As 270 Catholic bishops from around the world debate issues related to the family inside the Vatican’s Synod Hall from Oct. 4-25, activists, advocacy groups, and ordinary people with a cause to promote or a question to raise have descended on Rome to be active on the sidelines of the event, representing views across the spectrum. Crux is offering periodic snapshots of this “synod outside the synod,” profiling people and their causes.
ROME — Even as the Western world increasingly accepts same-sex marriage and moves on to other battles in the culture wars, the Catholic Church remains steadfast in its conviction that marriage is, and will always be, the union of one man and one woman.
But that hasn’t stopped Francis DeBernardo from traveling from the Maryland office of the group he leads, New Ways Ministry, to Rome to try to persuade bishops to ease up a bit on how they speak to, and about, gay and lesbian Catholics.
“A change in language and a change in pastoral practice are needed because justice demands it,” he says. “Justice and Christian charity demand it.”
Synod delegates have been clear that Church teaching is not up for debate, but some have said that how the Church applies that teaching is under consideration.
And that’s okay with DeBernardo.
“We have people being excluded from Communion, being excluded from being godparents, being fired from jobs because they marry, being denied leadership roles in parish communities, being excluded at funerals of their relatives,” he said. “Any positive step on issues like that would be wonderful.”
With the synod’s first week coming to a close, bishops have said in press briefings that issues related to gay and lesbian Catholics have not been discussed with much frequency in the synod hall (the topic is reserved for third and final week).
But there are hints that how the Church speaks about the issue is up for debate. And if bishops make progress in that area, DeBernardo said, he would see that as a victory.
“A success would be a statement of unconditional welcome to LGBT people. That’s needed right now while there is welcome in some areas, there are so many places where officially they are not welcome,” he said. “A statement of unconditional welcome is so needed, and if that’s all we get from the synod, that will still be a success.”
“When I say unconditional, I don’t mean, ‘We welcome people who follow the teaching of the Church,’ or ‘We welcome people but we don’t accept their lifestyle,’” he said.
He said he hopes Church leaders drop phrases he considers “offensive and downright inaccurate,” such as “homosexual tendencies” and “people with same-sex attraction,” and instead turn to using more colloquial language: gay and lesbian.
Indeed, Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” comment was seen as revolutionary not just because of the content of the message, but because he said “gay” rather than “homosexual.” And at Thursday’s press briefing, an African archbishop used the word gay, even while slamming countries that place conditions on international aid that call for protections for LGBT people.
But a change in language might be a tough sell for some prelates.
The day before, for example, an American archbishop responded to a question about gay and lesbian Catholics by using the phrase “people with same-sex attraction.”
Another area where DeBernardo hopes for action is a firm statement from bishops on condemning the criminalization of homosexuality.
“Bishops in the countries where lesbian and gay people are criminalized are either silent or ambiguous or ambivalent about the criminalization issue, yet Church teaching is clear that this is not acceptable,” he said. “So we need a clear statement from the hierarchy on that.”
Critics of the synod have said that even discussing controversial issues — such as Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics or outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics — could muddle Church teaching in the minds of everyday Catholics. They fear the initial discussions, while presented as cosmetic in nature, are actually a push to change teaching.
For his part, DeBerardo doesn’t try to disabuse that notion.
“Pastoral practice first has to change, then there has to be theological reflection on that pastoral practice, then eventually from that theological reflection a change in doctrine might occur,” he said. “That’s the pattern that’s always happened in the Church on any issue.”
Some bishops have lamented that the number of gay and lesbian Catholics is tiny compared to the amount of time devoted to the topic in the media, and DeBernardo concedes that point.
But he said the larger issue is ministering to the increasing number of Catholic families who accept their gay and lesbian relatives.
“The Church is faced with a pastoral problem of not just reaching out to gay and lesbian people, but reaching out to people who support and love them,” he said. “That’s particularly true with the younger generation. They are going to lose the entire younger generation if they keep having the harsh and divisive rhetoric of homophobia, regardless of their orientation.”
Italian Cardinal Edoardo Menichelli of Ancona-Osimo seemed to acknowledge this during Thursday’s press briefing.
When asked by a reporter why bishops were discussing issues related to gays and lesbians, he said, “This is part and parcel of the family reality for many reasons.”
New Ways Ministry’s relationship with the Church is “mixed,” DeBernardo said.
Its staff continues to be invited to offer workshops in some US parishes, but some dioceses have banned them altogether. “It all depends on the local bishop,” he said.
In 1999, the Vatican censured its two co-founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick and the Rev. Robert Nugent. Nugent, who died last year, was silenced by Rome in 2000. (Sister Gramick refused to comply with the Vatican’s order to stop ministering to LGBT Catholics.) And in 2010, the late Cardinal Francis George, who was then president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the group “cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States.”
But DeBernardo holds out hope that things might change, even if he hasn’t yet been able to secure a meeting with any of the synod’s 270 bishops.
“Francis keeps saying that God is the God of surprises,” he continued. “We have to keep doing things without regard to where they will lead. We have to do them because they are the right things to do.”
Next: A woman who hopes the synod offers new ways to promote old truths, including John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.