Synod on Synodality: LGBT issues, female diaconate discussed in emotional third week

Ruffini Oct 18 Synod on Synodality spokesman Paolo Ruffini speaks to the media during a press briefing at the Vatican on Oct. 18, 2023. | Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

This past week the Synod on Synodality assembly delved into two crucial themes: the accompaniment of LGBT individuals and the topic of a female diaconate. Additionally, the assembly discussed the structure of the Church, all with the aim of shaping a more synodal future for the Church. 

The process has been driven by what the synod calls “active listening and speaking from the heart,” which, some participants have reportedly said, tends to be driven by emotions. It also raises a fundamental question: Will something truly defined ever emerge from the process?

Several notable events also took place: Pope Francis met with members of New Ways Ministry, a U.S.-based LGBT ministry group that was previously denounced by both the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Vatican’s doctrinal office for causing confusion on sexual morality among the Catholic faithful; three theologians held a conference designed to show support for the synodal journey; and a special prayer service for migrants presided over by Pope Francis was held at St. Peter’s Square.

LGBT issues

The issue of the debate on LGBT inclusion was downplayed by Vatican spokesperson Paolo Ruffini, who stated that “the blessing of homosexual couples is not the theme of the synod.” 

However, on Oct. 17, Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, met with Pope Francis along with three other New Ways staff members. 

The meeting was publicized by Vatican Media and perceived as an endorsement of New Ways Ministry’s approach by Pope Francis. It occurred despite a controversy surrounding the synod’s website, which was forced to remove a New Ways Ministry video that invited LGBT people to participate in the assembly.

Women’s ordination and other key topics

Apart from LGBTQ+ issues, the synod also engaged in discussions related to the female diaconate and even contemplated the possibility of women delivering homilies, which already happens in situations such as in German-speaking Switzerland, where the priest is treated almost like a mere consecration official. The topic of “female priesthood” was even broached, raising fundamental questions about the role of women in the Church despite assurances from synod organizers that changes to doctrine were not on the agenda. One intervention during a morning session was reportedly significant in this discussion. Responding to calls for women’s ordination not only to the diaconate but in some cases also to the priesthood, a laywoman participant argued that the focus on women’s ordination is a distraction from what women in the Church need and is an attempt to clericalize the laity. The intervention received loud applause. 

The week also saw deliberations on the role of parishes, priests, and bishops. Ruffini emphasized that the synod is not just a “roundtable or a talk show” but a “conversation of the Spirit.” However, it remains to be seen what the fruit of these conversations of the Spirit will be, the methodology of which is explained in great detail in the synodal process, but the practical results of which have yet to be understood.

Theological debates 

There is a lot of talk about avoiding the media’s agenda for the synod, and it is a legitimate concern. But is there a theological agenda on the synod? The topic is hotly debated, since the interventions are so proscribed as to prevent true theological debate and discussion. 

Outside the synod, on Oct. 14, three theologians convened a conference titled: “Church and Synod are synonymous: styles and forms of a synodal Church.” Among the speakers of the meeting was Archbishop Roberto Repole, an innovator who recently entrusted the management of parishes to laypeople in his home diocese of Turin.

Repole argued that the Second Vatican Council didn’t fully embrace the realities of local churches. He advocated for synodality to infuse the Gospel into the culture in which local Churches operate, emphasizing the democratic culture of the local Churches.

For Monsignor Giacomo Canobbio, professor emeritus of the Southern Theological Faculty and fellow presenter, the synod is “an implementation of an idea of the Church that comes from afar” and “a response to the signs of the times.” Still, it is, above all, he said, an antidote to clericalism, a theme that Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the synod’s relator general, during the module B3 discussion, also highlighted.

Finally, Simona Segoloni Ruta, a professor at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, opined that “talking about bishops without talking about the people of God is impossible.” Therefore, she argued, the synod is necessary because “it would not be possible to gather only the bishops if the Church wants to feel together.”

At the synod itself, work began on Wednesday on module B3 of the Instrumentum Laboris, the synod’s working document, with a focus on “the question of authority, its meaning, and the style of its exercise within a synodal Church.” In an address to the synodal assembly in the General Congregation, Italian theologian Father Dario Vitali focused on authority and concrete changes to the institutional Church. The theologian proposed the need “to reimagine the Church in a synodal key, so that the entire Church and everything in the Church — life, processes, institutions — is reinterpreted in terms of synodality.”

More in Vatican

These discussions introduce a spectrum of perspectives, but not all participants share these views. Rumors of planned absences to avoid contentious debates or to express opposition to certain positions have circulated, challenging the vision of the synod as a harmonious gathering. 

The new calendar

The synod organizers introduced a brand-new timetable for the proceedings. Most notably, the draft of the summary report, described by Ruffini as “short and transitory,” will now be presented to the delegates as a unified document rather than in two parts. This adjustment is intended to allow for more substantial consideration of the “road map” for the next phase of the synodal process leading to the concluding session to be held in October 2024.

Furthermore, a letter to the people of God will be published at the conclusion of this synod session, marking a change from the previous practice of releasing it only at the end of the entire synod process.

As a result, the synod will pause its activities on the afternoon of Oct. 23 and throughout Oct. 24 for deliberations on the letter of the assembly to the people of God, discussed first in smaller circles and then among the wider general congregation.

Questions about the methodology of the synod arise

This new calendar demonstrates the adaptability and responsiveness of the synod fathers and that synodality as a method also involves constant listening. But it also raises concerns about whether the synodal assembly might turn into an ongoing debate where nothing can be considered definitive in practice and everything remains under discussion. 

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Many participants have expressed doubts about the method, albeit anonymously, owing to fears about breaking the request for confidentiality. 

These doubts revolve around the practice of assigning new tables and subtopics to participants at the start of each new module as well as the fact that in this novel approach everyone discusses particular themes at their tables, but few would be expected to have a global vision of the synod.

Add to it that the short duration of each interaction — limited to four minutes — makes it challenging to articulate complex thoughts and so favors emotional appeals. At least one intervention in the general congregation reportedly raised eyebrows, and there is a concern among participants that facts are being manipulated for emotional effect.   

Some synod fathers also complained that the approach appears too “Western-centric,” at least on issues related to sexuality and gender. However, it remains to be seen whether the summary text will truly encompass all perspectives since the final text is voted on, potentially leaving out important nuances and divergent views. 

With this comes an inevitable democratization of the process. And along with democratization comes subjectification, a byproduct of the listening process that prioritizes emotion over reason. Every theme must make it into the final text, meaning there will be no formal conclusions, no viewpoints more true than others.

The method, until now, seems to be keeping synod participants in relative harmony. Cardinal Cristobal Lopez Romero, archbishop of Rabat, underlined that in the discussions, there are “divergences, but never clashes.” However, Archbishop Zbigņev Stankevičs of Riga, Latvia, was one of the few to publicly make waves. At the daily press briefing he defended the Church’s pastoral care of homosexuals but drew a clear line in the sand by saying homosexual unions could not be blessed because they are sinful. 

Finally, Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius, president of the European bishops, used a homily during one of the Masses for participants to caution against synodality becoming an end in itself and emphasizing the role of synodality in serving the Church’s mission of evangelization. 

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