Why Did Pope Francis Nearly Omit LGBTQ Issues from His Post-Synod Exhortation?

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation following last year’s Synod on Youth has been released, revealing the pope’s choice to forgo serious engagement with the several LGBTQ-related issues raised during the historic meeting of bishops and Catholic youth from around the world.

The post-synodal exhortation, titled Christus Vivit, contains a singular reference to homosexuality in its roughly 35,000 words with only a handful more references to sexuality in general. In a section under “desires, hurts, longings” of young people today, Pope Francis writes in paragraph 81, quoting from the Synod on Youth’s final report:

“Young people are aware that the body and sexuality have an essential importance for their lives and for their process of growth in identity. Yet in a world that constantly exalts sexuality, maintaining a healthy relationship with one’s body and a serene affective life is not easy. For this and other reasons, sexual morality often tends to be a source of ‘incomprehension and alienation from the Church, inasmuch as she is viewed as a place of judgment and condemnation’. Nonetheless, young people also express ‘an explicit desire to discuss questions concerning the difference between male and female identity, reciprocity between men and women, and homosexuality.'”

Related to LGBTQ issues, Pope Francis reiterates the largely disproven narrative about “ideological colonization,” which claims Western donor nations tie humanitarian and development assistance to LGBTQ issues. The pope writes in paragraph 78:

“It is true that people in power offer some assistance, but often it comes at a high price. In many poor countries, economic aid provided by some richer countries or international agencies is usually tied to the acceptance of Western views of sexuality, marriage, life or social justice. This ideological colonization is especially harmful to the young. We also see how a certain kind of advertising teaches young people to be perpetually dissatisfied and contributes to the throwaway culture, in which young people themselves end up being discarded.”

The exhortation includes a couple other references to sexuality consistent with existing heteronormative Church teachings. For a fuller review of the exhortation’s content, see this article from America‘s Gerald O’Connell here.

Reading Christus Vivit I was thoroughly disappointed both in his seeming dismissal of LGBTQ issues and in the document generally. To truly understand the lost opportunity on gender and sexuality issues that this exhortation is, a quick review of the last year and the Synod on Youth process is helpful.

Back in March 2018, some 300 young people gathered in Rome and released a document from their deliberations to help guide Church leaders. That document was notably blunt in its call for the Church to openly and honestly address sexuality. It twice mentioned homosexuality, demanding greater inclusion while acknowledging Catholic youth are divided on questions of sexuality and gender. To quote one particularly pointed section:

“The young have many questions about the faith, but desire answers which are not watered-down, or which utilize pre-fabricated formulations. We, the young Church, ask that our leaders speak in practical terms about controversial subjects such as homosexuality and gender issues, about which young people are already freely discussing without taboo.”

Drawing in part from this youth conference, the Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod on Youth recognized that “some LGBT youth … wish to benefit from greater closeness and experience greater care from the Church” and likewise admitted many young people held views divergent from Church teaching when it comes to LGBTQ issues. The use of the term “LGBT” in a Vatican document was a first.

As October approached, one of the controversies that erupted was whether this term “LGBT” would ultimately be included in the Synod’s final report. Bishops spoke out for and against its inclusion, and ultimately, the term was rejected. In large part, however, LGBTQ issues did not become a main event as they had during the Synod on the Family. The Synod’s final report was mixed.

What was included in that report, in section 150, was a call for a “a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral exploration” of the body, affectivity, and sexuality (even while saying it was reductionist to “define a person’s identity solely on the basis of their ‘sexual orientation.’) and the need for pastoral accompaniment of “homosexual persons.” (For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage live from Rome during the Synod last October, click here).

Throughout the synodal process, a number of these fruitful LGBTQ-related strands existed from which Pope Francis could have picked up in his own exhortation. The youth appealed strongly to their Church’s leaders to engage sexuality and gender issues in very real ways. The Synod bishops expressed their own desire for further engagement on such issues. Christus Vivit was perhaps the moment for Pope Francis to respond to the People of God’s appeals and say something truly intentional and meaningful about LGBTQ issues, to stake a clear claim when he has been too often ambiguous.

But that is not the path Francis chose.

Asked why homosexuality and women’s equality were not given more space in a 35,000 word document, the Vatican’s Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri said the exhortation should be read in conjunction with the Synod’s final report. Pope Francis admits as much at the exhortation’s outset, writing that he does not address everything in the final report but intends to “summarize those proposals I considered most significant.”

Without knowing the pope’s mind or motivations, the implication that comes from it is that LGBTQ issues were simply not among the items from the Synod on Youth which the pope considers “most significant” despite clear, repeated calls throughout the synodal process for the Church to seriously and constructively engage them.

Christus Vivit thus leaves us with two ways to regard Pope Francis and LGBTQ issues. One way is that he cannot see what most Catholics can, namely that issues of gender and sexuality are among the most significant issues for young people and for the Church today. The other way is that he simply disagrees with this assessment and finds them of secondary or tertiary importance, to be taken up occasionally but not in the bold and prophetic way for which so many of the faithful appeal. Either option is troubling.

Christus Vivit had tremendous potential as the prophetic culmination of what was a breakthrough process in the life of the Church. But beyond a few moving passages about being able to weep with youth today who suffer, the text itself is a disappointment.

But this exhortation is not a definitive or final outcome. Indeed, this exhortation is just one more voice in a larger and ongoing series of ecclesial debates that continue. Catholics will continue to raise up LGBTQ issues in our Church, even if our pope will not.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 4, 2019

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