Extract from a Report on Roman Synod by ‘Religion Despatches’

The big story this week is the ideological warfare and spin-control struggles that broke into the open after the public reading on Monday of a working document called a relatio that was intended to summarize discussions to date at the Catholic bishops’ synod on the family.

The document contained language that felt to many like a major departure – what some called a“stunning shift” in the church’s approach to gay people. That draft and the media response to it provoked a furious backlash from conservatives, who are hoping for a major re-write before the final document is presented to bishops on Saturday.

Among the rhetoric drawing attention was the statement that gays and lesbians have “gifts to offer” the church.

“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

The report also said that some gay couples give each other “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” and “precious support in the life of the partners.” To many journalists and LGBT and liberal Catholics, this kind of language praising gay couples was nothing short of astonishing. One Vatican journalist called it a “pastoral earthquake.”

For example, Francis DeBernarndo of New Ways Ministry, told the Washignton Blade, “It’s really a total reversal of the attitude and approach the church leaders have taken regarding lesbian and gay people for decades now.” Tom Roberts wrote in the New Republic, “Pope Francis Just Ripped the Weapons From the Culture Warriors’ Hands.”

At the Guardian, Lizzy Davies wrote

Is this the modern family according to Francis? From gay relationships to extramarital sex, from divorce and remarriage to civil unions, the Roman Catholic church has signalled it is ready to adopt what some see as a markedly more conciliatory tone towards those in “irregular” familial setups.

The New York Times’ Elisabetta Povoledo and Laurie Goodstein similarly called it “the first signal that the institutional church may follow the direction Francis has set in the first 18 months of his papacy, away from condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness and mercy.”

The conservative backlash was immediate and intense, if sometimes contradictory. Some conservatives lamented what they saw as a betrayal to the church’s teachings, while others, like George Weigel at National Review, downplayed the relatio’s significance and blamed the media for blowing things out of proportion.

Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press described the backlash this way:

A fight for the soul of the Catholic Church has broken out, and the first battlefield is a document on family values that pits increasingly alarmed conservatives against more progressive bishops emboldened by Pope Francis’ vision of a church that is more merciful than moralistic.

Thomas Peters of the National Organization for Marriage was appalled about the Vatican press office’s handling of the document and the conversations it spawned.  He argued that conservatives must overcome the “falsehood” that “only the revisionists speak from a place of mercy,” adding, “True mercy is always rooted in the truth. And authentic mercy can never contradict the truth.

Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier called the situation “virtually irredeemable.” Conservative American Cardinal Raymond Burke, said the report” lacks a solid foundation in the sacred Scriptures.” Burke went so far as to demand that Pope Francis speak out and clarify that church doctrine on marriage and homosexuality is not being changed. John Thavis provides a summary of conservative gripes.

It’s not only conservative Catholics that have been weighing in on the synod: Protestants like Rick Warren joined conservative Catholics in a pre-synod letter calling for the bishops to be outspoken advocates for “timeless truths” about marriage. American anti-gay activist Bradlee Dean, who announced, “I’m no friend of the Roman Catholic Church, their councils or their Popes,” slammed “the liberal leaning Pope Francis and his Roman ecclesiastical hierarchy” for focusing on positive contributions “sodomites” can make in the church.” And Brooklyn-based Orthodox Rabbi Yehuda Levin, a spokesman for the Rabbinical Council of America, appealed, according to LifeSite News, “to conservative cardinals to resist all efforts to tolerate or accept homosexuality” at the synod.

According to Levin, who said he was not speaking for the Rabbinical Alliance, “The Catholic Church is a real bulwark at the United Nations and internationally, the premier defender of family and pro-life values.” Orthodox Jews share those values and rely on the Catholic Church as an ally. Moreover, “As things go in the Christian community, they soon go in the Jewish community,” he said.

“Why discuss homosexual unions at all?” Levin asks. “What’s to discuss?” The rabbi said Scripture is clear on the immorality of homosexuality and “true compassion” demands that we call our neighbour out of their sin.

Levin worried that some Catholic leaders are falling prey to a “militant methodology” organized by radical homosexuals that has already forced public schools, governments, and professional bodies such as the American Psychological Association to accept homosexuality as normal.

Levin appealed to the retired pope Benedict to “step forward and preach the unadulterated truth.”

