Not so much an earthquake, more an ice-breaking!

The 14th Extraordinary Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops – October 2014

Martin Pendergast

The 14th Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Marriage & Family proved to be a barometer of climate-change in the Roman Catholic Church with more ice-breaking than earthquake tremors. It had started with a questionnaire circulated to garner Catholic opinion from around the world on broad family issues. Unthinkable in the immediately preceding papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the pastoral needs of same-sex couples, along with those of children in such families, figured in the Synod’s Working Document setting the agenda for this recent meeting.

Progressive Catholics, sceptical as a result of previous disappointing assemblies, had their worries reinforced when the list of invited ‘special advisors’ was published. This was stacked with those averse to change on artificial contraception, divorce and remarriage, and same-sex unions. For LGBT Catholics there appeared little prospect of much light at the end of this tunnel.

It is often said that the Roman Catholic Church thinks in centuries, and then introduces change, almost overnight. Something like this began to happen in the Synod’s first week as bishops and lay-people began to speak out on lesbian and gay issues. Repeated appeals were made to banish the harsh language used to describe LGBT people. A Cardinal described a same-sex union which he had encountered as having something of the sacred about it. A straight American couple extolled friends as models of evangelisation, because they invited their son’s gay partner home for Christmas. Respect, welcome, and valuing LGBT people’s gifts were the order of the day.

Then panic set in! It looked like an end to the slogans of ‘objective moral evil’, ‘intrinsic disorder’ ascribed to those ‘suffering from same-sex attractions or tendencies’. Opponents of the “Who am I to judge?” Argentinian Pope re-grouped to prevent the theological inheritance of these last thirty years from being cast aside. Perhaps the more pastorally-minded Synod members became complacent as they enjoyed a new atmosphere of open debate.

The Message of the Synod was a warm greeting from the Bishops, in marked contrast to the sharp disagreements evident in their consideration of the Synod’s subsequent Final Report. This backtracked on key issues around admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist, and more LGBT- friendly pastoral strategies. Fear had overcome courage and rigidity had strangled the rights of conscientious dissent with regard to Church teachings – which were not primary level doctrines anyway.

”LGBT Catholics! Why don’t they just pack their bags and leave?” The reason we stay is because our baptism gives us rights, enshrined in Church law, as well as responsibilities to inform our pastors of all that builds us up as mature believers, integrating our sexuality, gender, and personality as ‘the glory of God in the human person, fully alive.’ “But you’re trying to change Church doctrine!” state our opponents, inside and outside the Catholic stable.

Enter Pope Francis, not in the autocratic style of some Popes, but seeking to change pastoral practice and attitudes. His Latin American experience reflects a different approach to doctrine. His smiling image disguises his identity as a canny Jesuit, just the sort the British have mistrusted for four centuries! He starts from where people are, and develops solidarity, particularly with those whom he sees as alienated or marginalised, whether from Church or society. Out of this orthopraxis – consistent action – there is a possibility of developing a rooted theological reflection, orthodoxy – consistent teaching. Such action invigorates reflection – and vice versa. Hence he has strongly insisted on more inclusive practices within the Church, rather than starting from abstract dogmas and attempting to impose them on an unreceptive community.

Another theological approach also came in from the cold at this Synod. The Polish Pope had strongly rejected the notion of ‘gradualism’ applied to personal and sexual ethics. Within moral theology, ‘gradualism’ identifies ideals which for a variety of reasons, people are unable immediately to attain. A new word was coined at this Synod: ‘graduality’, to describe the functional processes in and through which people fulfil their created design. ‘Gradualism’ can smack of an ideological position which establishes an externally enforced end-point, but without the free participation of the person involved. Many bishops adopted this graduality-style as they spoke of the journeys which people make in their faith and human development.

How do we measure up against a social justice ethic, in our personal and social relationships? How do our sexual lives reflect values of respect and trust, doing no harm, recognising the dignity of others, and their uniqueness. A  richer theology of human sexuality, gender, and relationships seemed on the point of emerging.  The Synod has not ended but is a work in progress. In spite of set-backs the vision remains. Pope Francis has clearly not been deflected from his project to reform Church structures and practice. The flawed Final Report, at the Pope’s behest, now forms the starting point for the expanded October 2015 Synod. Look out for more fireworks to come! 

Martin Pendergast was in Rome during the week prior to the Synod for meetings of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups and Catholic Reform Groups International.  A version of this article appeared in the Comment Is Free section of the Guardian website on 23 October.

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