Bondings 2.0 writers Robert Shine and Francis DeBernardo are in Rome for the month of October covering the first global assembly of the Synod on Synodality, particularly LGBTQ-related developments. For the blog’s full coverage of this multi-year synodal journey, click here.
REPORTING FROM ROME—As the Synod on Synodality’s first General Assembly approached, some Catholics cautioned against letting the process be ‘dragged down’ by certain issues, almost always related to sexuality and gender. Their fear, perhaps, is that, like the Synod on the Family or Synod on Youth, these topics will be what make headlines and generate buzz.
Those warning against addressing gender and sexuality at the Synod assembly are not exclusively from critics who worry this whole process is a gateway to heresy and schism. The cautions come, too, from some liberals who are deeply invested in the synodal project being a success at any cost. They seem to envision an assembly conversing about ‘big matters,’ against which gender and sexuality are set as neuralgic points.
Such warnings, however, present a frightened and skewed perspective about both the synodal process and the topics themselves. Gender and sexuality must be taken up by the church universal in a more enlightened, substantive, dialogical way, and the assembly this month is a prime moment to do so. Indeed, the Synod assembly risks failure if it avoids full examinations of such core questions—and if the final synthesis report doesn’t make an explicit commitment to contiued dialogue on these issues.
The people of God who participated in synodal discussions these past two years forcefully emphasized that concern for LGBTQ+ people, particularly the marginalization we face in the church, is a top priority. This concern appeared explicitly in hundreds of diocesan reports, dozens of national episcopal reports, six of the seven continental reports, and in the three Vatican documents released so far. So, too, did issues of gender equity in the church, ordination justice, and the need for a new sexual ethics.
This awareness and positive concern for queer and transgender Catholics is unprecedented in the two millennia history of the Catholic Church. The global reports prove that LGBTQ+ inclusion is not simply a Western phenomenon, as opponents sometimes claim, but a concern for Catholics worldwide. And the reports emphasize that the institutional church’s too-long mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people wounds more than just those of us in this marginalized community. Our families and friends, and even the stranger in the pew next to us, are all mourning the harm done. Indeed, the institutional church’s failures on this issue are driving many heterosexual and cisgender out of church pews, too.
This awareness makes sense. Issues of gender and sexuality are unavoidably central in our lives—personal, civil, and ecclesial. Discrimination or acceptance based on one’s gender or sexual orientation impacts every aspect of a person’s life: job, housing, mental health, safety, education, relationships, family structures, and ability to participate in communal life in society and the church. Unlike other synod topics, gender and sexuality issues affect literally everyone, for there is not a single person whose gender and sexual identities do not impact how they understand themselves and navigate the world.
A forthright dialogue about how deeply the institutional church is failing them on gender and sexuality issues is desperately needed at the synod. Questions like LGBTQ+ inclusion, women’s ordination, and reproductive ethics must be addressed. How each of us deals with our sexual and gender identities impacts our ability to be—or not be—in right relationship with other people and with institutions such as the church.
Some commentators emphasize that the Synod on Synodality is more about the process–the way in which we are church–than it is about any conclusions on particular topics. Yet, it will be impossible to realize “journeying together” into the third millennium while some Catholics are denied sacraments, subjected to cruel homilies, fired from church jobs, abandoned by families, and even told by bishops in some countries they should be criminalized.
As I observe the Synod assembly firsthand here in Rome, it is clear the Holy Spirit is indeed the protagonist. It is an event of deep prayer. I pray that this Synod assembly will expand its dialogue on gender and sexuality with boldness, not fear. Church officials’ informal statements, including those made at press briefings this month, and personal gestures supporting LGBTQ+ people have been nice, but the time for these kind of general statements is waning. People marginalized by church teaching and practice want and deserve institutional recognition of the harm done ,and a path to reconciliation endorsed at the highest ecclesial levels.
For decades, LGBTQ+ people, women, and allies have advocated and prayed for the institutional church to enter a genuine dialogue on sexuality and gender. The Synod assembly seems it can be the forum such a dialogue. The participants should seize this historic moment to begin such a dialogue and chart a concrete path for it to continue—not just in positive statements, but in the documents and next steps.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, October 14, 2023