The Vatican laid the groundwork this week for its highly anticipated global synod on family life with the publication of a document outlining its initial working positions for the October conference. The newly released document indicated that the church will maintain its traditional stance on hot-button issues, including outreach to gay Catholics, contraception, divorce and remarriage, in the latest sign of the institutional resistance to the kinds of reforms and shift in tone promoted by Pope Francis.
The 78-page Italian document released by the Vatican on Monday mainly focused on restating previously adopted positions on these divisive issues while reiterating some of the cultural war language that has characterized the church’s tone in recent decades, according to the National Catholic Reporter. The church also reaffirmed its moral teaching on issues like the prohibition on the use of birth control, while not offering any substantially new options for divorced or remarried people, who are banned from taking Communion in church.
The lack of emphasis on the issue of outreach to gay Catholics, something Francis had emphasized at the last synod, has disappointed LGBT Catholic activists who were hopeful that the October meeting could herald a shift in the church’s tone on gay issues.
Despite statements from bishops around the world over the past few months indicating an eagerness to address positive ways to minister to gay and lesbian Catholics, the newly released document has not reflected “any of this positive movement which is in the air,” said Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBT advocacy organization.
“Bishops' conferences have noted that their nations' Catholics have responded critically to the official negative attitude toward lesbian and gay people,” DeBernardo said. “None of this is reflected in the document.”
The document, DeBernardo argued, also betrayed a “stunning ignorance” on the part of church leaders with its use of the term “homosexual tendencies” in characterizing LGBT people’s sexual orientation. “For church leaders to continue to use 'homosexual tendencies,' which seems to connote impermanence as well as simply a controllable desire to act and not a personality trait, reveals a stunning ignorance of the topic, as well as a disrespectful attitude towards lesbian and gay people.”
The October synod of bishops is the second of two conferences on family issues called by Francis, and the newly released document had been widely seen as an important barometer of how that conference would unfold. The pontiff has been vocal in his support for proposals that would call for wider acceptance of gay people, an initiative that was largely rejected by bishops at last year’s synod.
That rejection was widely seen as evidence of the fractures that exist within the Vatican on adapting traditional teachings on divisive social issues, with conservative cardinals and bishops prevailing over the reformist push advocated by Francis. The pope has ruffled feathers within the church with his attempts to shift its focus away from some of the social issues that have alienated modern Catholics like same-sex marriage and abortion and, instead, toward issues of poverty, inequality and social justice.
The divide has set the stage for a contest at the upcoming synod that will put Francis’ more accepting social agenda to the test. Some expect a significant tug-of-war over these issues. "While we want the synod to help renew the church's pastoral outreach to families, we don't anticipate change in church dogmas," Antoine Renard, the French president of the European Federation of Catholic Family Associations, told NCR. "But there are clearly significant divisions over the synod already -- we can expect a battle when it eventually convenes."