Synod on Youth’s Final Report Is a Mixed Bag on LGBT Issues

The Vatican’s Synod on Youth has issued its final report, and its comments on LGBT issues are a mixed bag.  The section that responds to LGBT topics is section 150.  The document was only released in Italian.  You can read the Italian text by clicking here.  You can read the vote tallies by clicking here.  Each section was voted on individually.  A 2/3rds majority was needed for a section to be included in the final document.

If the 2015 synod on the family is any sort of standard, 0fficial versions in other languages will not be available for at least another week.  The following is a translation of section 150 from a reporter who reads Italian very well.  My commentary follows the text.

There are questions related to the body, to affectivity and to sexuality that require a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral exploration, which should be done in the most appropriate way, whether on a global or local level. Among these, those that stand out in particular are those relative to the difference and harmony between male and female identities and sexual inclinations. In this regard, the Synod reiterates that God loves every person and so does the Church, renewing its commitment to stand against any sexual discrimination and violence. [The Synod] equally reaffirms the determinative anthropological relevance of the difference and reciprocity between man and woman and believes it is reductive to define a person’s identity solely on the basis of their “sexual orientation.”

There already exist in many Christian communities paths of accompaniment in the faith of homosexual persons; the Synod recommends encouraging such journeys. In these pathways people are helped to read their own history; to follow with freedom and responsibility their baptismal call; to recognize the desire to belong to and contribute to the life of the community; to discern the best means of realizing this. In this way each young person, excluding no one, is helped to integrate even further the sexual dimension of their own personality, growing in the quality of their relationships and journeying toward the gift of self.

The fact that the Vatican’s synod on youth has issued a final report that calls for “a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral elaboration” of sexuality and affectivity is an important step forward for the Catholic Church in regard to LGBT issues. The statement acknowledges that the church still has a lot to learn about sexuality.  If the study of these topics is done with open minds and hearts, there is potential for great transformation in the church.

Youth auditors cheering at the close of the synod.

The call for more parishes to provide accompaniment to lesbian and gay people is also a positive.  The words describing accompaniment seem carefully chosen to allow for wide interpretation.  During the synod, a request was made to include a statement calling lesbian and gay people to “conversion,” a word used often in church discourse to mean celibacy.  That language did not make it into the final document.  Instead the pastoral recommendations allow for great latitude of welcome and accompaniment based on the individual person and the local pastoral community and ministers.

The document also contains a strong condemnation of discrimination and violence against lesbian and gay people—an important message to bishops who have sometimes implicitly and explicitly supported LGBT criminalization laws with severe punishments.  Catholic support for these laws must end.

The document has some problematic elements, too.  It reinforces the prohibition of same-sex relationships, though it does so in a way that has been typical of Pope Francis:  it does not use condemnatory language, but instead it endorses the heterosexual model as ideal.

The idea that they felt it important to say that “it is reductive to define a person’s identity solely on the basis of their ‘sexual orientation’” is also a problem. It implies that lesbian and gay people place too much emphasis on identifying by their sexuality.  This idea is erroneous in that hardly any lesbian or gay people define their identity solely on their orientation. Asking to be called a “gay Catholic” does not mean that the person thinks of themselves only in terms of sexuality, just as asking to be called a “young Catholic” doesn’t equate identity solely with age, nor does “American Catholic” mean that nationality is a defining characteristic.  These are simply descriptive words.  Implying that sexual orientation dominates an individual’s personality is not only demeaning, but also it reveals more about the church hierarchy’s poor understanding of lesbian and gay people than it does about lesbian and gay people themselves.

Pope Francis addresses the synod’s closing session. (Photos by Francis DeBernardo)

The report uses “inclinations” to describe non-heterosexual sexual activity.  This term reduces lesbian and gay love and sexuality to base desires for sexual activity.  Not only is it a derogatory word, but also it shows a complete ignorance of the affective lives of lesbian and gay people.  Its continued use in church documents is not only an embarrassment, but also is harmful.

