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Michael J. O’LoughlinFebruary 03, 2023
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When Cardinal Robert McElroy, the bishop of San Diego, proposed in a recent America essay that the church’s ongoing synodal process demonstrates a need to be more welcoming of women and L.G.B.T. people, he set off a wave of criticism from some bishops, priests and lay Catholics who believe the church should continue to defend its traditional teaching.

Though Cardinal McElroy’s essay touched on a number of issues about the future vitality of the church, much  of  the  criticism focused on his call for the church to be more welcoming to L.G.B.T. Catholics and boils down to the belief that the way for the church to welcome and include gay and lesbian people is by inviting them to conversion and a life of chastity, while forthrightly teaching the sinfulness of homosexual acts. These kinds of essays tend to pop up whenever a high-profile church leader, including Pope Francis, preach a message of welcome to L.G.B.T. people and their families.

But in addition to the critique of Cardinal McElroy’s focus on welcome and inclusion, critics are also reacting to the process through which that could happen: the ongoing synod of bishops on the topic on synodality.

In addition to the critique of Cardinal McElroy’s focus on welcome and inclusion, critics are also reacting to the process through which that could happen: the ongoing synod of bishops.

While Cardinal McElroy started off by noting that synodal conversations revealed significant concern about alienation from the church, much of the criticism in response to his essay is animated by the worry in some Catholic circles that the ongoing global consultation process initiated by Pope Francis in October 2021, and set to conclude in October 2024, could usher in changes to church teaching regarding human sexuality.

JD Flynn, a canon lawyer and the co-founder and editor in chief of The Pillar, wrote in a recent essay, “While the pope and other synod organizers have insisted the global synod process does not aim to focus on doctrinal changes, McElroy has suggested that it will—just as many Catholics have insisted it might since the process was announced two years ago.”

If it feels like we have been here before—a debate over controversial issues linked to a global synod of bishops—that is because we have.

In the run-up to the Synod on the Family, held in 2014 and 2015, bishops from around the world were asked to consult the laity ahead of a gathering in Rome in which they would discuss the church’s outreach to and support of families. Francis declared that nothing was off the table. Given that family life includes a host of joys and challenges, on the agenda was everything from economic opportunities to child care at Mass.

But in reality, at least in much of the Western media, two topics came to dominate the conversation: Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and, as now, how the church ought to interact with its L.G.B.T. members and their families.

If it feels like we have been here before—a debate over controversial issues linked to a global synod of bishops—that is because we have.

Ultimately, the bishops meeting to discuss family life in 2015 did not recommend any explicit changes to church teaching, though a footnote in the pope’s apostolic exhortation responding to the synod, “Amoris Laetitia,” appeared to have opened the door to divorced and remarried Catholics being welcome at Communion.

Two more hot topics would emerge a couple of years later, when bishops and lay Catholics in the Amazon region debated whether allowing married men to join the priesthood and women to be ordained as deacons could help alleviate the extreme priest shortage affecting many churches in many South American nations.

Today, the synod is again serving, in part, as a proxy for the ongoing debate over how the church maintains its traditional teaching at a time when women and L.G.B.T. people are more assertive in demanding equal treatment in society and the church.

In the context of the United States, Cardinal McElroy’s argument that women and L.G.B.T. people are deserving of a more pastoral welcome in the church may feel like an outlier, but that is not necessarily the case.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a report last year in which they summarized the 10-month consultation process for the synod on synodality that took place in 2021. The place of L.G.B.T. people in the church was highlighted in the report, including in a section about groups of Catholics who feel marginalized. “In order to become a more welcoming Church there is a deep need for ongoing discernment of the whole Church on how best to accompany our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters,” the report states.

In other countries, the calls to make the church more welcoming for L.G.B.T. people have been even stronger.

Last year, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg called the church’s teaching on homosexuality “no longer correct,” and stated, “I think it is time for a fundamental revision of the doctrine.”

Last year, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg called the church’s teaching on homosexuality “no longer correct,” and stated, “I think it is time for a fundamental revision of the doctrine.”

