Deeply divided clerics at a landmark Vatican summit echoed the more inclusive tone of Pope Francis on Saturday, extending more welcoming language to divorced and gay Catholics but stopping short of calling for clear alterations in policy and leaving the extent of any change in the hands of the mercurial pontiff.
The meeting — known as a synod — marked the culmination of a two-year process to recalibrate the faith’s approach to families in the 21st century and broke new ground by tackling issues once considered taboo in the Roman Catholic Church. In the most significant pronouncement, the clerics cracked open the door for divorced and remarried Catholics, who the church teaches are technically living in adultery, to receive Communion — a sacrament from which they are currently officially barred.
But the synod did not explicitly condone a change either, leaving Francis room to interpret the will of his hierarchy. The document also recognized the “dignity” of homosexuals, while also saying there was not even a “remote” similarity between same-sex unions and “God’s design on matrimony and family.”
The final communiqué, while a significant bellwether of the hierarchy’s thinking, nevertheless amounts only to a recommendation to Francis. As pope in the benevolent autocracy that is Vatican City, Francis now has the final say.
Liberals at the synod were pragmatic, saying they were impressed they got as far as they did given significant conservative resistance. But the staunch opposition to fast change suggested how difficult it may now be for Francis to translate his revolutionary style into substance.
It also puts him in a highly difficult position. If he fails to change the status quo, he risks disappointing liberal Catholics — as well as many non-Catholics — who have heralded him worldwide as an agent of change. Yet going too far beyond the recommendations could alienate many in his own divided church, triggering an even stronger backlash among conservatives — some of whom are already openly questioning the direction of his papacy.
“What the pope has to do now is take all of this in and decide how to we use it,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington. “He may decide to use bits and pieces in different ways.”
Around a hundred people gathered at the Pilgrim Centre “Santa Teresa Couderc” in Rome, for the international conference entitled Ways of Love: Snapshots of Catholic Encounters With LGBT People and Their Families, sponsored by the “Global Network of Rainbow Catholics”, a worldwide network of organisations that, in the name of “social justice”, demands inclusion and dignity for LGBT people and their families within the Catholic Church and society in general.
The meeting was attended by Catholic pastoral leaders from around the world, who came together to share, through their stories, their pastoral approach and work in favour of LGBT people within their ecclesiastical communities. In addition to drawing up new action plans, a clear and stated objective of the initiative was to apply some pressure to the impending crucial Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the topic of the Family, which opened in Rome on Monday 5th October.
Presenting the event, two of the conference spokespersons, Andrea Rubera and Martin Pendergast, advocated peaceful dialogue with the community and Catholic institutions, stating:
“Taking inspiration from the second Encyclical of Pope Francis, (Laudato Si), we feel that the time has come for us all to build and care for our shared home, the Church, with commitment from every member of the Roman Catholic community. Our shared home does not need struggle or division. We must find a place for each and every one of God’s people, including LGBT people. The experiences that we bring to the conference in Rome on ‘The Ways of Love’ show us that pastoral work, for and with LGBT people, is already a reality in many parts of the world, without creating any problems for the communities in which it takes place. The idea that we wish to put to the bishops gathered in Rome for the Synod is that we can – and we must – find new ways to spread these models of pastoral work and develop new ones.”
The first speech of the day, as part of the “Snapshots of Pastoral LGBT Projects”, was that of Chilean Jesuit priest Pedro Labrin, the national ecclesiastical assistant of the “Christian Life Community” (CLC/CVX) in Chile. Speaking of his initiative “Sexual Diversity Pastoral Padis+”, which promotes the full inclusion of LGBT people within the Catholic Church, Labrin recalled the story of Daniel Zamudio, presenting him as a martyr of homophobia: “The blood of martyrs is still fresh and it is they who help us to understand what the Second Vatican Council meant by the term Church, the People of God. (…) Daniel did not die by God’s will but by the will of homophobes”.
Next, the American nun Jeannine Gramick took the floor: she was the founder in 1997 with Father Robert Nugent, of the “New Ways Ministry” in the Archdiocese of Washington – an organisation founded with the aim of promoting “justice and reconciliation between lesbian and gay Catholics and the wider Catholic community”. In 1999, as a result of her work and in clear contrast with Catholic doctrine Sister Gramick, together with Father Nugent, was the subject of a notification by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith through which they were “permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons” and ineligible, “for an indeterminate period, for any office in their respective religious institutions”.
