A very extraordinary synod

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Early in the morning of Sunday 19th October I received a text message from the lay reader at our Anglican parish church, who was away for the weekend.

Cartoon by Christian Adams from catholicherald.co.uk

This was unusual – what could be so urgent that she would text so early in the morning while she was on holiday?

The text read:

‘Dear K & W. We want you both to know that we are thinking of you especially after the outcome of the Catholic Synod. I can only imagine your feelings. With our love, H & M xx’

I had followed news of the Roman Catholic Extraordinary Synod on the Family with great interest throughout the week, but had not heard the outcome. If an absent friend is taking time out to text her concern, it can’t be good, I thought.

I didn’t have time to read much more than the news headlines and scan a few articles before we left home for the Sunday morning service:

Just enough to get the gist that the promise of a new welcoming and pastoral tone from the Catholic church hierarchy that had emerged midway through this two-week meeting of the world’s RC bishops had fallen at the last hurdle and been struck from the record of the final report on the Synod.

This was an issue I had followed with interest for some time. Last November, the Vatican took the unprecedented step of conducting a global survey to find out what Catholics really think about its teaching on marriage and family life, including contraception, civil marriage, divorce and re-marriage, and same-sex relationships. While the Catholic Church in some countries released the results of this pre-synod consultation, the bishops of England and Wales did not.

In April I took part in for a BBC Radio 4 feature on a campaign to get te Bishops Conference of England and Wales to release them. A few months later I read a report in the Catholic weekly The Tablet on the Vatican’s pre-synod report which said that:

Catholics failing to follow Church teaching should be treated with mercy but at the same time need to be better educated on its content [The Tablet 26.06.14]

I was not convinced by this patronising paternalism.

Then the second week of the Synod in October began with a mid-session report that, among other statements on extramarital sex, divorce and remarriage, civil unions and other ‘irregular’ family situations, included this statement:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing […] them […] a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
[Relatio post disceptationem para. 50 – Unofficial translation from Italian original]

It continued on the subject of ‘homosexual unions’:

Without denying the moral problems associated with homosexual unions, there are instances where mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice is a precious support in the life of these persons. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to […] children who live with same-sex couples and stresses that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority. – [Ibid. para. 52]

This was a markedly new tone from the Vatican, especially since some conservative priests have felt justified about refusing a child baptism if it is part of an ‘irregular’ family – the best it could do in previous official documents was to say that:

[Homosexual persons] do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided [Catechism para. 2358]

although some statements and actions by the Catholic hierarchy and its institutions have at times shown an inability to show ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ and avoid ‘unjust discrimination’, such as sacking staff in same-sex relationships or comparing the Government’s consultation on same sex marriage to slavery or attacks on religion by totalitarian regimes.

Then on Thursday 16th the Vatican issued a revised version of the unofficial English translation of the Synod mid-session report following a protest from English-speaking conservatives led by a prominent canon lawyer Cardinal Raymond Burke, which replaced the phrase about ‘precious support’ in same-sex relationships with ‘valuable support’, and ‘welcoming homosexual persons,’ with the less inclusive phrase ‘providing for homosexual persons’, though only in the English translation.

Religious scholar and historian Massimo Faggioli pointed out that the original document still uses the word ‘accogliere,’ which means ‘welcoming,’ not ‘providing for.’ ‘I am Italian and that is not a translation. It is a falsification,’ Faggioli tweeted after seeing the new English version of the document.

The news that some English-speaking cardinals felt that ‘providing for’ was enough troubled me – it is far less hospitable than the language of welcoming’. It reminded me of the policy of the Australian government which has ‘provided for’ gay asylum seekers by sending them to Papua New Guinea, which criminalises homosexual acts. Not welcoming at all. Not even offering ‘the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ [Mt 15:27].

On the final day of the Synod, the bishops voted on each paragraph of the draft document, only accepting those which received a two-thirds majority. The two paragraphs on homosexuality quoted above were rejected, along with a pastoral statement on access to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The remaining paragraph on homosexuality merely restates the inequality of ‘homosexual unions’ with marriage and the Catechism teaching against ‘unjust discrimination [Relatio Synodi para. 55] and adds:

Exerting pressure in this regard on the Pastors of the Church is totally unacceptable: this is equally so for international organizations who link their financial assistance to poorer countries with the introduction of laws which establish “marriage” between persons of the same sex. [Ibid. para.56]

This defensive statement appears to show that the Vatican is feeling the heat from those advocating for greater inclusion, as it questions the ethics of some lobbyists’ methods.

