In the mid-1990s, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family Life drafted a pastoral document addressed to parents who have lesbian or gay children. During the many revisions of the document, Bishop Joseph Charron of Des Moines, who chaired the committee at the time, appeared before the 60-member Administrative Board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to present the draft. He returned from one such meeting very discouraged. The board had gutted a section of the document that spoke about the role of conscience in making complex decisions. In frustration, he complained that these men had no understanding of what it meant to show pastoral understanding in the face of difficult life situations.
That’s how I felt when I heard the news that the bishops at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family backtracked on the cordial tone of the interim document released after the first week of discussions. Do these bishops know what it means to show a pastoral face? Wasn’t this synod called to discuss “pastoral issues?” LGBT persons and their allies did not make excessive demands. They were seeking some kind words of welcome.
This is the welcome they heard in the interim draft, released one week after the Synod began: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community” and they “want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home.” The draft spoke of “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation” and of homosexual couples who offer “valuable support” to each other and “mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice.” These were the words of a revised English translation of the interim text, which made the English reading smoother.
This was not the kind of revision called for by Cardinal Raymond Burke. He claimed that the original paragraphs represented a minority view and had caused confusion among the faithful. Cardinal Burke and other conservative bishops were calling for substantial change in the text, and they finally got it.
The two paragraphs of the final document dealing with LGBT persons are titled "Pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual orientations.” The only pastoral note in these two paragraphs is the judgment that lesbian and gay persons “must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” These words are a trivial substitute. They merely repeat phrases from the 2003 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that condemned same-sex unions.
Unfortunately, the final document removes all the language that expressed the cordial welcome the church needs to extend. Are we a church that follows the law of love (Jn. 13:34) or a church that confines people to the letter of the law (Gal. 2:16)? In his closing address to the Synod, Pope Francis cautioned against "hostile rigidity," or a “letter-of-the-law” mentality. Because Pope Francis wants to keep the dialogue going, he said that the three paragraphs in the interim draft that failed to pass by a two-thirds vote would be part of the continued discussion and debate during the coming year.
As we move ahead to the Ordinary Synod on the Family in October 2015, LGBT Catholics and their allies have a lot of work to do. It is the work of conversations and discussions with our bishops. Now is the time for LGBT Catholics, their parents, and friends to raise their voices and tell their stories to church leaders.
I am reminded of a story told by Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn before his tragic death last year in an auto accident. In one of his conversations with New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop Sullivan mentioned that the language used in church documents or public statements from bishops is often perceived as harsh and unfeeling by LGBT people and their friends. Cardinal Dolan responded that the people he hears from tell him the language is not severe enough.
How can we expect our church leaders to open their hearts to conversion if we do not provide them with stories for their ears to hear? How can we complain that bishops are insensitive to what LGBT people suffer if we do not take the time to dialogue with them?
I saw the effect of such dialogue at work during the Synod. While in Rome, I met Joseanne and Joseph Peregin, who represented the parents’ LGBTI group from Malta. The parents’ group sent a letter to Bishop Mario Grech of Malta, the President of the Maltese Episcopal Conference, in early 2014 and followed up with a series of meetings with their bishops. Bishop Grech said that their meetings were very helpful and forwarded their letter to the Secretariat of the Synod. During the Synod, he called the church to be more understanding and accepting of LGBT Catholics. For a fuller description of the dialogue between the bishops of Malta and LGBT Catholics and their parents, read this article from New Ways Ministry.
At an international conference of LGBT Christian groups that met in Rome just before the Synod opened, I also met almost a dozen members of PADIS, a group of gay, lesbian and bisexual Catholics in Chile that are part of the Christian Life Community (CLC), formed by the Jesuits. They too had written a letter to Pope Francis and the bishops of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. They were in Rome for some high level meetings with Jesuit superiors to promote the welcome of LGBT persons in the church.
It is time for each of us to write a letter or ask for some dialogue time with our bishop. The “culture warriors” are continually phoning, writing letters or meeting bishops to communicate their opinions. It is time for our bishops to understand that these attitudes represent a minority view. The bishops need to hear from the progressive members of our church.
There is one more letter I feel we should write. It is a letter to Pope Francis, asking him to appoint some LGBT persons and couples as official observers to the Extraordinary Synod so that the bishops can hear personal testimonies of the faith life of LGBT Catholics. I remember the colorful banner that some members of the National Coalition of American Nuns unfurled in St. Peter’s Square in 1994 during the Synod on Religious Life. “No speaking about us without us,” the nuns said. It may be time to do what the sisters said.
[Sr. Jeannine Gramick is a Sister of Loretto who has been involved in a pastoral ministry for lesbian and gay Catholics since 1971. She co-founded New Ways Ministry and has been an Executive Coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns since 2003.]
Read her pre-Synod column, Synod hopes: That all are welcome