Are Synods Actually Helpful for LGBT Catholics and Their Families?

Following the Vatican’s 2015 Synod on the Family, a handful of dioceses worldwide have convoked their own local synods to discuss issues in and plans for their local church. These gatherings have been heralded for advancing episcopal collegiality and participation of the laity, parts of Pope Francis’ vision for the church.

But while that may be so, the Synod on the Family was described as a “disappointment” by some LGBT advocates and local synods’ treatment of sexuality has been mixed. It is therefore a live question in the church whether these synods are actually helping LGBT Catholics and their families.


Participants conversing at Detroit’s synod.

The Archdiocese of Detroit held its “Synod ’16: Unleash the Gospel” last weekend, part of its evangelization efforts in which thousands of Catholics have participated through some 240 Parish Dialogue Gatherings and nights of prayer.

More than 11,000 responses were distilled into 46 propositions for the consideration of the synod’s 400 delegates, reported the National Catholic Reporter. Top priorities included lifelong faith formation, building parishes marked by loving encounters, empowering Catholics to live active faith lives, and, according to diocesan newspaper The Michigan Catholic:

“Build a framework for mutual accountability between pastors, parishes, schools and the Central Services. To build a foundation for this, heal wounded relationships, build trust and practice transparency. . .

“Build cultural competency among individuals, parishes and archdiocesan leadership to acknowledge and break down barriers that divide us — including race, ethnicity, sex and socioeconomic status.”

The Archdiocese has faced financial and organizational difficulties in recent years, including a declining Catholic population, difficulties in many ways tied to Detroit’s citywide troubles. But the synod also acknowledged the splits within the church community. Auxiliary Bishop Michael Byrnes, who oversaw synod preparations, told NCR:

“‘I’m really, really grateful to build within our parishes a capacity to welcome the other. . .I mean we were naming things of ethnicity, of race, gender and sexual orientation. . .It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’re dealing with. And now this is going to take a while to grow but that was named in the last session and got a lot of support. . .

“‘[Archbishop Allen Vigneron has] a huge vision, this isn’t just about becoming more pious, this is really about taking action for social, neighborhood transformation. . .We can’t just stop at “Jesus save me, so that I can go to heaven.” It has to be “Jesus, save me, so that I can help heal the world.”‘”

Themes of healing and reconciliation where divisions exist in the church and with the surrounding community were prominent at the gathering. While LGBT issues were not specifically mentioned in news reports, it would be surprising if these topics were not raised at Saturday morning’s session on the family.


Archbishop Vigneron at Mass during the Synod

But what is perhaps most remarkable are the statements from Archbishop Vigneron, a conservative bishop with an anti-LGBT record that includes remarks which compared breaking up a same-gender relationship to the Exodus liberation, seeking to deny Communion to Catholics who support marriage equality, and banning a Fortunate Families event  from church property.

Vigneron told the National Catholic Reporter the synod sought “a radical overhaul of the Church in Detroit” to “transform the very culture of our Archdiocese — how we work, how we pray, how we minister, everything — so that in everything we do, we are more effective witnesses to the Gospel.” Citing the writings of Pope Francis as the inspiration, the archbishop said he would be “listening and contributing and being part of this whole process.” Afterward, he commented to The Michigan Catholic:

“‘We talked a lot about hospitality and about how we need to be welcoming to them, but also about reconciliation. . .There are people who are hurt, and we need to work together to heal those hurts.'”

These statements from Vigneron have a strikingly different tone from his previous statements and, while they do not address LGBT issues specifically, they seem to hint at a new understanding on his part of the ways the church has excluded and even hurt Catholics.

Archbishop Vigneron should now take the next step of sitting down with LGBT Catholics and the Catholic parents of LGBT children to hear their stories and be open to the ways the Spirit speaks through them to him and to the Archdiocese. Doing this before he releases a pastoral statement on the synod, expected Pentecost 2017, could greatly improve what will likely become a guiding document in Detroit. Including sexual orientation and gender identity in the synod’s commitment to accountability and cultural competency on the part of church ministers is one way he could be tremendously helpful.

So while issues of gender and sexuality were not explicitly addressed or reported in Detroit last weekend, unlike the diocesan synod in San Diego under Bishop Robert McElroy where LGBT topics came up organically, they will likely be affected by the synod.

Just how that happens, however, is unclear. Could the synod’s findings reinvigorate attention to a heteronormative and nuclear understanding of family or will other family arrangements including same-gender relationships be pastorally accompanied?

And the larger question remains: are these synods helping LGBT people and their families, indifferent about them, or even pastorally damaging?