Sister Gramick said she converted to a broader and more authentic interpretation of the Gospel after meeting a lesbian, and she spoke of her tireless work in favour of LGBT people. In particular, Gramick stressed the commitment of her parish in the referendum campaign in favour of same-sex marriage equality, a commitment that has made a decisive contribution to changing the opinion of many Catholics, convincing them to vote in favour of gay marriage. Sister Gramick said that she received the approval of the bishop himself for her work, who, despite being publicly known as a conservative, showed great compassion for the LGBT cause. Following the gay marriage victory, according to Sister Gramick the bishop conceded defeat, admitting: “You have won and we have lost; it is you who talk of love and acceptance and not us!” Then Sister Gramick, hoping that the experience of the “New Ways Ministry” may extend from the United States out into the world, offered those at the conference some guidelines and pastoral advice to put into practice in their own parishes and communities: the importance of direct communication with the bishops of the dioceses; the involvement of parishioners, putting them in touch with their bishops to demonstrate to them the faith of lesbians, bisexual, transgender and transsexual people who need to feel accepted, not only by parish priests, but also by the most senior hierarchies of the Church.
Next to speak was Martin Pendergast, a member of the Pastoral Council of Westminster for LGBT Catholics, who shared his own experiences by presenting the projectAll are welcome. After declaring that “homosexuals have the right to effective and welcoming pastoral care” and “the same rights as heterosexuals to receive the sacraments”, Pendergast, who lives happily with another man, stressed that the initiative All are welcome had received the support of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of the Catholic diocese of Westminster. Pendergast then recalled the vicissitudes of his LGBT community in recent years, highlighting with satisfaction how the current church of “Jesuit Farm Street” held a popular “gay Mass”, open to Catholics of all sexual orientation, creating a truly inclusive community where “pastoral needs and concerns are welcomed by the parish and the diocese”. He also hoped that the example of the pastoral work in “Farm Street” may, in the future, become a model to be exported to all other dioceses across the world, stating that there are already many ecclesiastical communities that are interested in the work they are doing. With this is mind, Pendergast gave some practical suggestions, recommending that the model should “not be imposed from above but grow from the roots of pastoral practice.” He then concluded his speech, expressing the hope that in the next Synod on the Family: “a real listening process can be opened up on a global, national and diocesan level, so that the pastoral needs of LGBT Catholics and their families are not given a “one size fits all” pastoral model, but a response that takes into account each and every individual aspect, also leading to grace”.
It was then the turn of Italians Pino Piva and Anna Vitagliano to take the floor, presenting their joint initiatives in the LGBT field. Jesuit Father Piva talked about his project Church, a home for everybody, launched on 3rd April 2014 and still in progress in the parish of San Saba in Rome “Where people, not stereotypes, meet”. The initiative, launched in the parish and ardently supported by Monsignor Matthew Zuppi, auxiliary bishop of Central Rome, is an “invitation to meet and share spiritual experiences with others, seen from the viewpoint of each individual: secular or religious, elderly or young, gay or straight, single or married, cohabiting or divorced”. According to Father Piva, the future of pastoral work must continue in this inclusive direction, so that people are heard before any words of blame or condemnation are spoken.
Anna Vitagliano then presented the initiatives organised as part of the Spirituality of Frontiersproject held at the Casa del Sacro Cuore in Galloro in the province of Rome. This is a two-fold educational initiative consisting of a “spiritual weekend retreat”, linked to the Roman initiativeChurch, a home for everybody and “Training workshops for pastoral ministers and spiritual leaders”.
The day’s proceedings were concluded by the most anticipated and important speaker of all due to the position he holds, the Dominican Bishop Raúl Vera López from the Mexican diocese of Saltillo, known for his views that are openly in contrast with Catholic doctrine, in favour of the rights claimed by LGBT and promotion of abortion. The bishop started by declaring that he felt honoured and privileged to be breaking new ground together with the LGBT community. He then praised the skill and organisational capacity of the gay rights movement, likening the LGBT community to the tiny ants in a Mexican proverb which, through their perseverance and hard work, manage to defeat monsters far greater than themselves: “those who are small and well organised overcome the monsters; you are well organised and you will win.”
Lastly, Bishop Vera López pointed the finger at those priests who, he said, use the Bible as a club to beat poor sinners, and urged them to open their eyes to today’s social changes. At this point, having declared his support for all kinds of family, gay and straight, he addressed the audience with a heartfelt and urgent appeal: “We need you to create a more inclusive church; you are our saviours. (…) The Church did the same work with migrants and subsequently society began to change. (…) Now, Pope Francis needs us. He has cast aside the doctrine and has taken up the Gospel of mercy, peace and love. Please help us!”
This international conference organised by the “Global Network of Rainbow Catholics” shows only too clearly the historic conflict taking place within the Catholic Church. The now famous and overused phrase of Pope Francis from July 2013, “if a person is gay and seeks God, who am I to judge” has proven to be an extraordinary boost for the LGBT community which, in spite of the doctrine, is today seeking a revolution within the Church in the name of the Gospel and God’s mercy. The numerous guest speakers demonstrated that this process is already underway and, in some cases, is also benefiting from significant support within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Chicago Archbishop Blase J. Cupich told reporters that something his mother once said might give the Synod of Bishops a way to balance the need to affirm church teaching while reaching out to those who are struggling.