Cardinal Hollerich is also the relator general of the upcoming synod, which means he will lay out the synod’s theme at the start of the gathering and synthesize the speeches and reports before work begins on proposals. Those proposals will then be delivered to the pope for his further discernment. In short, Cardinal Hollerich will help shape the synod, which helps explain why some Catholics are fearful that the meeting could lead to changes in church teaching.

This month, bishops from throughout Europe will meet to discuss the synod, and while there is by no means unanimity when it comes to church teaching and L.G.B.T. Catholics, it seems that a significant number of bishops from Western European countries seem to want to discuss the matter with a sense of openness. (Luke Coppen has a helpful analysis here. Bishops in North America are meeting virtually ahead of a March 31 deadline to submit reports to Rome.)

In the United States, no bishops have taken a position as public as Cardinal Hollerich's in favor of reexamining church teaching on homosexuality, which is perhaps why the reaction to Cardinal McElroy’s essay was so forceful. In fact, Cardinal McElroy’s proposal, calling for a reevaluation of the traditional understanding that “all sexual sins are grave matter,” was more narrow than Cardinal Hollerich’s call for a “fundamental revision” of the teaching around homosexuality. Although Cardinal McElroy describes his call for greater inclusion as primarily a shift in pastoral practice, many of his critics have treated his essay as a sign that teaching on these topics must be defended.

Cardinal McElroy seems to be taking the lead, at least among U.S. cardinals, when it comes to voicing support for a softer touch among church leaders when it comes to L.G.B.T. issues.

Of course, not all reaction to Cardinal McElroy’s has been negative. Writing at The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne noted that the majority of Mass-going Catholics in the United States support same-sex marriage and surmised that the blowback facing Cardinal McElroy constitutes “censure that is really aimed at the pope.” Mr. Dionne quotes the Boston College theologian Cathleen Kaveny, who says of the essay, “It’s a move away from seeing all sexual sins as separating us from God’s grace…and instead seeing them more like other sins, which can be serious or not, depending on circumstances.”

Cardinal McElroy seems to be taking the lead, at least among U.S. cardinals, when it comes to voicing support for a softer touch among church leaders when it comes to L.G.B.T. issues. It is unclear if that will win him support from his brother bishops when they decide who will attend the synod in Rome later this year.

But even in the face of the criticism, Cardinal McElroy remains steadfast. He recently repeated, though with a slightly different construction, what he had said in his essay and even went a bit further.

In an interview on Feb. 1 with the America podcast “Jesuitical,” Cardinal McElroy, referring to the catechism’s description of homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered,” called such language “a disservice” and said regardless of whether a gay or lesbian Catholic seeks to follow the church’s call that he or she remain celibate “should not determine whether we seek to include people, reach out to them, look on them as fellow strivers with strengths and weaknesses and areas where they’re doing well.” He said that in San Diego, he seeks “to make L.G.B.T. people feel equally welcome in the life of the church as everyone else” and hopes the wider church can adopt a similar goal.

In line with the pope’s wishes for frank conversation, senior church leaders are unafraid in sharing their views.

“I really feel that Christ would totally agree with that,” Cardinal McElroy said. “That he would want every person, every L.G.B.T. person and their families, to feel equally welcomed in the church.”

A reporter recently asked me what I thought Pope Francis’ legacy might be on L.G.B.T. issues given that it is possible his successor may not share his seemingly more tolerant views. He asked specifically if the pope continued to resist changes to church teaching might hinder the institution from becoming the kind of welcoming place he’s envisioned, especially for the L.G.B.T. community.

It’s certainly true that despite the pope’s many overtures, including his regular meetings with L.G.B.T Catholics, his support for same-sex civil unions and his calls for Catholics to treat L.G.B.T. people with dignity and respect, church teaching remains unchanged.

At the same time, I told the reporter that the fact that two prominent cardinals feel they can speak freely and openly about a subject that remains taboo in much of the church, without the fear of being silenced or sidelined, indicates that the pope’s words and gestures are having an impact. A generation of L.G.B.T. Catholics, and their friends and families, feel supported. In line with the pope’s wishes for frank conversation, senior church leaders are unafraid in sharing their views. And regardless of what happens at the upcoming synod, or in the next pontificate, it remains likely that this discernment will continue.

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