The Synod on the Family and the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons

As many of our readers know, the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family has been meeting in Rome for the last several weeks. The pastoral care of homosexual persons was among the most contentious issues at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family last year, and got a lot of attention in the lead-up to this year’s Synod. There was thus a great deal of anticipation—and even outright anxiety—regarding the final result.

Dome of St. Peter's

The final report has now been released (in Italian).  There was only one paragraph dealing with the pastoral care of homosexual persons. Here is an unofficial English translation of that paragraph (courtesy of Aleteia):

76. The Church conforms her attitude to the Lord Jesus who in a limitless love offered himself for every person without exception (MV, 12). Regarding families who live the experience of having within their family persons with homosexual tendencies, the Church repeats that every person, independently of his sexual tendency, is to be respected in his dignity and welcomed with respect, careful to avoid “every sign of unjust discrimination” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons, 4). May special attention be reserved also for the accompaniment of families in which persons with homosexual tendencies live. Regarding proposals to equate unions between homosexual persons with marriage, “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law. Homosexual acts “close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (ibid.). The synod holds that it is entirely unacceptable that local churches suffer pressure on this matter and that international organizations make financial help to poor countries conditioned on the introduction of laws that institute “marriage” between persons of the same sex.

Over the last couple of days, several people have reached out to me to express frustration with how little the Synod said on the topic of homosexuality. Others were frustrated that the final report focused primarily on the pastoral care of families of homosexual persons, rather than addressing the pastoral needs of homosexual persons themselves. This is an understandable concern, especially in light of the amount of focus on homosexuality in the reaction to last year’s Synod, and in discussions leading up to the Synod this Fall. However, it’s worth emphasizing that this was the Synod on the Family, not a synod on sexuality more generally.

I don’t, of course, have any inside information about why the Synod Fathers chose to address homosexuality in the way that they did. However, the summary texts coming from the Synod’s working groups may give at least a bit more context for understanding their thought processes.

If I have read the French, Italian, Spanish, and German reports correctly, the subject of homosexuality was addressed much more briefly in the Italian and German groups than it was in the English groups, and not addressed at all in the French or Spanish groups. I will focus here on the reports from the English-speaking working groups, while acknowledging that this may provide a somewhat biased perspective on the Synod as a whole.

Working Group C reported that:

The group was also divided on the question of support for families with homosexual members and for homosexual people themselves. Some wanted to delete any reference to homosexuality, but this won little support in the group. We opted for a briefer treatment, but also asked that the final document include at an appropriate point a clear statement of Church teaching that same-sex unions are in no way equivalent to marriage. We were clear, however, that in this Synod we were not addressing homosexuality in general but within the context of the family. We were equally insistent that we address this issue as pastors, seeking to understand the reality of people’s lives rather than issues in some more abstract sense.

This report makes clear that, at least within this working group, the bishops did not think they should try to address the whole problem of homosexuality and the pastoral care of homosexual persons. Rather, they were focused on problems that affect families, and only wanted to address homosexuality as it related to the family. (This may also help to explain the relative lack of focus on homosexuality in the non-English working groups.) Working Group D made this point even more explicit:

The section on the pastoral care of persons with homosexual tendencies sparked much discussion. Some members thought that this issue should be removed from discussion in the Synod on the Family. They felt that it’s important enough to have a specific synodal meeting on the topic itself. Some suggested that the wording of the Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 2357-2359 should be used. Others saw that option as possibly damaging the credibility of the Church in Western Europe and North America.

In this group, some of the Synod Fathers saw homosexuality as important enough to deserve its own synod, rather than being addressed within the Synod on the Family. Working Group B did not address homosexuality at all. Working Group A reported that:

We spoke of the importance of pastoral attention to persons with homosexual tendencies, with special attention to families in which a person with same sex attraction is a member. The Church as the spouse of Christ patterns her behavior after the Lord Jesus whose all-embracing love is offered to every person without exception. Parents and siblings of family members with homosexual tendencies are called to love and accept these members of their family with an undivided and understanding heart. We call on the synod to affirm and propose anew the entirety of Church teaching on love and chastity. We encourage parents and family members to have confidence in it as they love and accompany one another in responding to the Gospel’s call to chaste living.

This group emphasizes the need to respond to same-sex attracted family members with unconditional love. It also emphasizes the need to stress chastity for everyone, rather than, as sometimes happens, rushing to condemn homosexual persons, while tacitly accepting or quietly ignoring many heterosexual sins.

Taken together, these comments make clear that many of the Synod Fathers (at least in the English working groups) consider the pastoral care of homosexual persons an important topic. They are quite aware that they left many questions related to it unaddressed, which is why some suggested that it may be important enough to warrant a synod of its own. It remains to be seen the extent to which the other working groups—whose members, after all, came into the Synod from different cultural situations and often with different ideas of what pastoral questions the Synod needed to address—would agree with the suggestions that emerged from the English working groups.