The truth, he added, is that homosexuality is wrong, and taking a so-called non-judgmental approach to it can only encourage its growth. “There is something worse than murdering a child,” Levin said. “Because, as the Talmud says, when you kill someone physically you don’t touch them spiritually. But when you lead a person into heinous sin, you kill them spiritually in this world and the next world.”

All the hoopla led to a bit of bactracking, at least rhetorically, but liberals and conservatives jockeyed over the extent to which the Vatican’s statements clarifying the relatio’s role in the process marked any walk-back from its ideas.

In response to such reactions, the Vatican backtracked a bit Tuesday. In a statement, it said the report on gays and lesbians was a “working document,” not the final word from Rome.

The Vatican also said that it wanted to welcome gays and lesbians in the church, but not create “the impression of a positive evaluation” of same-sex relationships, or, for that matter, of unmarried couples who live together….

It is not clear where the chips will fall. On Thursday, Winfield of Associated Press reported, “The Vatican is watering down a ground-breaking overture to gays — but only if they speak English.”

After a draft report by bishops debating family issues came under criticism from conservative English-speaking bishops, the Vatican released a new translation on Thursday.

A section initially titled “Welcoming homosexuals” is now “Providing for homosexual persons,” and the tone of the text is significantly colder and less welcoming.

The initial English version — released Monday along with the original — accurately reflected the Italian version in both letter and spirit, and contained a remarkable tone of acceptance extended to gays. Conservatives were outraged.

The first version asked if the church was capable of “welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities.” The new version asks if the church is “capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing … them … a place of fellowship in our communities.”

The first version said homosexual unions can often constitute a “precious support in the life of the partners.” The new one says gay unions often constitute “valuable support in the life of these persons.”

In nearly all cases, the first version followed the official Italian version in verbatim; the second provides a different tone altogether.

In contrast, the Catholic News Agency argued that the original English translation was inaccurate.

While the working report is not a final document, there is plenty of intrigue over who will be responsible for drafting that final document. While bishops elected conservatives to committees that will consider portions of the final report, Francis himself appointed a group of his own choosing to oversee the drafting. According to the Associated Press:

The bishops themselves elected a host of known conservatives to lead the working groups hammering out details of the final report. In an apparent bid to counter their influence, Francis appointed six progressives to draft the final document.

America magazine’s Gerard O’Connell called that move by Francis “unprecedented and highly significant.” The final report that emerges “will provide the basis for discussion in Bishops’ Conferences and Churches around the world between now and the synod of October 2015.”

It will serve as the equivalent of a Working Document in preparation for the next synod which is expected to come up with important proposals regarding the pastoral approach to the family in the 21st century, including those regarding how the Church will respond to the questions of cohabitation, the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics, other irregular situations, same-sex unions and much else.…

But on Thursday, James Martin reported that “Pope Francis added two new members to the drafting commission, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban and Archbishop Denis Hart of Oceania, apparently to further include different viewpoints (particularly from African bishops). Cardinal Napier had been on record as describing the first ‘relatio’ as nearly ‘irredeemable.’”

O’Connell wrote that the openness of the conversation at the synod, which has exposed differences of opinion and priority, is itself a direct consequence of the more open approach championed by Francis:

Every participant that I have spoken to in private, as well as those who met the press, gave fulsome credit to Pope Francis for creating a climate of freedom in which everyone has felt totally free to say what they really think on a given topic.  “People are very relaxed, and even make jokes”, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin commented.  He said the Pope has contributed greatly to this climate not only by advocating that they speak freely and boldly on the first day but also by arriving early each day, greeting participants when they arrive, and mingling with people at the coffee breaks.

It is well known that in past synods a discreet but effective censorship was exercised by Vatican officials, but what was even more serious and damaging to the realization of an open and honest debate was the “self-censorship” exercised by the bishops themselves at these gatherings. Archbishop Jose Maria Arancedo, President of the Argentine Bishops Conference, stated this frankly in an interview on October 9 when, referring to past synods, he said, “The worst censorship is self-censorship”.

A second very important factor that differentiates this synod from previous ones is that “the inductive” rather than “the deductive” method has prevailed. Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, President of the Canadian Bishops Conference, highlighted this particular aspect at a Vatican briefing on October 9.

“What’s going on in the Synod is we’re seeing a more inductive way of reflecting, starting with the real situations of people… and finding that the lived experience of people is also a theological source, a place of theological reflection”, he stated.

