There is much to appreciate in the Synod synthesis report from October, including an emphasis on women’s participation in decision-making and in priestly formation; its stress on lay involvement in the Synod; and the significance of co-responsibility and authority for the baptized. The report is a window into the process, priorities and conversation in the Spirit of this year’s gathering in Rome.
Yet, there is a glaring absence in the report: It includes no explicit reference to LGBTQ issues, other than vague remarks on issues “relating to matters of identity and sexuality” (15g) and “sexuality and ‘bodiliness’” (15a). The Italian-language version is somewhat more explicit in that same section, speaking of “gender identity and sexual orientation.”
In an October interview with America, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago expressed his surprise at this lacuna, noting that the report does not reflect the conversations had and testimonies given on LGBTQ issues at the Synod, which were more robust than the report indicates.
While we cannot make the report say something it does not, there are still reasons to be hopeful. However, I must acknowledge that my identity as a straight, cisgender woman surely makes hopefulness easier to achieve. I cannot speak on behalf of the LGBTQ community, but I can speak as an ally and as a Catholic moral theologian engaged in work on gender and sexuality.
I want to call attention to three priorities I see in the report, especially in sections 15 and 16, that signal hopeful change: emphasizing synodality itself, listening and drawing on lived experiences and science.
Synodality itself embraces a listening church, a church open to unity amidst diversity. The synthesis report calls for a church that is “less bureaucratic and more relational,” where “different cultures, languages, rites, ways of thinking, and realities can engage together fruitfully in a sincere search for the Spirit’s guidance” (1b, c). The General Assembly, we are told, spoke of hope, healing, reconciliation and the restoration of trust among those hurt by the church and who have long felt invisible.
While there is no explicit mention of the LGBTQ community, a recognition of hurt and invisibility surely applies. Synodality—“reciprocal listening, dialogue, community discernment, and creation of consensus as an expression that renders Christ present in the Holy Spirit”—is the future of the church (1h). Genuine reciprocal listening, dialogue and communal discernment would include a diversity of perspectives and make space for the LGBTQ community. Importantly, the report states that “the harmony created by the Spirit is not uniformity” (3f).
The report also prioritizes listening. Synod delegates who took part in these conversations “privilege[ed] freedom in expressing one’s views and listening to each other,” avoiding “moving too quickly to a debate based on the reiteration of our own positions without listening first to the reasoning that supports the position of others” (15a). The Synod models the type of communication needed in the church, the type that prioritizes listening as a “dynamic of reciprocity in which each makes a contribution to the other’s journey” (16a).
The synthesis report observes that being listened to in a deep way is a recognition and affirmation of a person’s dignity. Listening requires de-centering oneself and recognizing one’s own limitations and partiality of perspective. It is an act of genuine humility. Listening to those who suffer from exclusion “allows the church to understand their point of view and to place itself concretely at their side” (16i).
The encouragement to listen and the rich descriptions of what listening entails stand in stark contrast to recent church documents on gender identity, namely the 2019 document, “Male and Female He Created Them: Toward a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education,” and this year’s “Doctrinal Note on the Moral Limits to Technological Manipulation of the Human Body.” In “Male and Female He Created Them,” an entire section is devoted to “listening,” but listening only to the church’s own limited perspective. The document thereby identifies a confused sense of freedom as the reason why transgender people exist.
The doctrinal note purports to determine which technological interventions in the human body support or inhibit human flourishing and which are, therefore, morally impermissible. The document states that any intervention must respect the “natural created order,” that is, God’s plan or purpose for creation and human flourishing. But this statement was made without truly listening to transgender persons themselves.
The Synod’s synthesis report also prioritizes sources of moral thinking that have, historically, held lesser status in moral theology: human experience and the sciences. The report discourages the church from “repeating vacuous formulas,” which it contrasts with the goal of placing the human and social sciences, philosophy and theology into conversation (15c).
To avoid authority becoming oppressive within the Christian community, the Synod takes seriously “the daily experience of God’s Holy People” as a starting point (15j). And the report cautions against both utilizing doctrine “harshly and with a judgmental attitude,” and “practi[cing] mercy ‘on the cheap’” (15f).
The report acknowledges that, at times, “the anthropological categories we have developed are not able to grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences and require greater precision and further study” (15g). In other words, our anthropological categories—ways and concepts through which we understand the human person—are sometimes inadequate in light of the knowledge we glean from real personal experiences. This includes, I assume, the experiences of LGBTQ persons.
Therefore, we must continue to study and learn from experience as well as scientific discoveries. All of this is significant because priority is given to the lived experiences of human beings, and “the very presence of God in our midst,” over rigid, abstract rules.
This synthesis report is a glimpse into the process and dialogue of a synod that has not yet concluded. Therefore, we should not give the report more weight than warranted. It does not address LGBTQ persons explicitly, and this is (as always) painful and disappointing. Yet, the emphasis on synodality, listening and experience is significant. The report opens doors and signals a more inclusive and diverse way forward, recognizing God at work in the lives and experiences of all persons. Now we await the conclusion of the Synod and its final report in 2024.