It also remains to be seen how the Church—whether at the local or universal level—will address the concerns about pastoral care which the Synod Fathers, at least for the present, chose to set aside.

11 thoughts on “The Synod on the Family and the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons

  1. Of course, gay people consider the households they form as adults to be family, so acting as if the only way they fit into the theme of family is because more traditional nuclear families might have homosexual children/siblings…is rather disingenuous.

    Even if the implication is that they reject the label family for same sex unions in se, they leave out one very important point: Gay people, by a variety of means, do have children of their own. Surely this must be recognized as family (some of these children are indeed biological even…) even if they don’t want to recognize gay coupling as such as Family; and yet there is no mention of how the concept of Family is to be handled or spoken about for these *children.*

    Gays can perhaps wait for our relationships to be addressed elsewhere (under “friendship” perhaps!)…though one wonders why heterosexual cohabitation (also not Family strictly speaking under their logic) got treated, then, at this synod.

    But it’s the *children* of gay people who really got the pastoral short stick again. We’ve seen children turned away from Catholic schools merely because their parent(s) are in a gay relationship. Even denied baptism. And now these children will hear no reference to their family situation from the Church as gay people are apparently only a part of Family as embarrassing siblings and awkward situations for parents, never parents themselves (*rolls eyes*)…

    • I agree that it would be nice for the Church to codify her approach to children being raised by same-sex couples in terms of education and access to the Sacraments, however I can also see how this particular synod was not the appropriate forum for it. The issues presented by same-sex couples would take the conversation far afield of the original topic. I find the suggestion that homosexuals and the pastoral care the Church extends to them merit their own synod to be greatly encouraging. It’s far better than being shoehorned into a subheading in a way that might not take into account the complexities raised by the issue.

  2. Short comment… I find it disturbing that financial help to poor countries is *conditional* on what laws they have regarding same sex marriage / definition of marriage. I find no political conditions for helping the poor in scripture.

    God bless,


    • Perhaps the standards of the US government are not the same as Scriptural standards.

      While I think government foreign aid should not necessarily be tied to the recipient’s ssm policy, I think it should be tied to their govt policies on gays–Uganda being a notorious example, Nigeria and Iran another.

      Christian and other private charities can serve who they choose.

      • Is “same sex marriage” a “gay right”? Has the president of the United State said that foreign aid will be used to promote gay rights?

        Note: I think it is horrible that some countries have laws that condemn homosexuals to death or other horrendous penalties. As well, I think that marriage is not a right.

      • In Dec 2011 there was a flurry of controversy when then secry of state Hilary Clinton in a speech in Geneva on Human Rights Day said, ” this morning back in Washington President Obama put in place a…strategy to ensure foreign assistance promote the protection of LGBT rights.” (See Huffington Post of Dec 6, 2011.)
        Clinton mentioned assaults, murder, lack of opportunities for working and education, and criminalization of gay status/acts as human rights violations.In 2011 neither Obama nor Clinton was publically in favor of same sex marriage, even in the US. That came in the spring of 2012.

        As for tying aid to ssm, I did a cursory Internet search and found a report in the International Business Times dated July 14, 2015 saying that Obama threatened to sever foreign aid th Nigeria when then Pres Goodluck signed a law banning ssm in Jan 2014.

        My guess is there will not be specific exactions in law to ban aid to certain countries based on their ssm policy. If nothing else, that would prevent the flexibility to go on a case by case basis behind the scenes. But from the reactions of some African countries (Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Nigeria) the message is being conveyed.

      • Hypatia,

        You are right in saying that the horrible acts mentioned by Clinton (assaults, murder, lack of opportunities for working and education) are affronts to Human Rights. This are not particularly “gay rights”.

        The exception is perhaps the criminalization of gay status/acts. But even this is a Human Right violation, not a “gay right”.

        The problem is that the United States considers “same-sex marriage” as a “gay right” and that Clinton said that “(the president outlined a) strategy to ensure foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights”. She and the president are actually thinking about “gay rights” which covers some very important Human Rights but also covers “same-sex marriage”.

  3. It makes sense to focus on the broader pastoral care for families with gay and lesbian members. Considering how many GLBT people leave the Catholic Church the Priests still need to help relate to parents whose lesbian daughter left to marry her wife in a UCC liberal Protestant church. Religious teachers need to be ready when they try to explain that same sex couples are never equal to opposite sex couples, or even valid in any way and same sex parenting is like child abuse for the kid who just had a birthday at his cousins house with their dads. What do they say when that kid raises her hand and askes “What about my cousins? They are raised by my dads brother and his husband and are happy and loved. How come they never come to Church?”

  4. Pingback: A Note on Courage and Language | Spiritual Friendship

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