Following Pope Francis’ lead, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego has called a diocesan synod on marriage. We need to ask: can LGBT issues be included in this synod’s agenda?
Bishop McElroy announced the synod, planned for October 28-29, 2016, in “Embracing the Joy of Love,” his pastoral message responding to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Lay Catholics will be the majority of participants, with each of the diocese’s 100 parishes represented. Discussion groups which include local theologians will meet in the preceding months to further flesh out the agenda in advance
McElroy hopes the two-day synod will hopefully unfold into “a biannual, theme-driven event” to allow for spiritual renewal and lay input in diocesan governance, reported America. The magazine noted this may be “the first such structured diocesan-wide response” to Amoris Laetitia in the world.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, McElroy outlined five challenges for the synod to address, hoping the synod will produce action points for each topic . He identified the following challenges: witnessing to a Catholic vision of marriage; forming a culture of invitation to unmarried couples; nurturing children; ministry to those persons who are divorced; bringing spiritual depth to family life in its various forms.
Though they have not been mentioned in the preparatory material so far, LGBT issues could easily be included in this agenda on marriage and family. For instance, when discussing the need to welcome unmarried couples, Bishop McElroy said the church “should not ignore the love, sacrifice and commitment which is reflected in so many of these relationships which differ from marriage” so as not to alienate people. For those couples who live together or who have entered civil marriages, the church’s pastoral outreach should be one “which reflects love more than judgment, which affirms the beautiful elements of love already present in the lives of such couples” even while upholding a heteronormative understanding of marriage. Clearly, these areas include lesbian and gay couples, too.
Elsewhere in his message, Bishop McElroy exhorted priests to accompany people in the formation of their consciences rather than dictate decisions, stressed the problem of young adults’ rapid disengagement from the life of the church, and called for parishes to enhance their spiritual nourishment of families. Each of the areas McElroy addressed could easily include LGBT people and their families in the deliberations.
Appointed in 2015, Bishop McElroy represents an emerging generation of “Francis Bishops” whose pastoral sensitivity and emphasis on social justice set them apart from their predecessors. McElroy, who was a parish priest for fifteen years before assuming a position as auxiliary bishop, strongly approved of Pope Francis’ rebuke of U.S. bishops’ partisanship during the papal visit last fall. He called for the U.S. bishops’ document on political engagement to be scrapped last November because it was, in his estimation, “gravely hobbled” by its overemphasis on issues like marriage equality.
Even if LGBT issues do not come up, a synodal approach itself is noteworthy. Such an approach may advance LGBT equality even if such issues are not explicitly discussed. Bishop McElroy’s decision to convene a diocesan synod is quite significant wrote Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter:
“Synodality, as Pope Francis said at the last two synods on the family, is more than a different process, it is a different attitude. It requires listening as well as pontificating. It demands dialogue, not rote recitations of statements arrived at in advance of the kind that characterized synods before Francis. Synodality only works if those participating exhibit a certain humility about their own claims on the truth, a willingness to let the truth capture them rather than the other way round.”
For far too long, many church leaders have refused to listen to or dialogue with LGBT Catholics and their families. Their approach lacked humility, instead employing a harshness against those Catholics who disagreed with the hierarchy’s teachings on sexuality and gender.
Bishop McElroy is charting a divergent course, one exhibiting greater humility and compassion than many of his peers. Given his record and willingness to listen in the upcoming synod process, McElroy would likely welcome the inclusion of LGBT issues in this or another synod perhaps. Coupled with the Holy Spirit’s movements, a more synodal church could break down barriers to and build bridges for LGBT equality.
Catholics in San Diego are encouraged to write to the bishop and request meetings to share their stories and their convictions around LGBT issues. In the five months before San Diego’s synod convenes, there will be multiple opportunities in the discussion groups and other listening mechanisms to raise LGBT concerns. Local Catholics should ask themselves “What is God asking of our church now?” which is the question the bishop posed about discernment. If they listen to the ways God speaks through people’s lives, they will surely find that LGBT pastoral care and inclusion are important concerns for the church in San Diego and that they should be addressed either in this synod or at another similar meeting in the very near future.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry