Letter to the Pope regarding Synod – November 2015

November 9, 2015

Dear Pope Francis,

These are times of joy and vigor in our Church.  You have called us to a path of accompaniment, of “walking with” the other, of evangelizing and being evangelized by going to the peripheries.

In your opening remarks at the Synod on the Family, you called upon the bishops to listen to the Spirit and to openly dialogue, and that is what happened. Bishop after bishop, notwithstanding clear indications of strong disagreements on the floor of the Synod, affirmed that there was in these three weeks a sense of life and excitement that marks an openness to the Spirit. A positive and welcome fruit of this was a palpable appreciation among the bishops of the grass roots of the church and an acknowledgement that they are not simply to be treated with compassion and respect but as adults fully responsible for their right relationship to God.

One of the most telling signs of the working of the Spirit for us was, however, your personal involvement in bringing certain behaviors and lifestyles to the table which were formerly condemned as sinful. It helped so many people to feel worthwhile again. Thank you for being with wounded individuals and families and for being insistent with those leaders in the Church who tend to be deaf to the voices of those who are hurting. You have endeared yourself to young and old, baptized and non-baptized, believers and atheists, because of your openness to listen and understand people’s pain.

In your closing remarks, you described the role of the Synod as being about:

  • “interpreting today’s realities through God’s eye;”
  • “seeing [family] difficulties and uncertainties in the light of the Faith;”
  • bearing witness to everyone for whom “the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would ‘indoctrinate’ it in dead stones to be hurled at others;”
  • “laying bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families;”
  • “making clear that the Church is a Church of the poor in spirit and of sinners seeking forgiveness, not simply of the righteous and the holy. . . .”

 All of this was evident at the Synod. So, while we give a resounding “YES!” to the Synod’s resolve to build a church of adult Catholics, we are pained that there was not enough compassionate listening to allow the voices of hurting people to enter the final document, faithful who have left in anger or despair because they were not welcomed at the table of the Lord; we are pained that there were insufficient votes to be welcoming of all people into the Church, especially those who live with alternative sexual orientations; we are pained that the number of women represented in the Synod reflected their marginalization in the leadership of the church instead of their numbers that fill the pews all over the world, and nurture families often in challenging  circumstances; we are particularly pained that the Synod, notwithstanding your example in Philadelphia, did not find a place in the closing document to express repentance to the survivors of clerical sex abuse, and to all families damaged and disrupted by this abuse, for the institutional Church’s protection of pedophiles and the cover-up of their criminal acts from civil authorities.

The institutional Church as a whole must accept accountability for its institutional governance failures in the response to clerical child sexual abuse; in particular, canon law continues to prohibit bishops reporting pedophile priests to civil authorities unless a State law compels reporting. Those provisions should be immediately replaced with an unambiguous moral and legal duty to report pedophile priests to civil authorities to ensure the protection of children. We welcome and support your pledge made in Philadelphia that you “will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead. Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.”

 The Church must recognize that its global governance structures and culture have permitted these abominations, and it is urgent that a Christ-like reform of these structures and culture be undertaken. These same governance structures and culture are also implicated in the clericalism that has infantilized the faithful and excluded women, a clericalism that the Synod implicitly rejects in their resolve to build a church of adult Catholics. We recognize that acknowledging the rights and responsibilities of the People to have a deliberative voice in the governance of our Church will help bring about the reform of these governance structures and culture, a project which we heartily support.

While the Synod has concluded, the work of the Synod has just begun. As you have pointed out in your concluding speech, the Synod “was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family, but rather about seeing these difficulties and uncertainties in the light of the Faith, carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly without burying our heads in the sand.”  Implementing the spirit of the Synod will be a long process, and we look with much anticipation to your Apostolic Exhortation to guide the church in the coming years, and hope that it will include the concerns we have raised.  

In keeping with the mind of the Synod which has promoted an adult Church, we also request that all the People of God be invited to participate in what remains to be done. In the coming months and beyond, we ask you to encourage Church leaders to promote gatherings of people, pastors and bishops, in their local churches and communities, to dialogue in a spirit of listening and compassionate encounter, about “difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family.” Such gatherings would be consistent with the Second Vatican Council’s endorsement of much neglected diocesan pastoral synods. They will also provide a means for your fellow bishops to take up the challenge that you put to them in your homily at the closing Eucharist while reflecting on Jesus’ encounter with the blind man Bartimaeus.  “We are with Jesus but we do not think like him,” you said to them. “We are in his group, but our hearts are not open…We are able to speak about him and work for him, but we live far from his heart, which is reaching out to those who are wounded… A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oasis, creates other deserts.”

On our part we pledge to support these encounters and to urge Church leaders to attend to those in pain and take proactive steps to engage them as fully responsible adults. They are in pain because they have been marginalized and believe they are suffering at the hands of their own Church. In the course of such encounter and accompaniment, in the not-too-distant future, we believe the tent of our Church will be enlarged to include all those who cry out in pain and longing to the Lord, and together we can “rejoice for the grace of a harvest which is beyond our strength and capacity.”

May the peace of Christ be with you, with our bishops, pastors, clergy, and with us all.

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