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 25, 2016



8 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    Anything which contributes to freer, franker discussion will be helpful: progress does not depend simply on directly addressing LGBT issues explicitly. When more general ideas of hospitality, inclusion, healing and mercy are raised, LGBT people present, or their family, friends and other allies, will be able to make the connections and then speak up.
    I was interested to note that in the preparatory material for the San Diego synod, there was not a hint of a reference to LGBT people, but there were references in the reports that came out of the synod after the event. In Detroit, it’s important (as your report notes), that Archbishop Vigneron’s tone has changed substantially from his previously harsh rhetoric.
    Change is slow, and needs to accelerate – but the best way to do that, is to grasp at every opportunity to at least begin the process.

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    It seems perfectly obvious to me — and I suspect to all of us here — that sexual orientation is as incarnationally inherent as one’s skin color, eye color, natural hair color and dominant-handedness. And I do in fact believe that sexual orientation is the fifth element in this category of “inherent givens”. You can mess around cosmetically with hair color, and perhaps with eye color (through the use of tinted contact lenses), but you really can’t mess around with dominant-handedness, skin color or inherent sexual orientation. The sooner these bishops “wake up” to human incarnational realities, the better off (and more joyous, and more welcoming, and more spiritually productive) the Catholic Church will become. May it be so…and soon!

  3. David Harvie
    David Harvie says:

    Our experience in the diocese of Metuchen (NJ) was fairly positive. Our bishop convened a synod ten years ago approximately. One the bullets on the documents that came out as a result was specifically about better ministry to LGBT people and their families. In part based on that, we have grown our ministry in the diocese substantially during that time. We have been blessed to have folks who are opening to accompanying the LGBT community long before Francis.

  4. Linda Karle-Nelson
    Linda Karle-Nelson says:

    As a member of the Detroit Archdiocese as well as a member of Fortunate Families, I would welcome the opportunity to be a part of the “next step” suggested in this article. Archbishop Vigneron has made some notable changes in the language he uses when speaking about LGBT people and their supporters, and we, as Catholic parents of LGBT daughters and sons, are grateful to hear some hopeful messages coming from our Archbishop. However, the attempts we have made to share our stories with him, even the most recent one of Sept. 28, have been met with statements such as:
    ” I appreciate the sentiments which motivated your writing. After careful consideration, I am confident that the best thing I can offer to these brothers and sisters of ours is the Gospel – the Good News – of Jesus Christ. While this is often challenging, it is always good news.”

    There was no hint of a willingness to accept our offer to have a conversation about how we might begin the healing of the relationship of the Archdiocese and the LGBT community. The Archbishop is aware of the many attempts Fortunate Families has made to meet with him. I hope that the Synod in Detroit might result in a change of heart on his part and an offer to meet with us as parents who love both our Church and our LGBT children.

  5. r.wilson
    r.wilson says:

    Given the high percentage of gay men in the priesthood (at all clerical levels) it always surprises me to read quotes from Bishops and other church leaders that are so homophobic, out of touch and devoid of current research into sexual orientation that one is left speechless. There is a maxim saying, “A fish smells at the head first,” and one could say this pretty much demonstrates where we as Catholics are situationally. We have a leadership so steeped in systemic clericalism and dysfunction as typified by the ongoing global abuse scandals, the missing sold babies of spain, Vatican bank scandals, Clerical Masonic membership, a culture of secrecy, lack of transparency… It seems to me, the Bishops have not seemed to understand, that they can not share a faith that they appear not to hold. One can not give what you don’t have. This sounds horrible on the surface but Maybe the Bishops need to remove the log from their own eyes before trying to remove the splinters from the eyes of their followers. Additionally, priests are taught that at ordination they go through an eschatological process where they are elevated to a level somewhere above human and a level below angels…..a sort of cut above the rest of us. I know it sounds insane but the implications are serious and have been sited as a major contributor to the sexual abuse scandals. For these Synods to be of use, we need a period of public confession and penance from our clergy – the public wearing of sackcloth idea. This also needs to be followed up with transparency and an end to hiding secrets and sins that eventually will make their way into the light anyway. Finally, their needs to be Bishop and Priestly accountability for crimes as forgiveness and justice and restoration are all different subjects.

  6. Richard McIvor
    Richard McIvor says:

    Can we get the Catholic and LGBT communities (and they overlap!) to meet where they treat each other with acceptance and respect without judgments or micro-aggessions from their differing beliefs?
    I feel that my comments on my trans daughter (we love and support our daughter) are met with a stony silence from the clergy in my parish. I hear them saying that my child is “one of those who are homosexual” – in third person depersonalized churchspeak.

  7. miriamtf
    miriamtf says:

    Bob, from your report I see the synods as destructive by some bishops but slightly constructive by others. We can pray and write to these bishops but ultimately we cannot stop the synods. We should have communication. LGBT matters sadly are not included in serious study and plans for communication.


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