The Vatican announced this week that the next Synod of Bishops gathering in 2022 will be on the theme of “synodality,” or, in the more formal title, “For a synodal church: Communion, participation and mission.” But as preparations begin, a question looming over the proceedings will be the same at it has been in the past three recent synods: Are LGBTQ people to be included?
First, the news from the National Catholic Reporter:
“The Vatican announced the choice of ‘synodality’ as the theme in a brief communique March 7.
“‘Synodality,’ which literally means ‘walking together,’ has become a key topic of Francis’ pontificate, but one which has raised questions and even confusion.
“The basic idea in the pope’s teaching is that the grace of baptism makes one part of the body of the church and, therefore, responsible for its life and mission. In a hierarchical church, that shared responsibility calls for regular, serious and structural forums for listening to all members of the church. At the same time, as the pope has said, it does not mean putting decisions to a vote as if a synod were a parliament.”
NCR’s report referenced a 2018 document on synodality from the International Theological Commission, an advisory body attached to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That document explained, while still upholding the hierarchy’s ultimate authority:
“A synodal church is a church of participation and co-responsibility. In exercising synodality she is called to give expression to the participation of all, according to each one’s calling, with the authority conferred by Christ on the College of Bishops headed by the pope. Participation is based on the fact that all the faithful are qualified and called to serve each other through the gifts they have all received from the Holy Spirit.”
The 2020 synod follows four previous synods under Pope Francis: 2014 and 2015 meetings on the family, 2018 on youth, and 2019 on the Amazon. Each has, in its own way, been controversial, but taken together, they have advanced church reform, even given their many limitations (most notably, the exclusion of women from voting, even while lay men have been able to do so since 2015).
Central in the disputes during the synods on the family and on youth were questions related to LGBTQ people. The Synod on the Family’s final document, as well as Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, tended to reiterate existing teachings, failed to engage the complexity of transgender identities, and echoed the baseless claim that international aid to developing nations was contingent on recipients adopting marriage equality. An openness in the deliberations and documents to accompanying divorced and remarried persons was not equally applied to LGBTQ people and their families. Family synod participants heard only from the parents of an LGBTQ child, not LGBTQ Catholics themselves. While several bishops expressed hope that the church could take a more progressive approach to issues of gender and sexuality, in the end, their hopes went mostly unrealized.
The Synod on Youth’s preparations were a hopeful moment. A gathering of 300 young people several months before the synod released a document said “simplistic answers do not suffice” when it comes to the crucial questions of developing one’s sexual and gender identities. These young people called for the church to engage these complexities that “young people are already freely discussing without taboo.” Shortly after, the Instrumentum Laboris, the synod’s preparatory document, included the first use of “LGBT” acronym in a Vatican document. The Synod strongly debated whether to include this term in its final document. Ultimately, the acronym was removed and the paragraph addressing diverse sexualities was weak. Again, participants’ hopes for greater inclusion were largely omitted.
With hopes dashed at both meetings, why can we consider these synods to be? Because they are more about process than product, as we have previously noted on Bondings 2.0. Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, synods were predetermined, the final documents written by the Curia before bishops even arrived in Rome. At times, John Paul II read his breviary during participants’ speeches. But Pope Francis intends something different: genuine discussion and even disagreement that is part of the church’s communal discernment process. Preparatory periods have been used for a wide listening. Thousands of people participated in listening exercises in advance of the Synod on the Amazon. And bishops and other participants have spoken freely on issues like same-gender blessings and women deacons which were forbidden topics before. As small as these steps may be, they are signs of progress in an institution like the Catholic Church.
Where does this leave us for the 2020 synod? It will be a test for how committed the hierarchy is to synodality. Are church leaders serious about co-responsibility, a Vatican II concept once buried, and the participation of all the faithful? How organizers approach the question of LGBTQ issues could be the most telling indicator. Involving the entire church means including LGBTQ Catholics and their families as much as any other baptized Catholic. This synod must attend to those faithful who have been pushed to the church’s margins and too often silenced. Otherwise, appeals to communion and participation will be empty.
At this starting point, I am hopeful. Regular readers of Bondings 2.0 know that the faithful’s push for LGBTQ equality in the church intensifies daily. A growing number of bishops recognize this issue as an urgent pastoral priority. It is unlikely the synod would reverse church teaching or fully reconcile decades of harm. No one synod, or pope, or magisterial document could ever achieve such ends. But if there are honest conversations about gender and sexuality that include a deep institutional listening to LGBTQ Catholics, that would be remarkable progress towards the goal of being a church which is, in Pope Francis’ words, “a home for all.”
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 12, 2020