The Vatican announced that a synod of bishops meeting next October will focus on the pastoral care of families. Pope Francis himself has spoken of the need for a more merciful approach in the church’s relationships to divorced and remarried Catholics. Under current church law, individuals who are divorced and remarried are officially barred from receiving the Eucharist, and are, sometimes, subject to unofficial exclusion from their faith communities.

From Catholic News Service:

The pope had told reporters accompanying him on his plane back from Rio de Janeiro in July that the next synod would explore a “somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage,” including the question of the eligibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

Pope Francis added at the time that church law governing marriage annulments also “has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this. It is complex, the problem of the pastoral care of marriage.”

Such problems, he said, exemplified a general need for forgiveness in the church today.

“The church is a mother, and she must travel this path of mercy, and find a form of mercy for all,” the pope said.

Mercy. Pastoral care. Making available the sacraments to those whose spiritual needs aren’t being met. So far, so good.

But still, I’m a little apprehensive about this synod.

In recent years, Catholic leaders spoke of “family” as a not-so-veiled code meant to denigrate the gay rights movement, fight marriage equality, and remind us that the church’s definition of “family” didn’t include gays and lesbians. The hostility was palpable, and sometimes even encouraged, from some quarters of the church.

Under Pope Francis, however, there’s been a welcome thaw. “Who am I to judge?” he asked when asked about gay priests. He admitted that the church had become “obsessed” with fighting gay marriage and abortion. And this week, he wrote to an Italian LGBT group assuring them of his blessing.

When the cardinals were gathered to elect a new pope, I hoped that whoever emerged on the balcony would stay quiet on LGBT issues throughout his pontificate. This alone would have been a remarkable improvement over his predecessor. I never imagined that these conservative men would elect as their leader a man who seems so willing to extend mercy and show love for all, including gays and lesbians, unwed mothers, and others who felt they had been rejected.

Had the theme of this synod been announced a year ago, my heart would be heavy. And while I don’t expect the church to reverse its stance on homosexuality, I am able to entertain the notion that the synod might not offer the harsh pronouncements against families led by same-sex couples that would have been boilerplate not long ago. And, with a bit of hope, I can even imagine some positive statements affirming all families.

There are, in fact, some practical changes the church could enact to make gay people feel more welcome, all without altering its teachings on sexuality.

Perhaps the synod will lead to divorced and remarried Catholics having access to communion. And, maybe, too, it’ll lead to the rights of all children, including those being raised by two parents of the same gender, to be baptized and to attend religious education classes and Catholic schools. Recognizing the impact of quality work on family life, perhaps the church will support the rights of LGBT people in employment law, or at least the rights to hold jobs at Catholic institutions. Parishes might consider ways to make non-traditional families feel like they are valued parts of the faith community. Or, maybe, the synod won’t address LGBT people and families at all. Which would be an improvement, too.

Categories: Beliefs, Culture, Ethics, Institutions, Politics

Michael J. O'Loughlin

Michael J. O'Loughlin

Michael J. O’Loughlin writes about religion and politics from Washington, D.C., paying close attention to the role of the Catholic Church in public life. His writing has appeared in Religion & Politics, the Jesuit magazine America, on, and in Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership.


  1. Balthasar Lewis

    “When the cardinals were gathered to elect a new pope, I hoped that whoever emerged on the balcony would stay quiet on LGBT issues throughout his pontificate. This alone would have been a remarkable improvement over his predecessor”.

    Pope Benedict XVI hardly ever touched upon the subject during his pontificate. Moreover, on the very few occasions that he did, he did so indirectly. The media spread headlines saying that the Pope “slammed” gay people. No Pope should stay quiet on the issue; discussion of the matter is important, delicately, yes, as Benedict indeed did so. Sadly, not even his diplomatic and indirect language was enough for the media.

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