Letters from the Synod—2023: #6

Published October 12, 2023

First Things

The “Off-Broadway” Synod, Neocolonialism, Africa Rising—and Veritatis Splendor

The action at Synod-2023 is not confined to the Vatican’s Aula Paolo Sesto, the Paul VI Audience Hall where Synod members and sundry experts, facilitators, and staff meet for General Congregations and those carefully-managed small-group discussions called “Conversations in the Spirit.” 

As was the case during the Synods on marriage and the family in 2014 and 2015, on youth ministry (2018), and on Amazonia (2019), there is also underway here in Rome a large “Off-Broadway” Synod (or, to riff on the event that runs parallel to the Edinburgh International Festival, a “Fringe” Synod). The Off-Broadway or Fringe Synod consists of various ideologically flavored advocacy groups, lobbyists for numerous agendas, and a large media contingent. And the Off-Broadway Synod is not without influence. For given the paucity of information on Synod-2023 coming from the Holy See Press Office, the interactions among the advocacy groups, the lobbyists, and the press are having an important effect on perceptions of Synod-2023 throughout the world. (It might also be noted that this phenomenon of a “parallel” Synod aimed at shaping the deliberations of the real Synod through advocacy, media-massaging, and lobbying Synod members marks another difference between the “synodal” experiment underway in Rome and the practice of “synodality” in the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.) 

Among the most active and vocal participants in the Off-Broadway Synod of 2023 are groups advocating fundamental changes in Catholic teaching on the nature of human love and its proper expression. These groups (which include the New Ways Ministry disavowed by the U.S. bishops as a Catholic organization) have been busy in the two years of preparation for Synod-2023 at the parish, diocesan, national, and continental levels, with palpable effects on the Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris (Working Document). Their agenda is both doctrinal and practical. On the doctrinal side, they want a change of language in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, while insisting on the inalienable dignity of every human person, also teaches that sexual acts between people of the same sex are “objectively disordered” (CCC 2358).  At the pastoral or grassroots level, they would like to see Synod-2023 formally endorse Church “blessings” for same-sex couples or civil unions. These proposals are hardly new and have been part of the intra-Catholic debate for some time. What is different now is that transgender activism has been added to the agenda; thus the term “LGBTQ+ people” is used in the Instrumentum Laboris, marking a sharp break with the Church’s traditional (and biblically grounded) refusal to identify its people by their sexual desires (“. . . for you are all one in Christ” [Galatians 3:28]).

It is highly unlikely that any consensus on changing the language of the Catechism will be achieved at Synod-2023. The call for that may be noted in the Synod’s “Synthesis” document, however, because that document will reflect what was discussed, not what was agreed upon (a distinction likely to be lost in the media and elsewhere). So Synod-2023 will keep alive, and perhaps even intensify, the question of whether the Church should change its classic teaching on rightly-ordered human love, when of course the real question is whether the Church can effect such a change, in light of Scripture, tradition, and the natural moral law inscribed within us.  

The ambiguous response of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to the question of whether the Church could ever offer some form of “blessing” to same-sex couples, which dropped a few days before the Synod opened, created an immediate media firestorm in which an ambiguity was transformed into a certainty (“Pope Francis opens the door to blessing gay unions”)—a process that nicely illustrated the symbiotic relationship among activists, the progressive Catholic press, and the mainstream media. But here, too, synodal consensus is unlikely. More probable is a “Synthesis” document that keeps the issue alive by underscoring that it was discussed (and this despite the 2021 declaration, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Francis’s authority, which stated flatly that the Church had no power to confer such blessings). And the fact that such “blessings” were discussed will suggest that the issue might be resolved in a different way than has traditionally been the case. That, in turn, will fuel the current practice of “blessing” same-sex unions in Berlin, Belgium, and elsewhere, creating facts on the ground to which an official response must be given at some point. 

No one should imagine that this method of proceeding illustrates St. John Henry Newman’s understanding of the development of doctrine.  

