By Kimberley Heatherington
Those who minister to, or are part of, the community of people who identify as LGBTQ+ have observed a noted shift with respect to them and their concerns in the working document for the Catholic Church’s forthcoming synod of bishops convened by Pope Francis.
The working document, or “Instrumentum Laboris,” was released June 20 by the Holy See and is meant to guide the church’s discussions at the global level on a wide variety of issues starting in October.
Rather than speaking of “persons with homosexual tendencies” or “persons struggling with same-sex attractions,” the official document released in advance of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops refers to them as “LGBTQ+ people.”
Specific questions deal with how to offer “genuine welcome” to “those who do not feel accepted in the Church, such as … LGBTQ+ Catholics.” It also asks participants to consider “what concrete steps are needed to welcome those who feel excluded from the Church because of their status or sexuality” including “LGBTQ+ people” as an example alongside “remarried divorcees (and) people in polygamous marriages.”
The synod’s working document is the result of a multiyear, worldwide consultation of the faithful for what is often referred to as the “Synod on Synodality.” The first of two assemblies of bishops — which now includes laypeople with voting privileges — will be held in Rome Oct. 4-28. The second will be held in October 2024.
Keith Wildenberg, co-founder with author Eve Tushnet of Building Catholic Futures, which is described as “a new project providing parishes and schools with encouraging and orthodox content for gay Christians,” said the document’s use of LGBTQ+ “fits neatly alongside ‘remarried’ and ‘polygamous’ by adding another (set of) several states in life that don’t quite fit with the church’s current habits of pastoral ministry.”
He also noted that language has an impact and viewed other formulations as missing the mark.
“Euphemisms like ‘persons with homosexual tendencies’ and ‘persons struggling with same-sex attractions’ have done great harm,” said Wildenberg. “They label gay people according to our sexual attractions; not according to our capacity for love and vocation.”
Father Colin Blatchford, associate director of Courage International, said “the church’s language has changed in the last 30, 40 years as she’s begun to really look into this.”
Courage, which describes itself as a “Roman Catholic apostolate for men and women who experience same-sex attractions and those who love them,” calls its members to chastity and offers pastoral support in the form of spiritual guidance, community prayer support and fellowship.
“It’s good that it was mentioned, insofar as how we welcome specifically this community, because I think that will be familiar for individuals,” he said.
Jesuit Father James Martin — whose ministry includes the book “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” — noted the first usage of “LGBTQ” appeared in the working document prepared for the continental stage.
“One of the reasons it did so was that so many reports from dioceses around the world used it as well. Fully half mentioned the issue,” said Father Martin, editor-at-large at the Jesuit Journal America and a recently appointed U.S. representative to the October synod by Pope Francis. “It is indeed significant because the Vatican is now officially using the term that most LGBTQ people around the world use themselves.”
With its inclusion of the term “LGBTQ+,” the “synod is asking critical questions about receptivity and accompaniment in a complicated world as we guide people to Christ,” said Anna Carter, co-founder and president of Eden Invitation. The Catholic nonprofit defines its mission as “original personhood beyond the LGBT+ paradigm” and declares on its website, “we firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Catholic Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.”
“The church’s teachings on sexuality and gender are both ‘good news’ and ‘hard sayings,’ ” Carter said, referring to John 6:60, a passage where some of Jesus’ disciples push back on his Bread of Life discourse and soon after stop following him.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “homosexual persons are called to chastity” and instructs that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
Looking to October, those involved in Catholic ministry to people who identify as LGBTQ+ noted that the upcoming synodal discussion has the potential to be a positive start for a broader pastoral discussion.
Courage’s Father Blatchford emphasized the importance of an authentic accompaniment that truly listens.
“Pope Francis says very clearly that if we just give the moral rules of the church, we’re not really encountering the person; we’re not helping them,” he said. “So first and foremost, I think we need to listen to their story — that’s part of this real accompaniment. Be able to receive the person, and the reality of their story, even if I don’t agree with it.”
“You could say there are three primary things they need to hear,” Father Blatchford added. “One: I love you. Two: I believe God has a plan for your life. And three: I’d like to hear your story.”
“Showing welcome to those who have felt, and have been, historically excluded in the church is an important first step,” Father Martin said. “Another step would be for all of us in the church to listen to the experiences of LGBTQ Catholics: Who is God for them? What does Jesus mean for them? How have they been treated by their own church?”
However, Wildenberg noted the synod’s process has seen some shortcomings for people who identify as LGBTQ+ Catholics — particularly in the framing.
“The initial diocese-level synod summary documents often framed LGBTQ+ people as a problem of catechesis, and we were lumped into headings like, ‘What shall we do about groups who disagree with Church teaching?’ ” Wildenberg noted.
“It’s a problem of inclusion, not of discord,” he added. “It’s a failure to accept people with love, not a failure to accept truth.”
Father Blatchford said the term “authentic welcoming” used by the synod’s working document is more than just making a person feel welcome.
“It’s about somebody actually welcoming them,” he said. “It’s about feeling invested enough to pour out your body and blood — as Christ did for us — for your neighbor.”
“I would say that really that’s where that gap might be right now — that people are kind of uncomfortable with that; they don’t know how to do that,” Father Blatchford explained. “And so I think it’s good that it was brought up this way.”
Wildenberg, however, noted the church needs to have a positive vision for those Catholics who identify as LGBTQ+ and who are living the path of discipleship. He would have liked the synod’s working document to acknowledge “the many LGBTQ Catholics” who are “working side by side with straight Catholics and clergy to build the kingdom of God.”
Parishes, he explained, can extend the most authentic welcome to those in the LGBTQ+ community through these faithful LGBTQ+ Catholics who are “visible as witnesses to the Christian life, to natural virtue, and to holy lifestyles that respond to the call to family and extended kinship.”