Amoris Laetitia: A Beta Test for Synodality

In March 2021, the Vatican launched a year of reflection on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) about family. To ensure that LGBTQ perspectives and dimensions are included in our church’s discussions of this document, Bondings 2.0 is publishing a series of theological reflections over the year.

Today’s post is from Brian Flanagan, who is an Associate Professor of Theology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. Brian’s research focuses on ecclesiology, liturgical theology, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. His recent book is entitled Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church. As an undergraduate student at Catholic University, Brian was an intern at New Ways Ministry from 1996-1999, and he now serves on New Ways Ministry’s Advisory Board.

Many of the excellent reflections on the 2016 Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) already available here on Bondings 2.0 focused upon details of the text itself and what these mean, or could mean, for LGBTQ Catholics and the wider church. Rather than focus on the content of AL, I want to highlight the process by which AL came into being. I hope this analysis will give some indications of the potential and the pitfalls of the upcoming synodal process and the overall embrace of synodality that Pope Francis is trying to promote, both of which hold great promise for a more inclusive church.

AL, which was Pope Francis’ response to the Synod on the Family, was arguably the most synodal document to be produced by the worldwide Catholic Church since the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In many past meetings of the Synod of Bishops, not only was the topic under consideration finalized before the delegates arrived at the Vatican, but often the questions, the answers, and the final document were already printed before the delegates landed at Fiumicino Airport in Rome. By contrast, AL was the product of a surprisingly open – some might say dangerously open – process of consultation, argumentation, and shared discernment among the bishop delegates.

Brian Flanagan

The Synod on the Family took place over two distinct sessions of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 and 2015, with widely varying consultations of the faithful occurring in between the two meetings. Pope Francis famously encouraged the bishops at the 2014 meeting to speak with “arrhesia,” “boldness” to each other: “Speak clearly. Let no one say: ‘This you cannot say,’” he instructed the bishops. And, at the same time, he also told them to listen to each other with humility, to “accept with an open heart what your brothers say.”

These twin virtues of boldness and humility, led to a startlingly wide-ranging conversation on marriage and family. Bishops openly differed on church teaching on marriage and sexuality, and on how best to teach and practice church teaching in the complexity and challenges of their local contexts. The final version of AL included footnotes and even paragraphs that far from papering over differences of opinion and emphasis, instead adverted to the relative messiness of the process and the need for further continued discernment and dialogue.

I see four lessons from AL that can prepare LGBTQ Catholics for the coming worldwide synodal process.

First, we can be grateful that we have a pope who is sincerely trying to open space for continued conversation in the church about a variety of issues. Pope Francis wants to engage all of the church in collective discernment of the sense of the faith, and wants to start from the concreteness of our actual lives as Catholics, including as LGBTQ Catholics. He is encouraging us us to speak with boldness and listen with humility. Conversations about sexuality and gender identity that were considered entirely off the ecclesial table are not only allowed, but encouraged. Every act of synodality is an act of faith in the Holy Spirit and that Spirit’s guidance of the Church. Pope Francis is pushing the worldwide church toward an ever greater confidence in the Holy Spirit, and asking us to trust that in our speaking and listening the voice of God can be discerned.

The second lesson is that we should not underestimate how equally sincere and sustained the resistance to this synodal way of being Catholic is and will continue to be. The process leading to AL was a foretaste of things to come – both of the possibilities of collective discernment, and of the fear of synodality expressed by Catholics dangerously attached to the idea of an unchanging church with nothing further to learn. The stability of church teaching and practice is obviously a good thing, but respect for stability can easily change into an idolatry that hinders the Gospel. As LGBTQ Catholics who hope that greater freedom of conversation may change minds and hearts in our church regarding who we are and how we love, we should converse with humility, and with awareness that the road ahead is not suddenly going to become easier. If anything, it may make ecclesial differences regarding sexuality and gender ever sharper.

Third, AL teaches us that synodal processes are relatively conservative, especially compared to the more rapid process that LGBTQ equality finds in some civil societies. Synodality aims to not have one “side” in the church win over another, but to bring the whole church together to greater consensus. That takes time, and supernatural patience. For LGBTQ Catholics, AL moved the bar…slightly. The process allowed some of our experience to be heard and acknowledged, both in the draft statements and at the synod itself. But the final document remained fundamentally conservative, a small step rather than a great leap forward. Having patience with our brothers and sisters in Christ may be frustrating, but it is also an act of love for the church’s unity.

The final lesson that the AL process teaches us is how crucial the question of who speaks, and who listens, is to the entire process. The synods focused upon youth and upon the Amazon built upon the AL experience in inviting a wider circle of conversation partners. The upcoming synodal process attempts to do the same at the local, diocesan, regional, and international levels. But unless there is deep, sustained speaking and listening of all the baptized – including those on the margins, those whose marriages are not recognized or whose gender identities are called into question, those who have stayed and those who have left – then any synodal process will remain as limited as a flight to Rome to sign a document already drafted before anyone left for the airport.

On Sunday, October 24, 2021, 3:00-4:30 p.m. Eastern US Time, New Ways Ministry will host a webinar, “From the Margins to the Center: LGBTQ Catholics and Synodality,” to learn more about synodality and how LGBTQ Catholics and allies can participate effectively.

Brian Flanagan, October 19, 2021

2 replies
    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Error in Sentence

    Brian, there is a sentence under the second lesson that has a word or group of words missing. It begins, “The process leading to AL was a foretaste of things to come—both of the possibilities of collective discernment, and of the fear of synodality expressed by Catholics dangerously attached to the idea of an unchanging church with nothing further to.”

    This is such an important essay that I would not want to presume what the missing ending to that sentence might be.

    • Francis DeBernardo, Editor
      Francis DeBernardo, Editor says:

      Thanks for catching that error. The missing word after “to” is “learn.” I’ve made the correction.


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