Last week the Vatican released a document laying the groundwork for next year’s Synod of Bishops on the Family, a gathering of bishops from around the world focusing on pastoral challenges related to modern family life. As well as laying out the essentials of relevant Church teachings, the document poses 39 questions to the bishops about the actual families living and working in their communities, and how the Church can best minister to them. Here are the questions under the heading, “On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex”:
a) Is there a law in your country recognizing civil unions for people of the same-sex and equating it in some way to marriage?
b) What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union?
c) What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?
d) In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?
The meaning of all this is as vague as the questions are conspicuously neutral. The Vatican has given some conflicting signals as to whether this is something new or something habitual, whether it is a consultation directly between the faithful and the Vatican, or whether the various bodies of national bishops will be the intermediary. In England and Wales, the bishops have put the questionnaire online. In the US, where the bishops are still dominated by reactionaries, no such direct input outside the bishops’ control looks likely. That effectively means, I fear, that the US hierarchy – think Cardinal Dolan – may not convey the real sensus fidelium on these matters:
In the letter he sent to the bishops’ conferences in October, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops, directed the prelates to distribute the questionnaire “immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received.”
One question is whether the archbishop and the Vatican meant for the world’s bishops to conduct a survey of their populations using the questionnaire. The U.S. bishops’ conference did not request the U.S. episcopate to undertake that wide of a consultation, telling the bishops in an Oct. 30 memo sent with Baldisseri’s letter only to provide their own observations.
I think American lay Catholics should download the English questionnaire and send their views in directly, if the bishops still insist on controlling the data. And in any case, we already know what American Catholics think on many of these questions. Sophisticated polling outfits have provided the data for a long time. Either this initiative will echo those views or it will skew toward what the bishops want to hear.
But my sense of this Pope – especially in his direct interaction with ordinary people – is that this is a chance for real democratic input, of not democracy itself (which would not be appropriate). Amy Davidson gives them a close read, and comes away thinking that this could be where the Francis revolution begins to move beyond rhetoric:
What Francis seems to be looking for is not a doctrinal or political response to same-sex unions but a pastoral one: taking modern families as they are and live, and seeing how the Catholic Church can be part of their lives. (There is not a question about how best to lobby legislatures.) The synod, according to the document, is meant to address “concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago.” Its summary of these concerns is not in all respects liberal; it mentions “forms of feminism hostile to the Church,” and emphasizes the indissolubility of marriage. And certain situations that it calls novel, like that of single parents and of dowries “understood as the purchase price of the woman,” have been less unheard of than unheeded.
But there are the seeds of something radical here.
There is, for one thing, an attempt to get past pretense. It asks how many people “in your particular church” are remarried, or separated, or are children whose families aren’t the kind in church picture books, and how to reach and include them. In terms of abortion, it asks how people could be persuaded to accept the Church’s teachings—but also how good a job churches are doing at teaching them about “natural” means of family planning, like the rhythm method. Mercy was also a word that came up, with regard to families living “irregular” lives.
It’s not too early to wonder if that synod could be a landmark moment for Francis’s papacy, and his Church.
The divisions in the Vatican are real and obvious:
When Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri was asked at the Vatican press briefing Tuesday if that action was something other bishops’ conferences should emulate, he said the “question answers itself” and was “not worth considering.”
I suspect the Pope’s moving accretion of moral authority these past few months with Catholics and non-Catholics alike – along with his new structure of eight cardinals as a kind of cabinet outside the Vatican bureaucracy – will give him more lee-way for change than some might expect. Michael O’Loughlin is optimistic:
I could not have imagined that the church would recognize gays as human beings even a few months ago, never mind ask for ideas on how to serve them, and their children, better. It’s truly revolutionary. And what’s not there in those questions is just as amazing as what is. There’s no mention of sin. Nothing about intrinsically disordered desires. The children aren’t called illegitimate. Instead, there’s language that recognizes gay and lesbian Catholics as human beings, as people who long for lives of faith and meaning.
Update from a reader, who notes something O’Loughlin noted as well:
Regarding the Vatican Survey, there is now a survey that lay Catholics in the US can respond to. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has received over 2000 responses since last Friday, and they are incredibly moving. It’s an abbreviated survey, focusing on how folks experience things pastorally in the pews. There is also a Spanish version available to recognize the reality of our US Church.
They may put up the full survey, but the shorter survey is getting a wider range of folks to respond – a priest who printed off a copy and helped a homeless friend fill it in and scan and email it; a 97-year old woman who had waited her life for this. Both surveys have their place – as a person with a theology and a law degree, I’m happy to contribute my thoughts on natural law. But as a person with a sibling who has transitioned from male to female, whether my parish welcomes LGBT folks is a matter of much greater importance – the types of questions the survey asks. When I was struggling most with her transition, mixing up pronouns and so forth, not knowing how to refer to my sibling, not accepting her decision fully, my priest friend provided me with pretty direct fraternal correction: “She’s your sister. Period.” From a guy who is much more comfortable listening and not being too directive about anything, this was a great gift, to be challenged so directly to respect who my sister was created to be.
Please let your readers know about this opportunity. The survey coordinators do have a channel to ensure it gets to the Synod.
(Photo: Pope Francis salutes the crowd as he arrives for his general audience in St Peter’s square at the Vatican on November 6, 2013. By Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images.)