On many occasions, Pope Francis has warned against a 21st-century “neocolonialism” in which secular Western cultural values and social practices are imposed on the world, often as a condition of development aid to poor countries. This is undoubtedly a problem and a serious one, not least for the U.S. Department of State and the U.S Agency for International Development. Yet it is hard not to see in the pre-synodal and synodal agitations of LGBTQ+ activists another form of neocolonialism. The vibrant, growing local churches in Africa have no interest in adopting or conceding to the activists’ agenda.  As African bishops made clear at Synod-2015, Christian understandings of human sexuality, marriage, and the family come to their societies as powerful liberators, especially for women. Now, some African voices are saying here in Rome, LGBTQ+ activists’ demands are making their evangelical work in Africa more difficult, as both Pentecostalists and Muslims are taking advantage of what appear to be Catholic ambiguities (at best) and Catholic surrenders to woke ideology (at worst) in matters of righteous living. 

African resistance to a Catholic cave-in on questions of human sexuality similar to the cave-in on these matters by the Church of England (a cave-in that has now formally fractured the Anglican Communion) is thus both pastoral and principled. Flirtations with Western decadence harm the evangelical mission of the Church in Africa. The young and vibrant churches of Africa also believe, however, that divine revelation is real and that its authority is binding over time. In 2015, African bishops applied these convictions to the synodal debate over the reception of Holy Communion by divorced Catholics in canonically irregular second marriages. Those same convictions are now being applied to the questions posed by the LGBTQ+ insurgency—and the answers being given are similar: We stand with the Bible and the consistent Catholic Tradition. Our churches are growing while those local churches that have surrendered to the spirit of the age are dying. If the Lord was right in teaching that “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matt. 7:16), then doesn’t our experience as local churches teach the whole Church something at this historical moment?  Shouldn’t listening to the Holy Spirit include listening to what the Spirit has taught us?

To dismiss the Africans as fundamentalists, rigorists, or unenlightened primitives is another exercise in neocolonialism. African catechists, priests, and bishops are fully aware of the difficult challenges that people experiencing same-sex attraction face. They understand that pastoral charity is essential in spiritual direction and counseling, and they know that the moral life is lived through peaks and valleys. But they also agree with John Paul II—no biblical fundamentalist, he!—who, when asked if there could be one sentence saved from a Bible that had been lost to the world, replied that the saved sentence should be “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).    

Which brings us to a deeper game being played out in both Synod-2023 and the Off-Broadway or Fringe Synod.

For thirty years now, a considerable part of the Catholic theological guild in the West has sought to overturn the teaching of John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), on what are known as “intrinsically evil acts.” Much of the guild insists that that category is either intellectually untenable in a post-Kantian world, or useless because human intentions and personal circumstances are so complex that we cannot say with certainty that “X” is always and everywhere wrong. People of common moral decency know that the guild is wrong here, and the recent horrors spilling out of Gaza have vindicated their judgment: Can a “proportionalist” moral theologian explain how a terrorist bursting into a bedroom and shooting a baby in a crib is anything other than intrinsically evil? Or even before Gaza: How about rape under any circumstances? Yet the guild persists in its rejection of the idea that there are acts that are intrinsece malum—evil in themselves—even as the guild argument has become more “nuanced” by suggesting that, while some things may, in the abstract, be intrinsically evil, circumstances make it impossible to assert that of any specific act, so the category of “intrinsically evil” is essentially (no philosophical pun intended) useless: so let’s forget it.

John Paul II disagreed, and in sections 79–83 of Veritatis Splendor he affirmed the teaching of Vatican II in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World that there are intrinsically evil acts. (See below for what the Council taught.) The argumentation in those sections of Veritatis Splendor is largely philosophical, drawing on the Church’s natural law tradition of reasoning. But for John Paul, affirming that some things are just wrong, period, also had a profoundly humanistic meaning. 

The moral life as John Paul II understood it is a drama: a drama lived in the gap between the person I am and the person I ought to be. Each of us lives in that gap every day; growth in the virtues, supported by God’s grace, is the means by which we “close” the gap between who I am and who I should be. Deny the reality of intrinsically evil acts—a move which suggests that nothing is really and always off-the-board—and the drama of the moral life collapses into a shallow subjectivism in which I can justify anything to myself. “Life in the gap” is the moral life understood as dramatic adventure ordered to beatitude. The alternative is life in the sandbox of my willfulness, my “self” being only a bundle of desires.

The assault on Veritatis Splendor by moral theologians—including moral theologians at pontifical universities in Rome—has been a prominent feature of Catholic intellectual life over the past decade. And it is very much part of the Off-Broadway Synod unfolding in Rome this month. For the theologians’ anti-Veritatis Splendor campaign is allied to the LGBTQ+ campaign and provides it with an intellectual rationale. How well is this understood in the real Synod? It is hard to tell, because the discussion of these issues has been framed almost solely in terms of secular categories like “inclusion” that do not get to the basic moral questions engaged. 

Compassionate, effective pastoral care for people experiencing same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria is an evangelical and moral imperative. That is why it is a shame, bordering on a disgrace, that the appointed membership of Synod-2023 does not include a representative of “Courage,” a ministry that takes that imperative seriously and addresses it successfully in the light of Scripture and the Church’s moral tradition. There is much to be learned from the men and women of “Courage” and their often-dramatic experiences. And whatever else an “inclusive” Church may mean, it ought to mean a Church that has room within it for ministries that promote the practice of chastity as John Paul II understood it—as “the integrity of love.”

Yet while the Synod grapples with questions of effective ministry in challenging circumstances, it cannot lose sight of the fundamental moral issues that John Paul II clarified so well in Veritatis Splendor. That encyclical generated a renaissance in Catholic moral theology, and for a reason: Its teaching was, and is, desperately needed in a world that has become morally unhinged, intensifying human misery and social dissolution in the process. Pastoral charity demands proclaiming the splendor of moral truth and then helping the sinners we all are to live it.

George Weigel

[Note: Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (often thought to be the Magna Carta of postconciliar Catholic progressivism) identified a rather extensive menu of intrinsically evil acts: Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator” (GS 27).]

[Clarification. An alert reader has pointed out the following:
       The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2357 teaches that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” while CCC 2358 teaches that homosexual tendencies are “objectively disordered.” CCC 2357 is the moral assessment while CCC 2358 is the anthropological assessment. The advocacy groups referenced above would, of course, wish the Church to change both CCC 2357 and CCC 2358.]

What I Would Say to the Synod

Shortly after Synod-2023 began its work, an eminent American member of the Synod observed that, amidst the synodal discussion of “exclusion,” men experiencing same-sex attraction who were striving to live chastely seem to have been excluded from the conversation. LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD-2023 is honored to help remedy that unfortunate  situation by publishing this piece, in which Andrew Comiskey tells us what he would say to those deliberating in Rome.

Andrew Comiskey is a writer and Catholic lay leader who helps Christians find healing and support in their pursuit of chastity. His latest book is Rediscovering Our Lost Fullness (Sophia Press). He can be reached at desertstream.org. 

Xavier Rynne II

I am a man dealing with same-sex attraction. I am committed to chastity and helping others to become chaste. No mere abstinence will do. Chastity invites me continuously into a robust self-denial that frees me to behold another’s authentic good and to bless it without mucking things up. Put another way, chastity flows from love of God and neighbor and guides me in loving both. Only the chaste love well. 

That’s because chastity is all about integration (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2337) and sexual wholeness—it frees me from self-concern and for a lean virility that welcomes brothers as brothers and confirms the dignity of my wife (42-years faithful and counting) and a host of dependents. Chaste Jesus only asks of us what he lived. This servant is not above him; under his care I flourish and accompany others to do the same. For the last 43 years, I have labored with Christians of all stripes seeking to become chaste in their divided sexuality, especially those driven and derided by same-sex attraction. Becoming chaste together through the many graces of Jesus and Church is the best thing going.

We are often weak and foolish. Divine Mercy shines on our sin-weariness and invites repentance (cf. Luke 5:31–32; Rom. 2.4). We repent as much as is needful. Sins against chastity reduce us to the feet of him who shed blood to cancel that sin. Our lives now depend on his. He stirs the waters of our baptism; he opens a horizon for us that supersedes any identification based on disordered desires. 

The Cross also frees us from any self-pity and any claim to “specialness”; we do not romance “gay” anything or champion LGBTQ+ rights. Yes, our struggles can be profound, but his mercy is deeper still and invites us into identification with him alone. What a gift: The very sins that threatened our salvation become in repentance an aspiration to wholeness, over and over, as the lifetime goal of chastity demands. 

One deception facing the Church today is the worldly notion that people facing sexual-identity conflicts constitute a minority group, an ethnos, and an oppressed-people group at that. Such a group often demands “protected” status, and any who oppose that are deemed “haters,” even killers, for provoking them to suicide by not heeding their demands.

