Draft guidelines from the U.S. bishops’ conference urge meaningful relationships with people who identify as LGBT, and call for discerning complex pastoral and sacramental situations carefully, while upholding the doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church.
But the guidelines, drafted in 2018, have not been released by the bishops’ conference, or even put to a vote, because of direction from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
With individual U.S. bishops releasing their own guidelines on the subject, and the CDF at the start of a personnel shakeup, it is possible the USCCB could soon move forward on the publication of its pastoral guidelines.
“In the Image of God,” the unreleased draft USCCB text obtained by The Pillar, “is provided as a resource for consideration and to aid the development of norms and practices in dioceses or eparchies,” the text explains.
“The Church is a mother who seeks the full flourishing of her children. She desires to help them navigate difficult situations with the indispensable help of the Holy Spirit. The Church is called, therefore, as a mother, to manifest sensitivity and closeness to those who desire a deeper relationship with our loving God. Accompanying people in such a way always presupposes the inseparable connection of mercy, justice, and truth, the universal call to holiness, and the Church’s faithfulness to her Lord,” the text’s introduction adds.
The Pillar reported last month that a task force of USCCB staffers and bishops began working in 2016 to develop a set of guidelines aimed at helping bishops address issues related to sacramental and pastoral ministry to people who identify as LGBT.
The guidelines were in 2017 sent for approval by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, after which they would be put forward for a vote by U.S. bishops.
But according to several former USSCB staffers, CDF officials told the bishops’ conference to wait on the text, until the congregation had a chance to release its own document on the subject.
The USCCB text obtained by The Pillar — “In the Image of God” — was developed after the initial Vatican response, as a set of revisions to the initial texts. As many as 60 U.S. bishops had the opportunity to weigh in on the text, former staffers told The Pillar.
But when that text was re-presented at the CDF, officials again requested that the bishops’ conference shelf the project until a Vatican document could be published, sources told The Pillar.
One former USCCB staffer told The Pillar that “the CDF said ‘No, hold off, because we’re going to have our own document.’ And then that was it. And then there was not much will to push back on that.”
“We all thought that was just to spike it,” another former official recalled.
But while some USCCB officials were skeptical that the CDF was actually developing a text, The Pillar reported last month that a draft Vatican text was actually written in 2018, but has also not been published.
The USCCB draft has also remained on the shelf, leaving individual U.S. bishops to develop guidelines themselves — in some cases generating considerable controversy in the process.
Dioceses in Michigan and Wisconsin have faced criticism in recent weeks for their own policies on LGBT issues, which LGBT advocates have said are exclusionary or discriminatory — while bishops say that guidelines are needed to help pastors to address new situations involving same-sex sexual relationships or gender identity.
For its part, the draft USCCB text focuses on helping bishops with “pastoral accompaniment in the face of challenging scenarios.”
Citing Pope Francis, the text says the Church must “grow in the ‘art of accompaniment,’” noting that to aid “people as they wrestle with life’s various trials requires patience and empathy, which is learned through experience.”
“The Church’s teaching on the human person reveals the truth about our relationship with our merciful and all-powerful God, as well as the profound role he has in mind for each of us in his wonderful plan. The Church’s message about the beauty of who we are in Christ, as beloved sons and daughters, affects how we respect our own bodies, recognize our sexual identities as male and female, and live out the virtue of chastity according to our states in life.”
The text addresses issues related to baptism, confirmation, receiving Holy Communion, and both enrollment and employment at Catholic schools and in parish programs. While the guidelines note some situations with certain and clear answers, they also emphasize that some situations require the discernment of pastors in light of the particular circumstances — including, for example, the baptism of children from same-sex couples, or sacramental ministry to a person who identifies as transgender in the confessional.
The guidelines also emphasize that Catholics “have the right” to clear and unambiguous catechesis, while stressing that the Church’s evangelical mission requires meaningful and respectful relationships.
“In a person’s first encounter with the Church, which generally occurs in the parish, the question of his or her sexual attraction is not likely to come up. It is not generally a question that arises or is asked upon meeting, nor is it a definition framework through which the Church views the person,” the draft explains.
“When a member of the parish or a member of a particular family discloses same-sex attraction, this may be difficult for others in the parish or the family. The person, created in the image of God and called to communion with him, ought to be respected and treated with love and consideration. Any unjust discrimination, and particularly any form of aggression or violence, is to be absolutely avoided. Parish members and families should be helped by the Church’s ministers to understand and follow God’s will in their lives.”
A spokesperson for the USCCB declined to comment on questions about the USCCB’s draft text, and to comment on the CDF’s request to hold the document until its own text could be released. Asked whether the USCCB disputed The Pillar’s previous reporting on the CDF’s intervention, the USCCB declined to comment.
It is not clear why the Vatican’s 2018 has not been published. But with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the beginning of a personnel shakeup, it is plausible that the drafted Vatican guidelines could be published in 2022, paving the way for the USCCB to put its own text to a vote. Or, if incoming administrators at the CDF decide their own text is not likely to be published, it is also possible that the bishops’ conference could get a green light to move forward.
In fact, a former Vatican official close to the Congregation told The Pillar that he believed officials at the CDF had at one point been waiting for the US bishops’ conference to “go first” with guidance, before the CDF would proceed with its own text. That strategy could well be revisited as incoming CDF personnel assess the situation.
In the meantime, sources told The Pillar that at least some U.S. bishops have continued to ask about the USCCB’s text — noting that it would be of real help to bishops facing difficult pastoral issues. Given the sensitive nature of the questions at hand — and their volatility in the media — it would be better for the conference to address them as a body, bishops told The Pillar.
“We want to see something happen on this,” one bishop told The Pillar. “And we could use the help.”
“Unless the conference puts out our text — which is actually pretty good — bishops are going to have to face this on their own, instead of looking at it together.”