simply opted for cohabitation.
    Although we as gay Catholics tend to think of our situation as separate from that of divorce, it is not. Many of the pastoral problems are shared. It is likely that “The Joy of Love” will have far more to say about divorce than it will about same-sex couples, much of what it does say will also have significance for us, as a pointer to what to expect once the Vatican really does start to look closely at what it means to be gay – and also have a desire to share in that Joy of Love (and family).

  2. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    It is imperative for ALL CATHOLICS to stop emphasizing genital acts and start talking about the quality of relationships. This is what Jesus is all about. The love is the thing, all else fades to insignificance. There is nothing a person can do that is too much for love. A son who goes off carousing, blowing his inheritance and being every kind of irresponsible? When he comes home, does the father lecture, shame, or jail him? No, he makes ready the big celebratory feast. Jesus makes a point of sitting at table with prostitutes and sinners, showing us what to do and how to act. Does he lecture, shame, or jail these people? No, he loves them and breaks bread with them. Does Jesus condone carousing, prostitution, and sinning? No. But this is not the point of His message. The message is, love. LOVE, love, love. That is always the answer. The church has moral authority to define ways we can more easily live a “good life.” But some people, some circumstances just do not fit neatly into these rules. That is where conscience and love come in. The individual must engage in lifelong conscience formation. This means that when someone decides on an alternate course of action, outside the set rules and norms, the others in the community must still love. And we must love as Jesus showed us–by including, and breaking bread. We must include them in our community as full participants.

    There is another reason that this conversation is imperative for all Catholics. We really fall down on the job when we emphasize sex acts over the importance of intimacy and love. This omission is critically harmful for our youth. “Just say no” does not work for drugs. And it does not work for sex, either. Adult Catholics must celebrate what long-term committed and loving relationships look like. We must talk about how the struggles of hanging in there help to build a love and intimacy that you cannot gain in any other way. We must show how the glue of sex is only one aspect to a loving relationship, not the “forbidden fruit” we make it out to be. The goal is not monogamy, or heterosexuality, but the stability of love and intimacy over a lifetime. People will fall short of this ideal. But love and intimacy are worthy goals, and can be holy. We have to stop all the judging and start the loving. Any time would be good.


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