Please, expose this lie at its root and pull it up. Otherwise, it will grow to divide schools, parishes, dioceses, and the Church overall. Endless gatherings will debate just how much we bless “gay” and “trans” unions, clergy, seminarians, and Church members. Instead, offer merciful advocacy and accompaniment for that person’s dignity through the Cross: repentance unto chastity; no other way but through Christ crucified and his cross-minded members.

The Catholic Church cannot afford to have her authority eroded and diverted by “gay” squabbles. Heed our Protestant brothers now divided and diminished due to LGBTQ+ demands. We must read the deception clearly and act truthfully-in-love. The Church welcomes divided sinners, not a weaponized “oppressed people” group. Refuse LGBTQ+ social constructs on the solid ground of our theological anthropology, our sexual ethics, and the Divine Mercy that raises the repentant from a host of sexual indignities.

Never has the Church needed to be more countercultural. LGBTQ+ realities tempt a generation to reconsider whether humanity is binary. This is socially persuasive to many who now experiment with a host of shame-free options, like “gay” relationships and “trans” identification.

We can do better. I am grateful for the fathers and mothers in the faith who summoned me from confusion into clarity of identity and sobriety of action. I especially value fathers of faith who saw more than I could about my dormant masculinity and accompanied me in its awakening. Virtue from without called forth virtue within. Though a couple of “fathers” misled me by confirming my “gay” self as intractable, I am grateful for the majority who understood the true nature of chastity—a gift and a goal (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2342, 2345) toward which I as a son of the Father could aspire: realistic and hopeful.

Complementing solid Church leadership is the gift of “one another,” men and women with whom I gather to goad each other onward in our chaste aspirations. Over the years, I’ve developed effective ways of gathering in small parish-based groups to pray, encourage, and mature in our identities as men and women. We gather to receive love and to give it in the spirit of the Imago Dei (cf. 1 Cor. 11:11–12). We heal to be “for” each other.

As an elder-blessed but lay-run offering, we have learned solid limits and a simple teaching style that keeps the “waters” pure and moving. In that, we are united with the Courage apostolate’s chapters around the world. We strugglers realize that each of us is made in his image; we are thus responsible to help the other know the sexual gift he or she is. In becoming free enough to extend blessing (at first in a “safe” small group setting), we become more whole.

And in that whole-enough state we become witnesses. The dragon may prowl and roar to intimidate us, but we counter him by the blood and word of our testimony (cf. Rev. 14:7–12). Our temptations to unchastity are intensified by false witnesses in the Church and without. More powerfully, we counter false narratives by giving voice to the stirrings of integration we experience.

I love this! We find our voices by articulating the transforming power of Jesus among us. The Word in my brother or sister strengthens me, and I return the favor. If she listens, the Church around us can hear the Gospel through a sexual sinner becoming a saint. Few homilies on chastity cast a vision more beautifully than a humble sinner who witnesses to how Jesus and Church united his or her divided life. Glorious. We create sacred space for restoring others by declaring his unfailing love in the specifics of what may otherwise have destroyed us.

The sacraments of confession and the Eucharist empower such witnesses. My words mean nothing unless they match real life. That hinges upon pouring out my sin regularly to a pretty good representative of the Bridegroom, who prepares me for himself by exposing what dulls and diverts my focus on his beauty and others’ good.

I want nothing to block the channel of his mercy. I come boldly to his throne in the confessional and get unblocked. It’s simple. Reconciliation to Christ and Church preps me for the Eucharist. I will not take part unworthily (cf. 1 Cor. 11:27–28): If my imagination and affections are cluttered by unchaste stuff, I want and need cleansing. I want my heart washed more than my hands in prepping for the holy meal.

I want to savor the Lord himself, take time at table and be nourished by his very essence so I can be faithful to him by continuing to take steps in the right direction. It works. Every time I recite (which is often), “Save us, Savior of the world” and “Only say the word and my soul will be healed,” I mean it. The Word gives me himself so I can be faithful. It takes God to love God. How could I not be more saved, more healed at table? No other way but through Christ crucified, the holy meal. 

All of this is how every Christian can and should live. We are all disintegrated people, and the way to integration, to chastity, is not much different for me than it is for you. Our starting points may differ but the Way in is the Way on, over and over, whatever the conflict. I hope you can agree with a mentor of mine who once said: “The restoration of same-sex-attracted people is the restoration of all persons . . . ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’” (Eph. 4:4). 

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