In the subsequent weeks, how and whether to welcome LGBTQ+ Catholics became, according to participants, the most contentious topic at the month-long synod that closed Saturday in Vatican City. Facing opposition from senior clerics from Eastern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere, the wording of a concluding report, with sections approved by at least a two-thirds majority of voting members, fell far short of the inclusive language used earlier by the pope himself.
The document failed to even mention the phrase “LGBTQ+,” as used in preliminary materials. The most it ventured to say was that “people who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church, due to their marital situation, identity and sexuality, also ask to be listened to and accompanied, and that their dignity is defended.”
It also lumps “sexual orientation” under a slew of ethical questions described as “new” and “controversial,” including artificial intelligence.
“We are a family and we must respect everybody’s pace,” Synod General Secretary Cardinal Mario Grech told reporters who questioned the synod’s position on homosexuality and other issues late Saturday. “We must journey together.”
The synod — a gathering of the church’s highest consultative body, which for the first time included lay people and women as voting members — is seen as a landmark moment in the church. Delegates arrived after broad consultations within regions and countries on the issues facing the church. They will now recess, consult with their local churches and reconvene next October before offering what is expected to be a final set of recommendations to the pope.
Delegates described a civil, constructive atmosphere in recent weeks, but also disagreements, including on the role of women in the church and the question of priestly celibacy. But the gulf over LGBTQ+ reception suggested the extent of the ideological rifts dividing a global church of 1.3 billion Catholics, as well as a challenging road ahead for Francis as he seeks to unify the faithful and cement his legacy in the latter stage of his papacy.
Going into the synod, conservative Catholics — particularly in the United States and Eastern Europe — had derided the event as a smokescreen for liberal reform, while progressives in Western Europe and elsewhere dared to hope that it could foster long-awaited changes in official teachings. But the caution indicated a high hurdle for liberals looking for rapid change.
“I’m a bit disillusioned,” said Rosanna Virgili, a theologian at the Rome-based Pontifical Lateran University. “It looks more like a rehash of Catholic doctrine.”
The synod called it “urgent” to ensure that women can participate in “decision-making processes and take on roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry.” But delegates were clearly split on how that should happen. There was no mention of women in the priesthood. The document did call for “theological and pastoral research” on women deacons to “continue.” But it noted opposition to even that step, saying dissenters “express the fear that this request is the expression of a dangerous anthropological confusion.”
The two paragraphs on female deacons — which failed to clearly back the idea — passed the synod’s two-thirds threshold with the lowest number of votes. The document also recommended that “adequately trained women” could be judges in canonical trials.
Differences also emerged on maintaining priestly celibacy, an issue of deep importance to Catholics in remote regions where clerics are in short supply. The synod’s conclusion was simply that the topic merited “further consideration.”
The pope has sent mixed signals on both topics. Ahead of the meeting, Francis said there was no “clear and authoritative doctrine” on the question, adding that it could be “a subject of study.” But in an interview published this year by two journalists, Francis, going deeper, appeared to find little rationale for ordaining women, or giving in to calls for married priests. In 2020, Francis ruled against allowing married priests in the Amazon region, which is suffering from a severe clerical shortage.
Vatican synods — held in the past with only bishops and cardinals as voting members — tend to convene two to three times per decade. But the two-year synod called by Francis is the most ambitious church summit since the Second Vatican Council of 1962 that ushered in major reforms including the Catholic Mass being celebrated in vernacular languages, rather than just Latin.
Several participants — speaking on the condition of anonymity due to Vatican requests that delegates keep the synod’s inner workings private — said no issue divided the consultative body more than the question of LGBTQ+ reception.
The same pope who made headlines in 2013 by saying, “who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests, signaled an even wider door for the LGBTQ+ community ahead of and during the gathering. As the event approached, the pope issued a written response to concerned conservative bishops in which he affirmed that same-sex couples could receive Catholic blessings — but not the sacrament of marriage — on a case-by-case basis as determined by local church officials.
On Oct. 17, as the synod was in full swing, Francis symbolically welcomed Sister Jeannine Gramick to the Vatican. An American nun, Gramick was sanctioned in 1999 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — for her LGBTQ+ advocacy.
A week later, Francis met with a delegation from the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, an LGBTQ+ group.
Yet conservative bishops from Poland, Hungary, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Australia and elsewhere ardently rejected same-sex blessings, calling them tantamount to condoning “sin” and a “colonial” imposition from liberal Western Europeans. In public and private comments, they described homosexuality as “disgusting” and “unnatural.” Officially, Catholic teachings state that homosexuality is “intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law.”
One delegate, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish Bishop’s Conference, stood firmly by those teachings. He said in an answer to written questions from The Washington Post that he sometimes felt “the ‘non-Catholic’ voice was more audible than the ‘Catholic’ one” at the synod. He specifically called out the liberal German church — where priests are already blessing same-sex couples — for advocating reforms that “draw profusely from Protestant theology and the language of modern politics.”
He said that for LGBTQ+ people, a truthful “encounter with Christ” meant “a conversion, turning away from sin and adopting a lifestyle in accordance with the Gospel.”
“Benedictions, or blessings of homosexual unions, would mean that the Church approves of the lifestyle of homosexual partnerships (even if it does not equate them with marriages), which also means sex between same-sex couples,” Gadecki wrote. “What has always been defined as a sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition would now become something positive.”
Liberal delegates sought to strongly counter those arguments. One delegate told a story of a woman who died by suicide after failing to obtain church absolution for being bisexual. Another delegate — the Rev. James Martin, an American priest who ministers to the LGBTQ+ community and was handpicked as a delegate by Francis — told a story of a longtime same-sex couple in which a man had painstakingly nursed his cancer-stricken partner before he died. He asked the synod to consider if that were not a genuine sign of “love.”
In an interview, Martin declined to confirm details of the synod debate, but said, “I’m disappointed not only that LGBTQ [people] were excised, but also that the discussions we had, which were passionate on both sides, were not reflected in the final document.”
“But I’m not surprised,” Martin said. “There was great resistance to the topic among many members.”