The headlines that Sunday morning spoke of ‘disappointment’, ‘setback’, ‘failure’, but none of these gave voice to my response.

During the service that Sunday morning I felt moved to tears – of mourning and gratitude.

Mourning because I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition and spent three years training for priesthood before coming out – of the seminary and as a gay man. I wrestled with my conscience for many years before reconciling my spirituality and sexuality and returning to the practice of my faith. At first this was within the Catholic Church – I even ran the local branch of the Quest group for LGBT Catholics until shortly before my civil partnership – the first to be registered in a place of worship in the UK – when statements from the British hierarchy like those quoted above on same-sex marriage were so lacking in ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ that I felt I could no longer stay in that tradition with integrity.

Gratitude because I have found a partner with whom I share a faith, and a liberal Anglican faith community where we can be ourselves, as individuals and as a couple, without reservation, not only to receive welcome and pastoral care, but for our gifts and qualities to be valued, as we run a monthly service for the LGBT community. I felt overwhelmed by the words of the first hymn, which had never seemed more apt:

We sing a love, unflinching, unafraid,
to be itself, despite another’s wrath,
a love that stands alone and undismayed:
come, strengthening love, live in our hearts today.

That morning one of the clergy encouraged me to write about this. But it was too soon, too deeply felt to respond right away. I felt hurt and angry. Later that day, Equality Depot, an LGBT rights campaign group, tweeted:


I responded:

Beyond that I could not find the words.

Then last weekend I attended a retreat for LGBT Christians at St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in north Wales, where several others shared their response to the Synod and helped me make sense of mine. They pointed out that, although the statements of welcome to gay people, valuing their gifts and talents and recognising the precious support of their relationships were not approved, they did receive 62% of the votes (118 out of 190), just falling short of the required 66% necessary for approval.

Pope Francis also opted for greater transparency by releasing the complete text, including the disputed paragraphs, and the details of how the bishops voted. This is a first, which may bode well for the Ordinary Synod, due to take place in October 2015. The closing report from this year will form the basis of ongoing reflection for the coming year and the agenda for next year’s meeting.

In addition, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, told Radio 4’s Sunday programme that he didn’t think the Synod statements of homosexuality went far enough, as he was looking for statements of respect, welcome and value, and they were not there, and that this apparent setback was ‘not an end’. (He also said he could not remember how he voted on the homosexuality issue, which seems unlikely, but I’ll let that pass.)

Pope Francis has also taken the unprecedented step of demoting Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is openly critical of Francis’ leadership, and said during the Synod that the Pope had ‘done a lot of harm’ by not stating ‘openly what his position is’ and that the Synod seemed to have been designed to ‘weaken the church’s teaching and practice’ with the apparent blessing of Francis. [Buzzfeed News 17.10.14]

On the LGBT Christian weekend retreat we looked at the life of Mychal Judge, the gay Fransiscan priest who was chaplain to the New York Fire Department and the first recorded victim of the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center. We watched Saint of 9/11, a documentary of his life, including his ministry to AIDS patients at a time when even some medical professionals refused proper care to HIV positive patients for fear of contamination. One of those interviewed spoke of the horror and multiple losses of the epidemic and the yearning for a compassionate response from the Church. What they got was a letter from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor of the Inquisition), written by its prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, which stated that:

Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. [CDF October 1986 para. 7]

There was no mention of the AIDS crisis. If it were not for the compassionate embrace of Father Mychal in their last days, many gay Catholic AIDS patients would have died with this language of judgement ringing a discord in their ears.

When I was convenor of the regional branch of the Quest LGBT Catholic group, I briefly toyed with the idea of walking in the Manchester Pride parade chanting:

‘We’re here, we’re queer, we’re objectively disordered towards an intrinsic moral evil!’

Not very catchy, but an attempt at satire to lessen the harm of this harsh tone.

Given that this is where we have come from, on reflection I am grateful for the small mercies this Extraordinary Synod has shown, and hopeful that greater transparency and openness to dialogue will prevail, if not to change the Catholic Church’s teaching, then at least to get it to uphold its claim to respect, compassion, and sensitivity for those of us whose sexuality is differently ordered, and avoiding the unjust discrimination which, by commission or omission, it has perpetuated.

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