The synod (gathering) of Roman Catholic bishops from around the world meeting in Rome this month released an unofficial translation of a preliminary (draft) document about marriage. The document was really a trial balloon that succeeded in convincing many readers that the Catholic bishops under the leadership of amiable Pope Francis will make some changes in their teachings about marriage.
Whenever the document quotes Pope Francis, its message is humane and loving, but as soon as its authors parse Francis’ words, there is a wholehearted retreat into the impenetrable fortress of traditional Catholic laws about marriage, divorce and sex.
The headlines it generated were strong enough to give hope to disenfranchised LGBT Catholics but equally strong enough to infuriate anti-gay Catholic bishops who are like icebergs determined to sink the warm overtures of a caring Pope Francis. In reality, the document is a sleight of hand. I read it carefully to try to understand its real message. I watched it evolve throughout the two weeks during which the bishops argued about its contents.
It starts out with a beautiful Francis quote that sets the tone, showing the Pope’s empathy for those who experience loneliness and are not part of any family. Francis seems guided by a belief that no one should be alone in this world. That, in itself, is significant. If the chain of modern popes before him felt pangs of loneliness, they certainly did not address it or speak about their feelings.
Here is a pope who decries the unfortunate human reality that some people are alone. That is the foundation of all he says about family and children and the love of couples. It is this radiant global warmth that is infuriating for the conservative iceberg bishops.
“Evening falls on our assembly. It is the hour at which one willingly returns home to meet at the same table, in the depth of affection, of the good that has been done and received, of the encounters which warm the heart and make it grow, good wine which hastens the unending feast in the days of man. It is also the weightiest hour for one who finds himself face to face with his own loneliness, in the bitter twilight of shattered dreams and broken plans; how many people trudge through the day in the blind alley of resignation, of abandonment, even resentment: in how many homes the wine of joy has been less plentiful, and therefore, also the zest — the very wisdom — for life […]. Let us make our prayer heard for one another this evening, a prayer for all.”
Unfortunately, the derailing of the good sentiments begins immediately. The section called “Listening: the context and challenges to the family”contains a confusing rant against twin straw men of individualism and solitude that somehow threaten married folks. The dangers are not specified or explained. Also and oddly, in the same section, taxes are blamed for impotence!
The next section acknowledges the existence of polygamy, arranged marriages, cohabitation without matrimony, migration, women’s rights and children born of pluralism as challenges or threats to marriage as conceived by God. It is unclear how well the bishops understand these sociological realities, but at least they are saying they know these things are out there! Some see this awareness as a major step forward in Catholic leadership. The author of the document seems to think that listing these realities is a sign of benevolence and perception on the part of the bishops. Sadly, that is akin to admitting that Coca Cola is available worldwide.
Section Ten of the document entirely derails the opening quote from Pope Francis and scores points for the iceberg bishops. It laments “affectivity,” a word that refers to feelings or affection. It says that when feelings and affection are complex they are detrimental to marriage! The bishops seem to say that if we would only stop exploring the intricacies of love, and if we keep things simple and according to their rules, we’ll be happily married. This seems hugely naïve.
The next section is a perfect example of why some people say this document is hopeful. It starts out by saying that concrete individuals must be known in all their diversity because they all come from God, but the section ends by recommending that mercy be trumped with dispensing the doctrine (i.e., laws and teachings) of the church!
“This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.”
This is not a merciful document.
Part II of the document begins with another good Pope Francis quote in which he says we must continually gaze upon Jesus Christ to know him and follow him. The iceberg bishops immediately scuttle that sentiment within just a few sentences in which they score a double punch against divorce and same-sex marriage by saying, “Jesus Himself, referring to the primordial plan for the human couple, reaffirms the indissoluble union between man and woman,”
Again, the writers of this document are not expressing what their boss intended. The Vatican is the type of bureaucracy in which it is easy for the lieutenants to sabotage everything inconvenient that comes from the top. Pope Francis is trying to push more decision-making down to the level of the local bishops, but in his desire for collegiality, his compassion for LGBT Catholics gets suffocated by its opponents.
Sections 18, 19 and 20 of Part II contain some very condescending imagery in which any coupling that doesn’t please the iceberg bishops is like a seed that falls outside the boundaries of God’s garden. The iceberg bishops say they try to appreciate the flowers that bloom on imperfect, weak and twisted extramural plants (like same-sex couples?)
In the following two sections, the iceberg bishops perform what they consider a daring back flip in which they say that cohabiting couples can be seen as meritorious, but ONLY when they are “germs” for a future sacramental marriage. Oy. That must have hurt their elderly backs!
The final sections propose the answer: Conversion! Conversion! Conversion! The iceberg bishops want to use sweeter terms to bring all couples into their traditional Catholic boundaries of marital perfection, but they flatly state that if you are divorced and remarried, you still cannot receive communion, and that there will never be same-sex Catholic marriages:
"The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology."
This is basically a “read it and weep” document that changes absolutely nothing. I cannot believe that this document does not turn the stomach of Pope Francis. It is fundamentally anti-gay. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
By the end of the two-week synod session, the bishops eviscerated any good language that might cause hopeful stirrings in the heart of LGBT Catholics. In the English translation of the final report, the bishops removed the phrase “Welcoming Homosexuals” and replaced it with “Providing For Homosexual Persons.” Synod documents had to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the assemblage of bishops. The iceberg bishops are still too numerous to vanquish.
The good news is that Pope Francis deliberately released the draft document in order to let the world know that he was aiming at real pro-LGBT change. As the iceberg bishops slowly melt under the warm sun of Francis’ papacy, they will be replaced by new ones chosen by Francis and his compassionate team. Future synod documents may be welcoming for LGBT Catholics before hell freezes over.