Pope Francis approaches the microphone to deliver his message in the Paul VI Hall as he meets with youth attending the Synod at the Vatican on Oct. 6, 2018. (RNS/AP/Gregorio Borgia)
For those looking for Pope Francis' synod of bishops on young people to settle the current divides in the Catholic Church between bishops and laity, conservatives and reformers, LGBT Catholics and those who regard that group as an oxymoron, the synod's final report is bound to disappoint.
It should come as no surprise that the report approved Oct. 27 by the bishops who met here over the past month is filled with generalities. The broad topic of the synod, "young people," did not lend itself to specifics. In addition, each of the 167 paragraphs needed to be approved separately by a two-thirds vote — 166 out of the 249 bishops present. This encouraged compromise to get the needed votes.
In addition, the 60-page document deals with a host of issues: treatment of women in society and in the church, the church's attitude toward LGBT members, clerical sex abuse, warfare, poverty, migration, human trafficking and corruption. With such a large number of topics, generalities are necessary.
But the splits in the church were nonetheless visible, as the report's most controversial topic, the church's ministry to homosexuals, illustrates.
After much formal and informal debate at the synod, the final report dropped the acronym LGBT, which had appeared in the first draft. Even so, the paragraph received the lowest number of yes votes, 178, only 12 more than the required two-thirds. Most other paragraphs received overwhelming votes.
Opposition to the use of "LGBT" came from conservatives, like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who felt using the term implied an endorsement of gay lifestyle.
African bishops also opposed the term, saying that these issues were not a priority in their countries, although some acknowledged that after they dealt with issues like civil wars, refugees, and poverty, the LGBT issues may come to the fore.
But even the watered-down statement had some positive things to say. It states that "God loves every person and so does the Church" and reaffirms the church's opposition to "any sexual discrimination and violence." The first draft was more specific with a condemnation of violence based on "sexual orientation."
The synod's document also spoke of "paths of accompaniment in the faith of homosexual persons" where "people are helped to read their own history; to follow with freedom and responsibility their baptismal call; to recognize the desire to belong to and contribute to the life of the community; to discern the best means of realizing this."
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBT Catholics, applauded the call for "a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral elaboration of sexuality and affectivity." He interpreted this as the bishops' admission "that the church still has a lot to learn about sexuality."
DeBarnardo saw an acknowledgment of Pope Francis' leadership in the report, which, DeBernardo wrote, "reinforces the prohibition of same-sex relationships, though it does so in a way that has been typical of Pope Francis: it does not use condemnatory language, but instead it endorses the heterosexual model as ideal."
The report also has very strong language on women in the church, citing the need to increase their decision-making "at all levels" and speaking of "the urgency of an inescapable change."
The bishops acknowledged that the church's teaching on the inherent differences between men and women can lead to "forms of domination, exclusion and discrimination from which society and the church alike must free themselves."
Interestingly, the bishops avoided using the word "complementarity," a John Paul II term that feminists see as demeaning, instead referring only to "reciprocity between man and woman."