Are All Sides Equally to Blame for Synod’s LGBT Remarks?

Michael Sean Winters

Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 featured reactions to the Synod on Youth from several LGBT-positive observers. Today’s post engages a more moderate voice when it comes to the synod and LGBT issues, but one whose analysis ultimately by placing blame on both sides of the argument.

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter affirmed the gathering’s work to promote a vision of the more synodal church desired by Pope Francis, a direction sharply criticized by conservatives. But instead of narrowing in on where real resistance to synodality exists, which is the right-wing, Winters instead criticizes both LGBT-positive and LGBT-negative commentators for what he claimed was a myopic focus on sexuality.

A leading bishop against LGBT inclusion was Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput who used his sole intervention to condemn the use of the term “LGBT.” In a post-synod interview, Religion News Service reported that Chaput said the section on sexuality was among the most “subtle and concerning” of the entire  final document because of its suggestion that church leaders re-examine their teachings on sexuality:

“‘It’s unhelpful to create doubt or ambiguity around issues of human identity, purpose, and sexuality, unless one is setting the stage to change what the church believes and teaches about all three, starting with sexuality.'”

Winters reprimanded critics of the synod’s more positive approach to LGBT topics by trying to seek a least common denominator with them:

“On the other hand, the other day, Matthew Shepard’s remains were interred in Washington National Cathedral. Is it really expecting too much to hope that everyone everywhere will recognize what was done to him as a gross evil, and a specific evil too, an instance of anti-gay bigotry expressed with inhumane violence? Is it too much to ask if the harshness of our teaching on homosexuality has something to do with the high rates of suicide among gay youth?”

He also criticized LGBT advocates who were promoting positive interventions by the synod:

“Is it really expecting too much for us Westerners to sympathize with the fact that our Catholic brothers and sisters in more traditional societies may view gay rights as part and parcel of a set of Western values that have despoiled and exploited their natural resources, kept their democracies fragile, and imported weapons and drugs into their countries?. . .Why should Westerners intent on advancing gay rights be able to run roughshod over more traditional cultures?”

While both pro and anti LGBT people were critical of the final document, Winters did note that at least one LGBT advocate, Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry, got “high marks” for praising synodality and seeing hope beyond critique, something which Winters said, “conservative critics can’t bring themselves to do.” Winters concluded his analysis of the synod on a positive note:

“This conundrum requires much listening and, on an issue as fraught as homosexuality, I suspect it is far easier to say something that will be misunderstood than to say something that will induce understanding. I think the synod got it right. It is time for deeper theological, anthropological and pastoral understandings. Time to learn. Time to listen.”

Though Winters challenged anti-gay narratives, his questions for LGBT advocates are misguided for two reasons.

First, the divide is not as Winters claimed between Western LGBT advocates and those persons in the Global South who hold “traditional values.” Many courageous activists in nations like Uganda risk their lives in the struggle for equality, just as there are people in Western societies who claim to hold “traditional values.” The real divide is between people who understand LGBT equality as a human rights issue and those resistant to offering equal social and legal treatment of LGBT people.

Second, Winters errs by promoting the myth that Western LGBT advocates are somehow new colonizers by promoting equality based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While activists should be cautious that their methods are grounded in anti-colonialism and social justice, the end of securing LGBT rights is a liberating one, not an oppressive one. This “new colonization” myth  was echoed repeatedly during the Synod on the Family, the Synod on Youth, and in other contexts by Pope Francis and bishops from Africa. Winters is too intelligent to fall for such harmful traps.

Winters is correct in affirming synodality and encouraging listening, especially on controversial issues like sexuality. His error in analysis, though, lies in trying to put blame on both sides of the argument. If the Church is to ever truly practice synodality, the concept cannot become relativized to the point of being meaningless. All sides are rarely equal, and it is up to the synod to discern the beneficial voices and reject those which reflect prejudices and inaccuracies. Synodality comes with its own set of challenges, but with a careful attention to justice that avoids the centrist mistakes, these pitfalls are easily avoided.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 9, 2018

4 replies
  1. Albertus
    Albertus says:

    Winters is wrong about associating recognition of gay rights with neo-colonialism: the truth is that African and Asian lands had no laws against homosexuality until the colonising powers, expecially the British, arrived and introduced them. Thus, recognising the inherent rights of gay people is not only a matter of justice, but also a further step in decolonisation.

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  2. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    I must respond to the comments about Westerners who are seen as new colonizers in trying to remove anti-LGBT sentiments and laws. The reality is that the anti-LGBT sentiments are based on the original colonial laws that were left over from the laws or the original colonizers. There hateful traditions were evil centuries ago and still are. Even with some challenging missteps, India is finally coming to realize that accepting all of their citizens as equal before God is their best and natural growth. Equality has become a sign of western democracies and the dictatorships that exist in most third world countries do need to change their view of the diversity of their peoples. Love does not come from tribalism, but from reaching out to the wider community.

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  3. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    Your two criticisms are right on target, Bob. I made related comments to Frank Debernardo’s post a week or two ago when he described your interaction with Bishop Fisher of Australia, who made a parallel specious comment.

    Unlike governments, the Church is a truly global institution. Hence, Church leaders bear significant global influence and responsibility. We need to keep speaking up strongly and repeatedly to debunk this false “Western vs. Southern values” paradigm that church leaders buy into and promote as an ideological narrative. It creates an easy, simplistic wedge of blame that feeds into local fears and divides the global Church. Meanwhile, many of the same Church leaders decry a false, ambiguous “gender ideology” allegedly promoted by LGBTQ advocates. Maybe they should look more critically at their own “West vs. South” narrative before casting mythological stones. This should become one of the LGBT Catholic community’s strongest global critiques . . . Church leadership is dividing the flock with this ultimately misguided – if not downright hurtful and manipulative – propagation.

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