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  • Writer's pictureRob Peach

Global Synods Give Queer Catholics a Voice

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

A screenshot of Catholic LGBTQ+ resource, Outreach, spearheaded by Father James Martin, S.J., who was recently invited to attend a global gathering of Catholics in Rome this fall to discuss the future of the Catholic Church. Outreach offers news, essays, resources, and community for LGBTQIA+ Catholics, their families and friends, and those who minister to them in the Catholic Church worldwide. Outreach also highlights welcoming parishes, schools, and other Catholic organizations. According to its website, "Outreach operates under the auspices of America Media, a Jesuit ministry, and is rooted in the love of Jesus, who reached out to all those who felt excluded." For more, see (Screenshot)

Community safety stems from the creation of spaces where everyone can go about their lives without causing harm to themselves or others. Places of public gathering such as schools, libraries, and churches are just a few sites where individuals experience a sense of shared belonging that builds solidarity across perceived differences and inspires folks to see themselves as part of an evolving whole.

Community safety is aspirational. It hinges on an agreement that everyone deserves to thrive regardless of their background and that we are all on uniquely individual quests for meaning — united in mutual encouragement and support. A healthy community is built on a culture of consent that says “yes” to human flourishing and “no” to those systems which deny individuals access to commonly-valued social goods — health care, education, housing— on the basis of prejudice.

Discrimination is a threat to community well-being. It fractures and excludes. It renders space safe only for those who fit an ideological mold coded with operating principles that demand specific performance of race, religion, gender, and sexuality as white, Christian, binary, and heterosexual.

The Supreme Court’s recent 6–3 ruling in favor of a Colorado web designer’s refusal to serve a same-sex couple on the basis of her First Amendment right to free speech is a case in point. In this instance, the court upheld this woman’s professed right to religious expression, pitting LGBTQIA+ rights against religious freedom in a false dichotomy that blurs the lines between church and state. It also opens a legal pathway for further discrimination of people who identify as queer.

In 2022, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports there were more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills, many targeting trans youth, circulating in legislatures across the country: “Eighteen states now ban transgender youth from participating on sports teams consistent with their gender identity, while three states in 2022 banned or criminalized gender-affirming care for youth.”

Policy legitimates public practice and vice versa, emboldening those on the “hard right” to weaponize their faith and thus bastardize the Christian message for personal and political gain. Extremists, such as the Proud Boys and Moms for Liberty, who capitalize on bereaved white identity politics, have political backing — some of them elected officials, including the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene (Rep. Georgia-R), Paul Gosar (Rep. Arizona-R), Lauren Boebert (Rep. Colorado-R) and Ron DeSantis (Gov. Florida-R).

The global battle for LGBTQ+ rights is no less rigorous elsewhere. Indeed, it is more extreme. Consider Uganda, where homosexuality is criminalized officially with sentences as harsh as the death penalty. In other parts of Africa, the situation is just as dire.

In the country of Georgia, meanwhile, far-right demonstrators in numbers of at least 2,000, including Orthodox Christian clergy, stormed a Pride parade and effectively shut it down — burning flags in the process. The BBC reports the organizers and Georgia’s president blame anti-LGBT hate speech that preceded the event, and said the police had failed to protect festival-goers. The 2023 Pride organizer, Mariam Kvaratskhelia, said there had been a ‘mass mobilisation’ of far-right groups ahead of this year’s event and that they had been inciting violence openly. Kvaratskhelia said organizers had urged the Ministry of the Interior and the police to start an investigation immediately but that they did not do it, alleging a coordinated effort between the government and radical groups to sabotage Georgia’s ambition to join the European Union.

Not only do these ideological extremes (and extremists) have political backing, but also spiritual license. In the Catholic Church, for example, conservative factions represented by nonprofits such as CatholicVote Civic Action, which according to its mission, amplifies “the voices of millions of Catholics across America who seek to renew our country and our culture, in full communion with and 100% faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church,” hawk the kind of victim rhetoric we hear in the general backlash against current cultural shifts taking place around the globe in general and in the United States in particular.

What this translates to is a hidebound political agenda that seeks to maintain the status quo of an institution that is seeking to evolve with the times, as evidenced by the congregation of Catholic bishops, priests, and lay faithful currently seeking to democratize the practice of the church in the modern world in the form of an ongoing “Synod on Synodality.”

