In what is being called a setback for Pope Francis, the midterm document from the synod has had language regarding gays and lesbians removed after conservative bishops blocked its inclusion. After failing to receive the needed two-thirds majority in a vote, the controversial paragraph was removed leaving some progressives unhappy and disappointed. The document is a signal of the pope’s more tolerant attitude and of the opposition he faces in moving forward that agenda. Conservative attendees at the synod have been openly critical of the pope, leading one to a severe demotion and questions about a possible dramatic split in the church.
The original wording of the synod document included a passage referring to the “gifts and qualities” homosexuals might give to the church as well as the question, “Are we capable of welcoming these people?” That and other portions were watered down further in the final draft which only says that “men and women with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and delicacy,” a reminder of the pastoral mission of the church towards sinners. Despite the accepted changes, Pope Francis has said that the original draft should be published along with the new one, which would let people read both the original intent and the outcome of the revision process.
Conservative clergy are happy with the accepted draft, but have been openly critical of the pope during the synod. Cardinal Wilfred Fox Napier, a critic and newest member of the revision board, said that the issue was “presenting homosexual unions as if they were a very positive thing.” In his view of the language, it was too strongly positive to be in line with accepted church teaching and practice. American Cardinal Raymond Burke, a well-known hard conservative voice in the church, has been openly combatting Pope Francis’ tone in the press, even going so far as to chastise the head of the church for not offering a firm defense of the faith. The interpretation that many have made of such remarks was that Burke wanted the pope to come out and directly condemn homosexuality, something he has famously avoided doing.
For Burke and others, Pope Francis’ statement of “Who am I to judge?” has been too progressive towards gays and the synod was their chance to give him a firm setback in his mission of leading the church. But the pope has not avoided fighting back in subtle ways. Burke who was previously head of the Vatican’s highest court, was removed from the office in 2013. He is now patron to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which is a kind of ceremonially post usually given to clergy in retirement. The message from the pope was clear: such challenges to his authority will be dealt with effectively.
The synod, however, was not the time for heavy-handed retaliation to insult and abuse. Instead, Pope Francis opted for a subtle, pastoral reminder of the duties the attendees had towards God and the church. In an address to the synod, he warned against the temptations faced by those present. He listed such temptations as “hostile inflexibility,” a “destructive tendency to goodness” and regarding themselves not as guardians of the faith, but as its owners. He also warned against seeking to please people too much, perhaps a reference to progressives who want to completely change church doctrine to accept homosexuals. While Pope Francis was conciliatory and praised the robust discussion of the synod, his message was also clearly a diagnosis of the problems he saw in the synod and a chance for everyone to reflect on their motives.
While the explicit wording of welcoming homosexuals to the church has been thrown out, the synod was not a complete defeat for Pope Francis’ progressive mission. It was one of the first times when such discussion was openly held and shows a surprising amount of consensus among those attending. Catholic journalist Christopher Lamb saw it as a good sign that “we have now got an acceptance that we need a new language in the church” regarding homosexuals. The voting records on the document are also cause for hope. While the offending paragraphs failed to reach the two-thirds majority, it did reach a firm majority with 118 voting in favor and only 62 voting against. The conservative triumph was only a victory of process, not of numbers. In addition, the document is expected to be well-received by the laity who are not ass opposed to homosexuals as the church leadership is.
Overall, the outcome of this first meeting of the synod represents a setback for Pope Francis’ first statement about gays, but it is not a dead-end to his progress. Despite criticisms, he is the leader of the church and has used his authority to make the statements he feels he needs to make. The battle lines seem more clearly drawn as the clergy are publicly showing their support or their opposition. And it is clear to everyone now that the church is far from as staunchly conservative as gay opponents would have people believe. In the end, the synod has shown what Pope Francis has to work with going forward into 2015.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury