The first draft of the final document of the Synod on Youth is being given to the bishops today – many of you may already know something about that by the time you read this, given the six-hour time difference between Rome and the East Coast of America. As I write, I don’t yet.
Italian journalists with long experience here say to expect a relatively uncontroversial text – on the surface. It will, they say, include ambiguous language about LGBTs designed not to provoke too strong a reaction, but formulations that can be turned in several desired directions in the future.
This seems only too likely. And that’s why the bishops who truly get what’s going on must push strongly for language that allows for no blurring of Catholic teaching, explicit or implicit, anywhere in the final document.
The synod fathers were on a kind of brief vacation Monday and will be back in session reading this text and proposing changes Tuesday and Wednesday. Their proposed changes will then be incorporated, or not, by the committee doing the writing of a second draft later in the week and finally voted on Saturday. Or at least that’s the schedule – which Pope Francis can always decide to change – as Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Communications Office of the Holy See, regularly reminds audiences.
We can’t yet know, of course, what the draft will say, but we can make informed guesses on the basis of the few things we have seen at recent briefings. For example, on Saturday, Diane Montagna of LifeSite News asked three English-speaking bishops (Cardinal Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Rabat of Papua New Guinea, and Archbishop Comensoli of Melbourne) a perfectly reasonable – and perfectly clear – question.
Are you distinguishing, on the one hand, between “welcoming and accepting and including” people who are same-sex attracted as persons, who like all persons deserve our respect and goodwill, and on the other hand, are you making it clear, as the Catechism does, that homosexual orientation, let alone behavior, is not being “welcomed”? Especially since young people want the truth.
You would think that this is something any Catholic bishop, archbishop, or cardinal could answer in a couple of words: Of course, yes. You can watch the reaction here (after the 40:00 mark), in which Archbishop Comensoli goes through a roundabout way of saying we are all sinners on a pilgrimage to the foot of the Cross. Well, yes, of course, but that’s not exactly what’s being questioned at the moment.
Cardinal Cupich gave an even more puzzling response that we have to be sure “not to place obstacles” to the workings “of God’s grace.” Presumably, this means that you don’t simply, and obstinately, repeat Church teaching and neglect real human engagement with people who are same-sex attracted, but are also seeking Jesus Christ.
But this is only to say that, when dealing with someone who’s searching, you shouldn’t be a jerk. No argument there, of course. But it’s a real question whether it may also be an obstacle to the working of grace not to urgently – also sensitively, if you will – convey to the same-sex attracted or to anyone how serious all sin is.
There’s something in this “accompanying” that in one way is what the Church has always done – reaching out to all of us as we return again and again to confess, repent, make a firm resolution to avoid future sin.
But in another way, there’s something else being introduced here. Sure the Church wants to walk on a pilgrimage with God’s people, which means dealing with sinners who progress and relapse. But if there’s no sense of urgency and the pilgrimage begins to stretch out seemingly without limit, maybe the real call of the Gospel is not being proposed.
Besides, as the wisdom of all good theology and even pagan philosophy reminds us, none of us knows the hour of our death.
Asking for a real decision – here and now – may be a more merciful and compassionate, even more realistic and essential, than an obstacle.
It’s fair to speculate that we’ll see some attempt to get non-committal, open-ended language like this into the first draft. Amoris laetitia has already given us the example for it, the “walking with” people in second marriages and the half-expressed change in teaching that it’s going to be fine for everyone to receive the sacraments even though there is no intention to change a sinful life.
For multiple reasons, our time finds it particularly difficult to make traditional moral affirmations about homosexuality. The ashes of Matthew Shephard, a homosexual prostitute and drug dealer who was horribly murdered in Wyoming years ago, but has been falsely mythologized as a gay saint, will be interred at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. this week. The Episcopal Church is quite lost at present, in many ways, not least in trying to normalize and celebrate and even sacralize what until recently that church regarded as sin.
And even American Evangelicals have been affected. Evangelicals have been poorly educated in their churches lately and are now confused about many core Christian beliefs, as a study released in the past week by an evangelical outfit has discovered. But the largest shift in attitudes has occurred over homosexuality. Around half of evangelicals say they believe that “The Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today.”
The Catholic embrace of both faith and reason, Scripture and tradition, has long been a point of pride about how we differ from other faith groups, especially when they become unmoored, and go along with wherever the culture, often a decidedly non-Christian culture, is going.
We will see in the next few days how such things stand among the gathered bishops.
*Image: Landscape with Sodom on Fire, c. 1535 [Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw]