Analysis: Will LGBT debate define the youth synod?

20181018 Break before lunch at the Synod Daniel Ibanez 3 Bishops exit the synod hall in Vatican City during the 2018 Synod of Bishops. | Daniel Ibanez/CNA

As the fifteenth ordinary general session of the Synod of Bishops draws to a close in Rome, the proposed text of the final document is expected to emerge presently.

The synod is meant to address the themes of young people, faith, and vocational discernment.

Throughout the synod, there has also been discussion about whether the final document will include new language for addressing people who experience same-sex attraction, as the synod's working document, or instrumentum laboris, does.  

If "new language" is included in the final document, it is likely to become the focal point of Catholic and secular media attention after the document is released. Regardless of the richness or depth of the synod's final text, for many the entire meeting might be summarized - or not - in four letters: LGBT.
A survey of news coverage shows that the question of LGBT language has already come to dominate media attention, and the public musings of many of the participants. And advocacy campaigns to include such language are clearly underway.

A matter of respect?

The use of the term "LGBT" in the synod's working document caused a storm this spring. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the synod's secretary general, initially said that the language was taken from a pre-synodal document created by young people during a preparatory meeting held in Rome March 19-24. The acronym did not, in fact, appear in the pre-synod document.
But while the inclusion of "LGBT" terminology has garnered attention, it has only gained public support from a small minority of synod participants.

During a press conference last week, Cardinal John Ribat of Papua New Guinea appeared to sum up that support. He said that the Church should speak to young people "in the language they are using."

Young people want the Church to "call us and address us as this because this is who we are," the cardinal said.

Ribat was echoing arguments by clerics and others who say that respect for Catholics who experience same-sex attraction requires addressing them as they address themselves.

Those arguments extend beyond the use of a specific acronym. They also apply to synod discussions about whether terms like "family" and "marriage" can and should be used in ways redefined by contemporary Western culture.

Some Catholics, and many outside the Church, wonder what the big deal is.

But for many bishops, the drive to use what is often cast as "respectful" or "inclusive" language actually brings with it – intentionally or otherwise – a raft of problems.

The first is the apparent conflation, as illustrated by Cardinal Ribat, of all young people with those who identify themselves with the "LGBT" movement. There are a great many young Catholics, including many who experience same-sex attraction, who oppose the political and cultural campaign pushing "sexual identity." Indeed, beyond a few outliers given prominence by the synod's secretariat, it is hard to see any real groundswell of support for the adoption of new language.

Furthermore, critics say that using LGBT language has become the shorthand for an effort to import the identity politics of the West into the Church's thinking and language. Those in favor of adopting the acronym into the Church's official vocabulary maintain that it represents no shift in Church teaching, only a posture of dialogue and respect.

What defines us?

Synod bishops seem to be uniformly interested in addressing the question of how to present the Church's teaching on sexuality to young people raised in a culture defined by identity politics, which frames issues like same-sex marriage as a matters of "human rights."

But the consensus breaks down around proposals that seem to adopt contemporary language of sexuality as language of identity.

More in Vatican

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia used one of his interventions during the synod to highlight, in stark terms, what he sees as the fallacy behind the "LGBT" label.

"There is no such thing as an 'LGBTQ Catholic' or a 'transgender Catholic' or a 'heterosexual Catholic,'" Chaput told the synod, "as if our sexual appetites defined who we are; as if these designations described discrete communities of differing but equal integrity within the real ecclesial community, the body of Jesus Christ."

As many Western countries have learned in recent years, the fracturing of a common identity into smaller constituency bases comes with a direct loss of unity for the whole. In the context of the Church, some bishops argue, "sexual identity" language is not a question of inclusion or exclusion, but a matter ecclesiology and human dignity.

Some of the most ardent supporters of LGBT language in the Church have contended that adopting this vocabulary is an essential part of upholding the "dignity" of same-sex attracted Catholics. Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and prominent supporter of this cause, has said that "People have a right to name themselves, and [LGBT] is the name they chose."

Others, like Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, Africa's most prominent cardinal and one of the synod's most outspoken figures, have disputed this argument, pointing out that this kind of language elevates something the Church defines as a disordered inclination into a defining characteristic.

"Why define people by their sexual inclination or preference or practice? Especially when it runs counter to nature, the Church's law, tradition and teaching?" Napier asked on Twitter.

Napier and others argue that the Church recognizes human beings not as they define themselves but as creatures made in God's image. Baptism defines the Christian as a child of God and a member of the Body of Christ in the Church, they say.

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Those bishops argue that the language of self-identification, while central to post-Enlightenment liberal thought, squares badly with Catholic theology because it insists that human beings are defined by their desires rather than by the fact that they are creatures made in the image of their creator.

LGBT terminology, they say, advances the idea of a "dignity of difference" rooted in a particular sexual desire, rather than common dignity derived from the unity of bearing God's image.

Tempest in a Teapot?

While debate about an acronym might seem like a tempest in a teapot, many bishops argue that those four letters suggest a worldview in which man is defined in relation to himself and other people, but not God.

As one synod-watcher succinctly put it to CNA: "Paraphrasing James Carville – it's the anthropology, stupid."

Other bishops have sought to underscore the need for the synod move beyond a narrow debate about a particular kind of terminology.  

As the synod continues, and production of its final text looms, there is a feeling among many synod fathers that the issue of LGBT language is being driven by only a small minority of participants, and by a much larger force outside the synod hall.

Responding directly to a comment by Fr. Martin that the adoption of LGBT terminology was a key consideration for the synod, Cardinal Napier said that he didn't know what synod Martin was talking about, as he could not recall the issue being mentioned more than two or three times, "one a forceful repudiation of the use of the term in Church documents."

Nevertheless, some bishops say the language will end up in the document, even though it does not appear to have a clear base of support, either among the synod father or young Catholics.

One young synod observer told CNA that actual "dialogue" on the issue seemed one-sided, comparing the small group pushing for the inclusion of LGBT language to a "drum circle in a public park."

"It's a big noise from a small number of people, they talk a lot about inviting you in, there's a lot of incessant repetition, and they don't seem interested in hearing anything but the sounds they're making."

Nevertheless, during a press conference Oct. 23, Cardinal Luis Tagle said of LGBT language that his "hunch is that it will be there."

"It is not a synod which pretends to provide all solutions and all answers, clear solutions and clear answers" Tagle added. "Life is not clear, and the life of young people now is really not clear."

Still, other bishops have seemed to suggest that a more traditional anthropology will be reflected in the document.  

Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, a member of the drafting committee for the final document, said last week that presenting Church teaching on sexuality is about recognizing that everyone is a sinner, and everyone needs to be found by God and receive his love.

"We are also the sinners who are called to be at the foot of the cross in our lives. So, in the sense of welcoming, of receiving, and of entering into the friendship of Christ, we also take our lives, me included, to the foot of the cross. And that's every single person," he said.

A discussion group led by Cardinal Oswald Gracias, noted that a "proclamation of chastity, as achievable and good for our young people" was conspicuously absent from the instrumentum laboris, suggesting that ought to be a focus of any discussion on sexuality.

Another group, led by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, highlighted the "ideological colonization" by Western countries who tie economic and medical aid "an acquiescence to Western moral values in regard to sexuality and marriage," something echoed recently by Cardinal Souraphiel of Ethiopia.

Some bishops seem to regard the whole matter as unhelpful distraction. As Chaput's intervention noted, what is needed is "the confidence to preach Jesus Christ without hesitation or excuses to every generation, especially to the young."

As the synod session nears its end, it remains to be seen whether the push for LGBT language will emerge in the final document. But despite media attention, it seems clear that a majority of synod bishops – perhaps even a "moral unanimity" – are looking for less talk of LGBT, and more talk of INRI.