As the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Baltimore this week, they discussed the synod on marriage and family that took place in Rome last month. That meeting sent shockwaves around the globe because of the frank discussion of birth control, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, and, perhaps the biggest stunner of all, LGBT people.
Also on their minds was next October’s “part two” of the synod which will continue the conversation. The bishops should prepare for the 2015 meeting by taking their cue from Pope Francis: They should open conversations with the laity in their dioceses. LGBT Catholics and their families have been asking for such conversations for decades, and the pope tried to provide such opportunities. Last year he asked bishops to get input from the laity on the synod’s agenda topics. Not all bishops did so. With few exceptions, the U.S. bishops were particularly lax in collecting the ideas of the laity on these matters which impact their lives so directly and intimately.
That inaction has to end. Last month’s synod was a game changer for the Catholic Church, as it broke decades of silence by delivering honest assessments of how people perceive church teaching on sex and marriage. The public had the rare opportunity to see that bishops differ widely on sexual topics. The robust discussion indicates that more complete input from all in the church is greatly needed to develop doctrine and pastoral practices that better reflect the needs of God’s people.
Since LGBT issues caused so much discussion and disagreement, it will be especially important for U.S. bishops to open a dialogue with LGBT Catholics and their families. This synod showed that there were a majority of bishops who were willing to recognize that lesbian and gay people “have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” in the words of an early draft report. Similarly, that same report noted that the “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” that same-sex partners offer one another “constitutes a precious support” in the couple’s life. It’s important for U.S. bishops to explore these ideas, and the best way of doing so is to listen intently to those closest to these issues.
In a letter to the U.S. bishops, the Equally Blessed Coalition (a coalition of four Catholic organizations committed to LGBT equality) called on them to immediately initiate a program of dialogue with Catholics across the country on the issues the upcoming synod will consider. LGBT Catholics and their families have valuable insights to offer about sanctity of the Catholic family, and pastors could do more to support the full diversity of families in our church. This is a particularly crucial time for them to enter into dialog with our bishops, and offer to share this wisdom.
The synod’s free and open discussion among bishops must be replicated in local churches. The Catholic laity are an educated and insightful resource. More importantly, they are the true experts on the topics of marriage, family, and sexual expression, since they are the people who live these realities every day, not the bishops. While Catholics develop their theology from scripture, tradition, and nature, they also develop it from examining the lived experience of people of faith. What leader of any organization would want to ignore the perspectives of the people who know an issue because they live it?
Laypeople participated in the Rome synod by addressing the bishops about their experiences of marriage and family. But, as many commentators pointed out, nearly all the laypeople who spoke people who were already well-known for their support of the current church teachings on marriage and family. Not all voices were heard. Most glaring was the absence of any openly LGBT person speaking at the synod, especially since same-sex relationships were a major discussion point.
How will bishops be able to have an honest discussion on lesbian and gay issues if they don’t take the time to hear and understand the perspectives of lesbian and gay Catholics and their families? How can willful ignorance of this widely discussed issue of modern life be helpful in determining how church leaders should proceed pastorally? Bishops should not let fear or suspicion prevent them from engaging in simple, human conversations with lesbian and gay people, who have been asking for such opportunities for decades.
Last year a number of bishops complained that they could not gather input from laity because they only had two months to do so. Now they have 11 months, which is plenty of time to circulate surveys, hold listening sessions, meet with leaders, and post response forms on diocesan websites. When the bishops want to get a message out about opposing some legislative or judicial measure, they do not seem to lack in creativity in using all sorts of media to alert Catholics. Let’s see them use the same creativity to gather opinions on these matters.
The best thing that U.S. bishops can do to prepare for next year’s synod is listen to their people. As some synod participants acknowledged, bishops have a lot to learn about how people experience sexuality in the context of their faith. In their 1997 document Always Our Children, the U.S. bishops offered the following advice to pastors dealing with lesbian and gay issues: “Strive first to listen.” The best way that the bishops can prepare for the important synod next year is to follow their own advice and open their ears.
Let the conversations begin!