How Are Synod Assembly Participants on LGBTQ+ Issues? — Part I

Last week, the Vatican announced the list of participants for the next assembly of the Synod this October, the latest step in the Synod on Synodality, as this global consultation is informally known, that Pope Francis began in 2021.

New Ways Ministry expressed both hope and disappointment about the list (statement available here): disappointment because no openly LGBTQ+ person was appointed, as far as we know (though we also speculated that perhaps a synod participant will choose to come out), but hope because there are a number of LGBTQ-positive church leaders and lay people on the list.

This week, we are publishing a new resource that documents the LGBTQ-related records of Synod assembly participants. The resource highlights public statements and actions that have been supportive, negative, and everything in between.

It seems certain the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church—a consistent theme in previous stages at the local, diocesan, national, and continental levels—will carry through to October. This resource can inform efforts to further that conversation in Rome. Today and tomorrow’s posts will highlight some of the more-positive bishops. On Wednesday, non-bishop members with LGBTQ+ records will be featured, and an overall commentary provided. (As research continues, more participants, bishops and clergy/religious/lay people, may be added.)

Approximately 50 of the bishops chosen to be members of the October assembly were found to have a public record on LGBTQ+ issues. Many, perhaps the majority, of these bishops’ records have supported LGBTQ+ people. As research continues, more bishop-participants may be added. The President of the Synod is Pope Francis, who has opened up a new era of dialogue and positive actions on LGBTQ+ issues. His full record on New Ways Ministry’s website here.

Below is information about five of the bishop-members with supportive LGBTQ+ records.

Bishop Georg Bätzing, right, chair of the German Bishops’ Conference

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg (Germany)

Bätzing recently co-chaired Germany’s Synodal Way process, which saw remarkable documents that approved calling for the blessing of queer couples and “concrete improvements” in the church’s treatment of transgender and intersex people. He has been president of the German Bishops’ Conference since 2020. In 2023, the Diocese of Limburg issued new guidelines for sex education that were quite positive and science-based, which had Bätzing’s full support. He has said repeatedly he is “firmly convinced” church teachings on homosexuality will change, even speaking about same-gender relationships in positive terms. When the Vatican banned blessing such relationships in 2021, Bätzing emphasized his support for the blessings, saying as president of the bishops’ conference, that he was “not happy” about the ban, even while he objected to blessing ceremonies being used as a form of protest against it. Indeed, as far back as 2019, his diocese launched a process to explore how such blessings could proceed locally.

Cardinal Sérgio da Rocha

Cardinal Sérgio da Rocha of São Salvador da Bahia (Brazil)

In 2021, da Rocha celebrated a Mass in memory of the many LGBTQ+ people killed in Brazil the previous year, violence that was particularly intense in his region of the country. At the Mass, which was requested by two LGBTQ+ groups, the cardinal said such violence is a “sad signal” for society and that the church suffers alongside victims. Notably, the liturgy included a performance of “Ave Maria” from a drag performer. Advocates were particularly moved that da Rocha, who is the Primate of Brazil and a former head of the Episcopal Conference of Brazil, used the full term “LGBTI+”. Earlier this year, Pope Francis named da Rocha to the influential Council of Cardinals.

Cardinal Jozef de Kesel

Cardinal Jozef de Kesel, Archbishop Emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels (Belgium)

In 2022, De Kesel was a leader in the Flemish bishops’ publication of an LGBTQ+ ministry initiative that included a liturgy to bless same-gender couples in 2022. Later that year, following the Belgian bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome, De Kesel, once the Primate of Belgium and president of the country’s episcopal conference, said “the atmosphere has changed” at the Vatican, including the ability to dialogue with officials in the Curia about how and why the Flemish bishops saw such blessings as needed. The cardinal added that “celibacy is a charism, a gift that is not for everyone,” so the church needed to be “realistic” that gay people will seek “a partner with whom they can share their lives.” Created a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2016, De Kesel first expressed support for blessing same-gender couples back in 2018.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay (India)

Cardinal Oswald Gracias

Just months after Pope Francis’ 2013 election, the cardinal told priests that they need to be more sensitive in their language about sexual minorities. In the same year, he advocated publicly for the decriminalization of homosexuality, long before India’s Supreme Court struck down a colonial-era law banning same-gender relations in 2018. He also was the only major religious leader in India who opposed an initiative to re-criminalize LGBTQ+ people. Gracias, the former head of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, spoke out for better pastoral care during the 2014 Synod on the Family. He said to LGBTQ+ Catholics in an interview with Bondings 2.0 that the church “embraces you, wants you, needs you.” In terms of pastoral care, the cardinal was instrumental in the launch of both Rainbow Catholics India and a hotline to help LGBTQ+ Catholics. Earlier this year, Gracias was named by Pope Francis to the Council of Cardinals, who are among the pope’s closest advisors. He led an English-language working group at the 2018 Synod on Youth, and participated in the 2014 Synod on Family, where he stated that it was an “unequivocal yes” that gay people are welcome in the church.

Cardinal Mario Grech

Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General, Secretariat for the Synod

Grech is second only to Pope Francis in leadership of the Synod. In 2015, as bishop of Gozo in Malta, Grech said Catholics in same-gender civil unions should “of course” be welcomed in the church because “there can be different forms of relationship” beyond marriage, and further, “the road is wide open to those truly seeking to follow God’s footsteps, regardless of their sexual orientation. (Notably, these comments were made years before Pope Francis offered his own support for civil unions.) In 2014, as a member of the Synod on the Family he gave a speech calling church leaders to be more sensitive in their language about lesbian and gay people. Grech also shared that, before the synod, he took time to listen to parents’ of LGBTQ+ people so that he could better understand the reality of their lives. At the time, it was reported that Pope Francis told Grech that he approved of his talk. Leaders in Malta’s Catholic LGBTQ+ community have repeatedly expressed appreciation for Grech’s willingness to dialogue.

Tomorrow, Bondings 2.0 will highlight more LGBTQ-positive bishops participating in the Synod. On Wednesday, the blog will feature non-bishop participants with LGBTQ+ records, as well as a commentary. After Wednesday, you can find the full list of Synod assembly participants with LGBTQ+ records by clicking here.

For the blog’s full coverage of the Synod on Synodality, click here. For all of New Ways Ministry’s resources on the Synod, click here

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, July 12, 2023

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