The archbishop said Oct. 16 that his mother was asked if she loved one of her nine children more than the others. “Only if they need it,” she responded.
“That’s the way mothers speak,” the archbishop said, and that is the way the church needs to speak to families, especially to those who feel excluded or in need of extra attention. “The greatest contribution bishops can make to families is to act and speak like families act and speak,” he said.
At the same time, he said, the Catholic Church cannot “accompany, integrate and reconcile” people whom it does not know and with whom it is incapable of communicating.
“If we are going to really accompany people, we have to first of all engage them. In Chicago, I visit regularly with people who feel marginalized, whether they are the elderly or the divorced and remarried, gay and lesbian individuals, also couples. I think that we need to really get to know what their life is like if we are going to accompany them.”
But underlying all the outreach activity, he said, “We have to believe in the mercy of God and the grace of God to trigger conversion.”
The questions of ministry to homosexuals has come up in the synod, Archbishop Cupich said. “That discussion, it is clear to me, needs to mature in the life of the church. If we are really going to accompany people, we have to first of all engage them.”
“The words accompaniment, integration and reconciliation continue to be repeated in the synod,” he said, and the church needs to find a way to transform those words into real action on behalf of all people, including people who are gay or the divorced and civilly married “or other people who feel disenfranchised.”
On the issue of finding possible ways to lead the divorced and civilly remarried back to full participation in church life, including reception of the sacraments, Archbishop Cupich said synod members have been clear in their positions and those positions are diverse. Some, like the German bishops, see it as an urgent obligation for the church while others say it is impossible without weakening church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
The divorced and remarried, he said, must be ministered to on “a case-by-case basis.”
General principles are essential, he said, but ministry — like a mother’s love — adapts to meet the needs of real-life situations.
Some Catholics need their bishops and priests to speak clearly and firmly, while others need their ministers to demonstrate humility and a desire to search together for the best way to live out God’s call, he said.
The pull of those two demands is something the archbishop said he has felt for 40 years as a priest. Archbishop Cupich added that he had an archbishop friend who claimed he wanted his tombstone to read, “I tried to treat you like adults.”
“We really do have to have an adult Catholic response to living the Christian life. That is, I think, where the Holy Father is leading us. We have the means by which we can help people come to decisions — important decisions — about how they live their Christian life” through prayer and discernment.
Religious education “cannot be just about giving people the fixed doctrines,” he said. It must also show them “the path the church has outlined for making prudent decisions. We have documents that really do help us do that,” including a document from the International Theological Commission from 2009 on natural law and moral decision-making.
In a section on “The moral dispositions of the person and his concrete action,” the document discusses the formation of the conscience with an explanation of moral norms, but also how the person must be helped to apply those norms in his or her real life.
“We can’t just refer to doctrines as though they are syllogisms that we deduce a conclusion to,” Archbishop Cupich said. “There has to be the integration of the person’s circumstances, case by case.”
Asked if the case-by-case approach also applies to pastoral ministry to homosexual persons, the archbishop responded: “Gay people are human beings, too, and they have a conscience. And my role as a pastor is to help them discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the church, yet at the same time helping them — through a period of discernment — to understand what God is calling them to at that point.”
“We have to make sure that we don’t pigeonhole one group as if they aren’t part of the human family, as though there is a different set of rules for them,” he said.
A high-ranking Polish priest who was fired after coming out as gay before the Vatican’s key synod on the family said on Sunday that there was no “gay lobby” in the Church.
Krzysztof Charamsa told a private Italian television channel that he has “never met a gay lobby in the Vatican”, referring to rumours of a network of homosexual priests.
“I met homosexual priests, often isolated like me… but no gay lobby,” said Charamsa, adding that he also met gay priests who were “homophobes” and had “hatred for themselves and others”.
“But I also met several fantastic homosexuals who are some of the best ministers in the Church,” he said in an interview due to be broadcast Sunday.
Charamsa said he wrote a letter to Pope Francis asking him to convey his spirit of openness to bishops at the synod, where Church leaders discussed marriage and family teachings.
The pontiff has in the past spoken about homosexuality and the “gay lobby”.
In 2013 he famously said “Who am I to judge?” when asked about homosexuals in the Church, and the rumoured network of gay Vatican leaders.
Since 2005, the Church has forbidden the ordination of priests with homosexual tendencies. But this rule is applied in different ways, with many bishops turning a blind eye as long as priests remain celibate.
Charamsa, who was fired from his post at the Vatican, says he has stayed faithful to his vow of celibacy because he has “never touched a woman”.