So many reasons for hope as the Synod offers a final document


Deborah Rose-Milavec of Future Church, Reporting from Rome

I am sitting in the Chicago airport after a nine hour flight from Rome. One more stretch to go until I'm back in Cleveland. But I am very happy. This final document contains many reasons for hope.

I left Rome under a cloud of apprehension. We had received a report that the final document would contain language that would prevent women religious from voting at a future synod. Over Copenhagen, with my usual stubborn determination, I wrote a note to the Vatican.

Dear Vatican,

We won't stop.

#VotesForCatholicWomen

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But as my plane drew closer to the United States, I learned that the document contained no such language.

Hurray!

What we did learn is that there was an effort to add language allowing women religious to vote, but that it was removed at the end. That is probably a good thing, especially if it wasn't going to pass. The one thing we don't want is for Francis to feel bound by a decision of world bishops that constrains future roles for women.


Beyond, the voting question, the document actually moves the conversation about women's roles forward. Here are some of the key paragraphs. The old constraining language of complementarity is still there, but it is a bit more balanced by the language of justice for women.


Men and women

13. We cannot forget the difference between men and women with their peculiar gifts, the specific sensibilities and experiences of the world. This difference can be an area in which forms of domination, exclusion and discrimination arise from which all societies and the Church itself need to free themselves.

The Bible presents man and woman as equal partners before God (see Gn 5:2): all domination and discrimination based on sex offends human dignity. It also presents the difference between the sexes as a mystery so constitutive of the human being as irreducible to stereotypes. The relationship between man and woman is then understood in terms of a vocation to live together in reciprocity and in dialogue, in communion and in fruitfulness (see Gn 1,27-29; 2,21-25) in all areas of human experience: the life of couples, work, education and more. God has entrusted the earth to their covenant.



Women in the Church

55. There is also a demand among young people for a greater recognition and valuing of women in society and in the Church. Many women play an irreplaceable role in Christian communities, but in many places it is hard to give them room in decision-making processes, even when they do not require specific ministerial responsibilities. The absence of the female voice and gaze impoverishes the Church's debate and the path, subtracting from the discernment a precious contribution. The Synod recommends making everyone more aware of the urgency of an unavoidable change, also starting from an anthropological and theological reflection on the reciprocity between men and women.


Women in the Synodal Church

148. A Church that seeks to live a synodal style cannot but reflect on the condition and role of women within it, and consequently also in society. Young men and young women ask for it with great force. The reflections developed require to be implemented through a work of courageous cultural conversion and change in daily pastoral practice. An area of particular importance in this regard is that of the presence of women in the ecclesial bodies at all levels, also in functions of responsibility, and of female participation in ecclesial decision-making processes while respecting the role of the ordained ministry. It is a duty of justicewhich finds inspiration both in the way in which Jesus was related to men and women of his time, and in the importance of the role of some female figures in the Bible, in the history of salvation and in the life of the Church.


This final paragraph is the most exciting. It acknowledges women's participation as disciples of Jesus; the critical work of our foremothers in faith; and the notion that there is an aspect of justice that has been missing within the church.


In the 1971 Synod document on justice, the bishops made an important observation. In paragraph 40 they say “While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting and of the possessions and life style found within the Church herself.”

It is really good to see that language again. As it is applied more squarely in the life of the church, it will overcome those schemes that keep women in certain roles based on biological sex. In terms of greater inclusion for our LGBT Catholic sisters and brothers, there are some reasons to hope, but clearly more to be accomplished.

Frank DeBernardo does a beautiful job analyzing the document's language. I don't see it on the website yet, so I am reprinting part of it below.

The Vatican’s synod on youth has issued a final report that calls for “a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral elaboration” of sexuality and affectivity is an important step forward for the Catholic Church in regard to LGBT issues. The statement acknowledges that the church still has a lot to learn about sexuality. If the study of these topics is done with open minds and hearts, there is potential for great transformation in the church. The call for more parishes to provide accompaniment to lesbian and gay people is also a positive. The words describing accompaniment seem carefully chosen to allow for wide interpretation. During the synod, a request was made to include a statement calling lesbian and gay people to “conversion,” a word used often in church discourse to mean celibacy. That language did not make it into the final document. Instead the pastoral recommendations allow for great latitude of welcome and accompaniment based on the individual person and the local pastoral community and ministers. 

The document also contains a strong condemnation of discrimination and violence against lesbian and gay people—an important message to bishops who have sometimes implicitly and explicitly supported LGBT criminalization laws with severe punishments. Catholic support for these laws must end. 

The document has some problematic elements, too. It reinforces the prohibition of same-sex relationships, though it does so in a way that has been typical of Pope Francis: it does not use condemnatory language, but instead it endorses the heterosexual model as ideal. The idea that “it is reductive to define a person’s identity solely on the basis of their ‘sexual orientation’” is also a problem.

Finally, the report uses “inclinations,” to describe non-heterosexual sexual activity. This term reduces lesbian and gay love and sexuality to base desires for sexual activity which. Not only is it a derogatory word, but it shows a complete ignorance of the affective lives of lesbian and gay people. Its continued use in church documents is not only an embarrassment, but is harmful. 

That the synod report would not use the ordinary terms “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual” is surprising given the pope’s own use of the word “gay.”

These problems remind us that there is still much work to be done LGBT justice and equality in the church. In fact, the section that contained the most comprehensive analysis of lesbian and gay issues received the most “no” votes, and it made it to the required 2/3rds majority by only two votes. 

I agree with Frank that the power of the synod is in the process.

It was an unprecedented gathering of church leaders with youth representatives from around the globe, and unlike other synods, it gave a stronger role to the voices of the lay participants. Regardless of the outcome, it appears that a true dialogue took place—and we hope it will be replicated. 

Listening and pastoral accompaniment have potential for changing the hearts and minds of pastoral ministers and church leaders.

The synod’s success will be judged not by what it has accomplished to this date, but its impact on shaping a more dialogical and relational church for the future. 

I will write more, but wanted to get this out before I hop on my final plane.

Deborah Rose-Milavec

Reporting from Rome