“The bishops are speaking as pastors”, many participants confirmed. They are speaking from personal experience and honest conviction on a wide variety of issues.  At times they are doing so with great passion, also from their experiences of the happy or broken marriages of their own parents.

On the other hand, there’s plenty in the document that affirms church teachings and stakes out more conservative politicians. As the New York Times notes,

The document also criticizes pressure by the United Nations and some Western nations to compel countries in Africa and elsewhere to rescind laws that restrict the rights of gay people, in exchange for financial aid. It says it is unacceptable “that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.”

“Gender ideology” is a construct being pushed by Catholic leaders in Poland and across Europe as a shorthand for everything conservatives don’t like about nontraditional views on family, women, and LGBT people.

It is not clear how much change will actually result from this synod, or next year’s. Patricia Miller has noted in RD, the synod’s signs of greater welcome to LGBT people has not extended so much to women. At National Catholic Reporter, Heidi Schlumpf has a hard time getting excited about the bishops’ “gradualism” on family issues. Father James Martin, S.J., suggests, “Maybe this is not so much Vatican III as the continuation of Vatican II.”


Today is the day (Saturday, 19 October, 2014) when the report of the Meeting of Bishops and others in Rome – on matters of gender and sexuality – will be presented to the Council of Catholic Bishops for further consideration.

Entitled “In the 10/17/2014 edition: Synod ‘Fight for Soul’ of Catholic Church, Flap On English Translation of Key Report; Anti-Gay Law Advances in Kyrgyzstan; Global LGBT Recap”; this extract of the report, published by ‘Religion Despatches’, provides evidence of the fight for supremacy between traditionalists and the modernists – led, seemingly, by no less than Pope Francis himself – that threatens the uneasy truce of the Roman Catholic Church on matters of Church Discipline; between: those who want to maintain the status quo situation of a stand-off against reform of the treatment of homosexuality and divorce and: the advocates of reform on these issues. in order to bring Catholic Church polity into a 21st century understanding of the pastoral concerns presented.

It will be most interesting to see what the actual report presented to the Synod of Bishops will contain in the way of suggested reforms that could have such a wide-scale effect on the lives of divorcees and homosexuals who wish to be accepted as viable members of the Roman Catholic Church. Whatever the outcome of this present convocation of bishops; the facts of suggested liberalization would seem to be consonant with what was shaping up for the reforms suggested by Vatican II – before the Curia stepped back from its full implementation. Could Vatican III be far behind?

Interestingly, the fears being enunciated by conservative opposition to any reforms on these issues in the Catholic Church seem not too different from those being voiced in certain provinces of the Anglican Communion – re the acceptance of women bishops and gays in the Church. Time alone will tell how long conservative forces can keep the Church in thrall to out-dated pastoral polity.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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3 Responses to Extract from a Report on Roman Synod by ‘Religion Despatches’

  1. Michael Primrose says:

    Hi Fr, Ron,

    Unfortunately, the faint possibility of reform has dragged Cardinal George Pell away from the delightful counting tables of bankers, back into the media lime-light, and led him to pontificate, once again, on the static nature of church doctrine


    it would appear that, even when absent from Sydney, we still have to suffer under his lack of empathy and compassion. As he so aptly put it at the Royal Commission, he is like the CEO of a trucking company, who is not responsible to sexual dalliances of his truckers in company time, nor yet the horrors inflicted on some of the hitch hiking flock.

    Welcome back from the wilds of the Pacific. I hope you and Diana are fully rested and brimming with critical zest and vigour


    Michael Primrose

  2. murraysmallbone says:

    Welcome back Fr. Ron,hoping that you and Diana are fully refreshed.

    My comment is brief; the only timeless truth is the fullness of Love as is in our lord Jesus Christ. all the rest is human originated,.
    Learning to love en Christo is a continuous struggle.

    Jesu mercy!!! Mary pray !!!!

  3. kiwianglo says:

    Thanks, Michael and Murray (M. & M. ?) for your welcomes. We are indeed well rested – and ready for the fray. My Sunday morning sermon addressed the infelicity of ISIS violence in the name of religion. Here we have a real dilemma. When is violence at the level that requires a violent response? Especially when dogmatic principles get in the way of peaceful co-existence?
    Tonight, I will be speaking of ‘the great love of God as revealed in the Son’. Agape, Fr. Ron

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