That the synod report would not use the ordinary terms “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual” is surprising given the pope’s own use of the word “gay.” Such a small gesture in language would have meant a great deal to people.  Additionally, no mention of transgender individuals was made—a glaring omission since transgender people are among the most abused and oppressed people in LGBT communities around the globe.

These problems remind us that there is still much work to be done for LGBT justice and equality in the church. In fact, the section that contained the most comprehensive analysis of lesbian and gay issues received the most “no” votes, and it made it to the required 2/3rds majority by only two votes. (A “no” vote may not indicate opposition to LGBT issues; it could indicate disagreement with some of the negative elements in the that section.)

The power of this synod lies not in its product, though, but in its process.  It was an unprecedented gathering of church leaders with youth representatives from around the globe, and unlike other synods, it gave a stronger role to the voices of the lay participants.  Regardless of the outcome, it appears that a true dialogue took place—and we hope it will be replicated.

The synod assembly

The synod could have been greatly improved if LGBT youth would have been allowed to speak for themselves, as youth with other compelling issues did.  During press briefings, bishops continually spoke about how moved they were by personal youth testimonies on migration and war that allowed the bishops to put human faces to abstract or unknown situations.  How important it would have been for them to hear directly from LGBT youth about their lives of faith and their experiences of church! The bishops missed a great opportunity for their own education.

The themes of listening and accompaniment emerged as the dominant topics of the meeting.   Bishop participants promised to bring the process of the synod back to their home dioceses and to encourage other bishops to institute similar practices.  If they do not do so, their words will sound like empty political campaign promises. By placing emphasis on welcome and accompaniment, the church is placing the LGBT discussion on the personal and local levels—good places for real discussion to take place.

Listening and pastoral accompaniment have potential for changing the hearts and minds of pastoral ministers and church leaders. Depending on how listening and accompaniment are implemented, these tools can help the church better understand and appreciate the sacredness of LGBT lives and loves.  If listening is implemented in the way Pope Francis has recommended, as a theological tool where one listens and allows one’s heart to be touched by new truths, the Catholic Church can begin to be transformed.

The synod’s success will be judged not by what it has accomplished to this date, but by its impact on shaping a more dialogical and relational church for the future.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 28, 2018

Bondings 2.0 will continue with further commentaries on the youth synod report in the coming week and as we are able to get good translations from the Italian version. 

4 replies
  1. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    New Ways Ministry continues to do good work by providing official RCC documents and links to documents.

    And thanks for your presence at the Synod, and for your running news and commentary on what happened there. Part of me doesn’t expect much to come from this Synod. But part of me realizes that the expectations for Vatican II were not great, but major positive changes did follow that Council.

    In the meantime, there is the Episcopal Church, with the openly gay Episcopal bishop V. Gene Robinson presiding over the interment of Matthew Shepard’s remains in the Episcopal Washington National Cathedral. It was not without struggle that that branch of the Anglican Communion arrived at where it is today. Fortunately, it is a church whose structure involves much more input from the main body of people in the church.

    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Synod on Youth Final Report

    There are three sentences in section 150 that stand out to me.

    I. [T]hose that stand out in particular are those relative to the difference and harmony between male and female identities and sexual inclinations.

    This seems to be a vailed reference to the preference to heteronormative sexuality. And I take it as such. My gay sexual orientation is equal in value to those with straight sexual orientations.

    II. [I]t is reductive to define a person’s identity solely on the basis of their “sexual orientation.”

    On the surface, this sentence is accurate. Indeed, I represent more than my sexual orientation. Regardless, my sexual orientation is a significant part of who I am, and I believe I need to be able to freely express that quality.

    III. There already exist in many Christian communities paths of accompaniment in the faith of homosexual persons; the Synod recommends encouraging such journeys.

    For starters, this is an overall positive statement. But, who is included in the term Christian communities? Is it referring to the more general universal church? On the other hand, the use of the outdated terms homosexual persons distracts from the intended welcoming intent.


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  1. […] For a rich and full examination of the issues read Francis DeBernardo’s blog. […]

  2. […] acknowledges that the church still has a lot to learn about sexuality,” DeBernardo, wrote in a blog post after the […]

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