The synod — which began in October 2021 as a concerted universal effort to address cultural plurality within the Church through localized gatherings (or synods) of churches and congregants — is one effort toward community safety. Taking cues from the Eastern Orthodox Church, the synod is framed as a “journey” in which every member of the Church shares responsibility for creating a culture of hospitality and humility in the midst of an increasingly polarized world. It is essentially a gathering to gauge how the Church organizes itself among lay and ordained participants and to assess best practices for cultivating unity in diversity without flattening the differences which make the Church unique.

“The journey so far,” as reported in the Vatican document for the October 2023 assembly, Instrumentum Laboris (IL) — which provides a summary of all material gathered during the initial phase of the synod, otherwise known as the “listening phase” — “has made it possible to identify and share the particular situations experienced by the Church in different regions of the world.”

The document continues:

These [situations] include the reality of too many wars that stain our world with blood leading to a call for a renewed commitment to building a just peace, the threat represented by climate change that implies a necessary priority of caring for the common home, the cry to oppose an economic system that produces exploitation, inequality and a throwaway culture, and the desire to resist the homogenising pressure of cultural colonialism that crushes minorities. (4) [sic]

In its June 26 news feed, CatholicVote reports of an “apostolic visitation” to the diocese of Tyler, Texas, where Bishop John Strickland is currently seated. According to the article, Strickland has been an “outspoken critic of President Joe Biden and a strong proponent of barring the second Catholic president in U.S. history from receiving Holy Communion. He has also criticized several of Pope Francis’ actions, from the publication of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia to the current process toward the Synod on Synodality.”

Strickland recently tweeted a response to the Church’s invitation to synodality:

It is a travesty that these things (‘inclusion’ of LGBTQ, polygamous marriages and diaconal ordination for women) are even proposed for discussion. I pray that all who truly know Jesus Christ will not be deceived by this path. The Gospel welcomes all to repentance & sanctity, if there is no repentance the barriers to sanctity remain.

It’s not clear what the visitation is about nor what purposes such a visitation serves, but the article implies disciplinary correction while Strickland’s apologists, on full display in the comments section of the article (sampled below), are framing it as a veritable witch hunt.

A clip from the comments section of the CV update on Strickland. (Author)

Clearly, community safety is neither a priority nor a platform for these politicos and their pundits. Steeped in their own unexamined biases, they tow a party line that is resistant to change and any social movement that might upset their shared investment in power and privilege for the few. Their right to “religious freedom” is a coded form of exclusion against which global efforts toward a more inclusive Catholic Church are finally being initiated — the Synod on Synodality among them.

“The issue of synodality had emerged at Vatican II, but both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI really side-tracked its development,” the Rev. George Griener, S.J., emeritus professor of theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., wrote in an email to the author last week. “Francis has, from the beginning of his term as Pope, worked to retrieve the structural vision of synodality.”

Griener noted the U.S. bishops are the most resistant, as a group, to the development of synodality, but that synodality has been embraced widely by the bishops of Latin America, Europe, and Africa.

“But there is a good deal of institutional inertia,” Griner added. “The very hierarchical model of the Church has been developing since the Gregorian Reforms initiated in the 11th century to limit control of the Church by imperial forces — emperors, kings, dukes, etc. — and ratified by the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870.”

Vatican II began to address this “very pyramidal model of authority,” Griner said, “by stressing the role of the bishops and focusing on the notion of the ‘People of God.’ Vatican II set the course, and Francis has been trying to reinvigorate that move from a top-down to a bottom-up vision of the Church.”

When Pope Francis, with Italian bishops, began planning for the synod in the spring of 2021, he told them that it must begin at the grassroots level. “‘The synod must begin from the bottom up,’ he told the bishops May 24 at the spring assembly of their conference,” Cindy Wooden reports in the National Catholic Reporter.

‘This will require patience, work, allowing people to talk so that the wisdom of the people of God will come forth because a synod is nothing other than making explicit what Lumen Gentium [a Vatican II document on the dogmatic constitution of the Church] said: The whole people of God — all of them, from the bishop on down — is infallible in belief,’ the pope said. ‘They cannot err when there is harmony among all.’

Indeed, the summarizing document which came out of the synod’s “listening phase” asserts just that: “The vision of Vatican II is the shared point of reference, starting from the catholicity of the People of God, in virtue of which ‘each individual part contributes through its special gifts to the good of the other parts of the whole Church’” (6).

Despite upholding the “primacy of the Chair of Peter” (6), this papal maneuver must scare a lot of people in high places. Look no further than Strickland. Or anyone motivated by ideological exploitation of Christian doctrine for the dual sake of political self-preservation and the need to be right.

