Catholic LGBT Ministry Responds to Vatican’s Synod on Youth Final Report

October 27. 2018

Statement of Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry

ROME–The Vatican’s synod on youth has issued a final report that calls for “a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral elaboration” of sexuality and affectivity is an important step forward for the Catholic Church in regard to LGBT issues. The statement acknowledges that the church still has a lot to learn about sexuality.  If the study of these topics is done with open minds and hearts, there is potential for great transformation in the church.

The call for more parishes to provide accompaniment to lesbian and gay people is also a positive.  The words describing accompaniment seem carefully chosen to allow for wide interpretation.  During the synod, a request was made to include a statement calling lesbian and gay people to “conversion,” a word used often in church discourse to mean celibacy.  That language did not make it into the final document.  Instead the pastoral recommendations allow for great latitude of welcome and accompaniment based on the individual person and the local pastoral community and ministers.

The document also contains a strong condemnation of discrimination and violence against lesbian and gay people—an important message to bishops who have sometimes implicitly and explicitly supported LGBT criminalization laws with severe punishments.  Catholic support for these laws must end.

The document has some problematic elements, too.  It reinforces the prohibition of same-sex relationships, though it does so in a way that has been typical of Pope Francis:  it does not use condemnatory language, but instead it endorses the heterosexual model as ideal.

The idea that “it is reductive to define a person’s identity solely on the basis of their ‘sexual orientation’” is also a problem The claim is erroneous in that hardly any lesbian or gay people define their identity solely on their orientation. Asking to be called a “gay Catholic” does not mean that the person only thinks of themselves in terms of sexuality, just as asking to be called a “young Catholic” doesn’t equate identity solely with age, nor does “American Catholic” mean that nationality is a defining characteristic.  These are simply descriptive words.  Implying that sexual orientation dominates an individual’s personality is not only demeaning, but it reveals more about the church hierarchy’s poor understanding of lesbian and gay people than it does about lesbian and gay people themselves.

Finally, the report uses “inclinations,” to describe non-heterosexual sexual activity.  This term reduces lesbian and gay love and sexuality to base desires for sexual activity which.  Not only is it a derogatory word, but it shows a complete ignorance of the affective lives of lesbian and gay people.  Its continued use in church documents is not only an embarrassment, but is harmful.

That the synod report would not use the ordinary terms “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual” is surprising given the pope’s own use of the word “gay.” Such a small gesture in language would have meant a great deal to people.  Additionally, no mention of transgender individuals was made—a glaring omission since transgender people are among the most abused and oppressed people in LGBT communities around the globe.

These problems remind us that there is still much work to be done LGBT justice and equality in the church. In fact, the section that contained the most comprehensive analysis of lesbian and gay issues received the most “no” votes, and it made it to the required 2/3rds majority by only two votes.

The power of this synod lies not in its product, though, but in its process.  It was an unprecedented gathering of church leaders with youth representatives from around the globe, and unlike other synods, it gave a stronger role to the voices of the lay participants.  Regardless of the outcome, it appears that a true dialogue took place—and we hope it will be replicated.

The synod could have been greatly improved if LGBT youth would have been allowed to speak for themselves.  During press briefings, bishops continually spoke about how moved they were by personal youth testimonies that allowed the bishops to put human faces to abstract or unknown situations.  How important it would have been for them to hear directly from LGBT youth about their lives of faith and their experiences of church! The bishops missed a great opportunity for their own education.

The themes of listening and accompaniment emerged as the dominant topics of the meeting.   Bishop participants promised to bring the process of the synod back to their home dioceses and to encourage other bishops to institute similar practices.  If they not do so, their words will sound like empty political campaign promises. By placing emphasis on welcome and accompaniment, the church is placing the LGBT discussion on the personal and local levels—good places for real discussion to take place.

Listening and pastoral accompaniment have potential for changing the hearts and minds of pastoral ministers and church leaders. Depending on how listening and accompaniment are implemented, these tools can help the church better understand and appreciate the sacredness of LGBT lives and loves.  If listening is implemented in the way Pope Francis has recommended, as a theological tool where one listens and allows one’s heart to be touched by new truths, the Catholic Church can begin to be transformed.

The synod’s success will be judged not by what it has accomplished to this date, but its impact on shaping a more dialogical and relational church for the future.