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At synod on synodality, will bishops talk about sex?

At synod on synodality, will bishops talk about sex?

When the Vatican released its working document for the continental phase of the global synod on synodality, the text emphasized a “demand for welcome” for “those who, for various reasons, feel a tension between belonging to the Church and their own loving relationships, such as: remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in a polygamous marriage, LGBTQ people, etc.”

Quoting from the USCCB’s own contribution, the newly released Vatican text said that “[participants] want the Church to meet people wherever they are, to walk with them rather than judge them, and to build real relationships through caring and authenticity, not a purpose of superiority.”

It added that other synodal submissions “reveal uncertainties about how to respond and express the need for discernment on the part of the universal Church.”

“Uncertainties” notwithstanding, the need for the Church to “meet people where they are,” to “walk with them rather than judge them,” and to build relationships without “superiority” would seem to be self-evident and real.

Within the context of announcing the Good News, sincere and non-judgemental engagement with everyone, as an essential aspect of the Church’s evangelizing mission, does not appear to be disputed by anyone in the synodal process, nor in broader conversations about the life and mission of the Church.

And Catholics in many of the groups mentioned by the Vatican’s report do face obvious social stigmas, which would seem to be pastoral issues in need of real attention.

Single parents, for example — mentioned in the report — do face certain social stigmas in some parishes communities. The synod might well achieve consensus easily about how to address them, since there is no moral, disciplinary, or doctrinal issue preventing single parents’ full inclusion in the life of the Church.

In a similar way, Catholics who identify as gay or lesbian face, in many contexts, discrimination for that fact alone, even while the Church actively teaches against the “unjust discrimination” of those Catholics.

But unlike those examples, other groups cited by the synodal document share the common trait of living in relationships at odds with the Church’s teaching.

Some of those relationships  — like those of some divorced-and-remarried couples or polygamous unions — can be addressed with long-established canonical and pastoral approaches, operative within the Church’s doctrinal framework.

But the hard truth is that some relationships can not be easily regularized for full participation in the life of the Church — either because of a tribunal decision, for some divorced-and-remarried couples, or in the case of same-sex unions, because the Church teaches them to be categorically irreconcilable .

As the synod process continues, the notion of “welcoming” Catholics in such relationships will need to be addressed — as will the question of how talking about sex fits into that welcome.

And, though they may hope to avoid it, if the synod is going to talk about welcoming people, bishops are going to need to have some very frank conversations about sex.

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Synodal reports and statements from bishops in several European countries, including Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg, have argued for a reform of the Church’s moral teaching and liturgical practice in these cases, and called for liturgical blessings of same-sex unions, despite Vatican statements to the contrary.

In a recent interview with official Vatican media, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich explained that he regards  the Church’s position as “not decisive,” and considers the road open to bless such unions.

While they cannot be called “sacramental marriages” because they are not ordered towards a natural procreative potential, said Hollerich, “that does not mean that their affective relationship has no value.”

The cardinal, who will serve as relator general of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops next year, urged Catholics to consider the root of the word “blessing.”

“If we stay with the etymology of ‘speak well,’ [bene-dire] do you think God could ever ‘speak ill’ [dire-male] about two people who love each other?” Hollerich asked. “So many of our brothers and sisters tell us that, whatever the origin and cause of their sexual orientation, they certainly did not choose it. They are not ‘bad apples.’ They are also fruits of creation.”

Treating people who identify as gay with love and respect is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, an essential recognition of their human dignity, and, in or out of the Church, there is no place for unjust discrimination.

But the cardinal’s comments on sexual orientation and loving relationships seem to take a don’t-ask-don’t-tell position on sex itself.

When Hollerich talks about “loving relationships,” he omits any discussion of whether those relationships are sexual, and whether the Church has a responsibility to address the issue of sexual morality.

The dignity of the individual, according to the Catechism and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, is not at issue — nor, by extension, is the sincerity of their love for another person — it is the moral status of certain sexual acts.

At some point, critics will suggest that when he omits that issue, Hollerich suggests that sincere human love renders acceptable any kind of sexual expression.

At the synod, that’s likely to come out. Synod fathers interested in actually fruitful conversation about pastoral care will likely grow impatient with the gauzy ephemera of euphemism, and want to clarify what the Church is actually saying about sex — in same-sex unions, among the divorced-and-remarried, and in polygamous unions.

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Commentators might expect conversations about that issue to play out along “conservatives vs progressives” lines, or play geographic contingents of bishops against each other.

But that may prove a false expectation.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, for example, is not easily pegged as a “conservative” among Churchmen, and is generally regarded as a figure both close to Francis, and aligned with the pope’s sensibilities.

O’Malley has offered a vision of pastoral outreach to gay Catholics that is quite different from Hollerich’s. And it likely telegraphs the arguments that will be used by those pushing back on Hollerich and others calling for doctrinal or liturgical changes.

O'Malley has written before that “If we tell people that sex outside of marriage is not a sin, we are deceiving people.”

“If they believe this untruth,” said the cardinal in 2006, “a life of virtue becomes all but impossible. Jesus teaches that discipleship implies taking up the cross each day and following Him with love and courage.”

O’Malley, as a member Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal Advisors, has played a crucial role in the pope’s reforming projects for the universal Church, including the drafting of the new apostolic constitution for the Roman curia.

The cardinal has addressed directly the kind of “tensions” outlined in the synod’s continental document, and the problem of pastoral engagement that can appear superior or judgmental.

“It is never easy to deliver a message that calls people to make sacrifices or to do difficult things. Sometimes people want to punish the messenger. For this reason we priests at times find it difficult to articulate the Church's teaching on sexual morality. We must never deliver the message in a self-righteous way, but rather with compassion and humility,” O’Malley has explained.

Of course, any discussion of sexual morality at the synod’s final assemblies is likely to aknowledge a point raised by Hollerich in his recent interview: “I constantly see that young people stop considering the Gospel, if they have the impression that we are discriminating,” he said.

“Everyone is called,” Hollerich said. “No one is excluded: even the divorced and remarried, even homosexuals, everyone. The kingdom of God is not an exclusive club.”

O’Malley has addressed that point, too:

“We know that friends and relatives of homosexual Catholics sometimes feel torn between their allegiance to Christ and their concern for their loved ones,” the cardinal has written.

“I assure them that these goals are not incompatible. As Catholics we profess a firm belief in the dignity of each person and in the eternal destiny to which God calls us.”

Recognizing that “calling people to embrace the cross of discipleship, to live the commandments and at the same time assuring them that we love them as brothers and sisters can be difficult,” O’Malley said that “the Church must be Church.”

“We must teach the truths of the Gospel in season and out of season. These recent times seem to us like it is ‘out of season’, but for that very reason it is even more urgent to teach the hard words of the Gospel today.”

To be sure, some bishops and cardinals, perhaps Hollerich among them, might contend that O’Malley’s call for unflinching honesty is inherently judgemental and exclusive.

There will almost certainly be debate about how it is possible to present the fullness of the Church’s teaching in a loving way.

But, in O’Malley’s view, real love means expressing certain hard truths about the morality of sexual acts themselves:

“Sometimes we are told, ‘If you do not accept my behavior, you do not love me,’” the cardinal concluded in 2006. “In reality we must communicate the exact opposite: ‘Because we love you, we cannot accept your behavior.’"

O’Malley’s view may be seen as outdated among the progressive contingent of synod fathers. Hollerich’s may be seen as too far-reaching. But for the synod’s discussion of pastoral care to be fruitful, someone will likely have to decide which of those views is the Catholic perspective.


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