The Church is finally arriving at a place of reconciliation and repair, including lay men and women in its decision-making process while admitting to the atrocities of abuse in which it has been complicit. Indeed, the upcoming Synod of Bishops, to be held in October 2023 and 2024 at the Vatican, will expand its voting members, 400 in all, to include 70 non-bishop members, half of whom will be women, Pope Francis announced April 26.

The assemblies meeting prior to the synod in October also stressed the need for healing as the path forward.

“The face of the Church today bears the signs of serious crises of mistrust and lack of credibility,” the IL report notes. “In many contexts, crises related to sexual abuse, and abuse of power, money and conscience have pushed the Church to a demanding examination of conscience so that … the Church [may renew itself] in a journey of repentance and conversion that opens paths of reconciliation, healing and justice” (8).

In feedback received from the assemblies, meanwhile, the “desire to offer genuine welcome” emerged as a key theme among synod participants (24). Specifically, they voiced concerns for those who do not feel accepted in the Church, including: divorcees and those who’ve remarried; people in polygamous marriages; LGBTQ+ Catholics; people who identify as ethnic and racial minorities; people with disabilities; people experiencing homelessness; people in diaspora (i.e. refugees and migrants); and survivors of abuse wrought by members of the Church (24).

The Rev. James Martin, S.J., a Jesuit priest from the United States who ministers to gay Catholics, was chosen personally by Pope Francis to take part in the synod, Christopher Lamb reported recently in the international Catholic news weekly, The Tablet:

‘I’m honoured to be invited by the Holy Father to participate in the synod,’ Fr. Martin said following news of his appointment [sic]. ‘As a Jesuit, I’m committed to this kind of group discernment and look forward to what the Holy Spirit has in store for the synod, and for the church.’
The logo for the Church's ongoing gathering of lay and ordained faithful who are organizing to determine paths toward a more inclusive catholicity. (Vatican)

To some, this sounds like a “woke” political agenda through which Francis is corrupting an ancient institution. According to Lamb, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former head of the Church’s department for upholding doctrine, is a Francis critic who has described the synod process as a ‘hostile takeover’ of the Church and accused Fr. Martin of spreading heresy. Pope Francis, true to the synod’s intention of holding opposing views in tension, invited Müller to attend. For those of us with common sense, the synod strikes us as a long overdue overhaul on a dying institution in need of resuscitation if ever it is to survive the tides of cultural change. Francis is hip to this shift despite his own contradictions regarding homosexuality and the Church’s anti-choice stance on abortion.

The upcoming Vatican gathering and those gatherings happening in churches worldwide are steps toward localizing “the Church” in a way that captures the charism of early Christian life, by which small communities convened to bolster each other in faith under the teachings of this first-century Jewish prophet named Jesus.

It would seem, under the auspices of its current leader, “the Church” is starting to get out of its own way — humbly and slowly dismantling itself from the monolith it has become in the eyes of those like myself who’ve been disillusioned by its dogma. Perhaps this will actuate a turn toward fulfilling a vision of itself as a conglomerate of small loving communities. The synod is certainly encouraging that as local parishes convene under the guidance of lay and ordained spiritual leaders to think more self-reflexively about what it means to be in community with each other. What it means to think of “the holy” as individual and communal wholeness.

Church is, after all, neither an institution nor a building, but a group of people assembled to celebrate each other as friends. Isn’t that what we all want when we gather together? We, especially those of us wounded by it, do not need to take for granted that The Church is a juggernaut. Rather, it us. It is you. It is me.

And so the people’s needs are leading the charge locally in what could prove to be a critical pivot in the evolution of the institutional Church, transformed from within by queer people who haven’t let their disillusionment preclude continued participation in a space that has not always been hospitable to gender and sexual minorities.

This is just the beginning of an important move toward creating community safety in church (and the Church) and, by extension, those arenas into which its life filters: family, school, law. We shall see what might come of the Synod on Synodality’s intentions for a more inclusive church now that lay people and women have voting power.

What’s good news and at least encouraging for disavowed Catholics and out queer people like me is this: The Church is no longer afraid to broach the issue of queer personhood with the possibility that canon law will reflect the flock it’s meant to guide. That’s news worth celebrating for a tradition as institutionally stodgy as Roman Catholicism. Even more, it breaks open the meaning of “the Church,” offering an aperture through which to focus on what it really is and what it could be.

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