Reform groups' petition asks Vatican to diversify lay voices at family synod

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Soli Salgado

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At the Synod of Bishops on the family held at the Vatican in October 2014, several couples from around the world were invited to attend as representatives of the Catholic laity. One American couple, Alice and Jeff Heinzen, spoke about the beauty of family life and the advantages of natural family planning, a practice embraced in the church's teachings.

But Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of FutureChurch, said, "While their voice and constituency should be represented, they should not be overrepresented. The purpose of the synod is to break new ground on these issues and to develop pastoral practices that reach out to Catholics who have not felt welcomed because they do not entirely conform to current teaching and practice."

In an effort to "widen the circle" at the second synod on the family, scheduled for October 2015, reform groups FutureChurch, Voice of the Faithful and the American Catholic Council have drafted a petition calling for more diverse laity to be invited. Twenty other organizations have joined the cause. The letter, which launched Jan. 21, addresses Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, and the bishops of the world. Organizers plan to deliver it March 4 by mail and email to the bishops, and hand-deliver a copy to Baldisseri at the Vatican.

The petition names groups of people that will be discussed according to the 2014 synod document, known as a lineamenta, and therefore should be included in the conversation:

  • Divorced and remarried people;
  • Cohabitating couples;
  • Interfaith families;
  • Impoverished families;
  • Single parents;
  • Families with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender members;
  • Same-sex couples;
  • Families torn by the violence of war and abuse.

"You won't be able to tend to these issues without having real dialogue, and you can't have that dialogue without that experience in the room," said Ryan Hoffman, director of communications at Call to Action, one of the coalitions that joined in the petition. He added that for this synod to have credibility and relevance, "we have to be able to disagree, to lean into the messiness of disagreement and different visions and experiences of faith. Are we paying attention to where God is taking the church, the signs of the times, as we embark on this synod?"

The petition process includes online signatures and meetings with bishops attending the synod to present recommendations of Catholic laypeople who could provide valuable perspectives. The petition will be online until March 3.

A survey conducted by member groups of Catholic Organizations for Renewal -- including Call to Action, DignityUSA and FutureChurch -- prior to the 2014 synod revealed a pastoral crisis in the church.

Several issues that many of the 16,514 respondents specifically mentioned included:

  • The need for more pastoral care for separated, divorced, remarried and same-sex unions;
  • A pedagogical challenge, as a number of responses included "I don't know" about God's mercy;
  • Marriage equality, with nearly 75 percent of participants saying this was either "extremely" or "very" important to them;
  • A need for more roles for women in the church (an issue that often arose unprompted);
  • A more open discussion about the church's sexual abuse scandals.

"The gap between the people of the church and its leadership is very evident, and, sadly, growing," said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT group.

She added that the passion, intensity and openness within the responses was a "testament to the depth of faith and commitment [to the church]. Catholics are yearning for the kind of dialogue that Pope Francis has called for, and very ready to express their hopes, dreams and frustrations with the church."

The church's 50-year-old synod model was originally intended to become an inclusive process for both the bishops and laity of the world -- a process Rose-Milavec said Pope John Paul II "seriously constrained as he centralized authority during his papacy." She said that Francis, however, is restructuring the synod to function as it was envisioned, while reversing John Paul's trend by "decentralizing" the papacy's authority and power.

"While that is good, ultimately we need a church that recognizes that all the baptized, lay and ordained, have been entrusted by God with wisdom, faith, hope and love that can guide the church into the future," she said.

Salt and Light TV, the only media outlet allowed inside the synod, revealed that many bishops are interested in making it a more participatory environment for more types of families, Rose-Milavec added.

With the bishops, laity and Francis all showing interest in broadening the discussion circle, several organizations have said they are optimistic about these efforts.

Donna Doucette, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, said that while clericalism has been causing an inherent lack of contact between bishops and families, Francis is directly taking to task these issues, inspiring a confidence that "our efforts, especially in the light of Francis' apparent vision, will lead to a church responsive to all the faithful."

Several of those sponsoring the petition have stressed that these efforts are done not out of contempt, but out of compassion, with the desire for a more inclusive vision of Christ and the church.

"We care so much about our faith, we can't not be Catholic," Hoffman said. "That's why we're in this work. We're trying to stick it out and make it better for all Catholics, for people who love the church but know it can be better, too, in different ways. That's why we continue to stand up as witnesses, to say we love our faith. It's out of that love that springs the sense that we know it can be better."

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen editorial intern. Her email address is]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: Diversify lay voices at synod, says reform groups' petition.

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