In preparation for the second iteration of the Catholic Church’s much-discussed Synod on the Family, Vatican officials are once again polling the world’s Catholics about their opinions on controversial “family issues” such as abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. The new survey, unveiled this week, resembles a 2013 poll launched by Pope Francis that was heralded as a welcome step towards valuing the often-progressive opinions of Catholic laity.
But some Catholic LGBT advocates say that this year’s survey, which seeks to advise an upcoming meeting of prominent Catholic clergy next October, has a problem: its questions about homosexuality are, well, kind of offensive.
In a draft version of the survey released on Tuesday, a section dedicated to LGBT issues included the following two-part question about “people with homosexual tendencies”:
“How can the Christian community direct its pastoral care to families that have people with homosexual tendencies among them? Avoiding any unjust discrimination, how can we take care of people in such situations in light of the Gospel?”
The question’s tone and use of the phrase “homosexual tendencies” has angered Catholic LGBT advocates who see the term as archaic and patronizing, which could impact the way people answer the question.
“The language ‘people with homosexual tendencies’ is a reversion to the dated and judgmental tone that so many had hoped was fading into the past given Pope Francis’ apparent comfort in talking with and about LGBT people in a more realistic and respectful way,” Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the pro-LGBT Catholic organization DignityUSA, told the Religion News Service.
Bob Shine of New Ways Ministry — a “gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian and gay Catholics” — was more forgiving, but expressed concern about whether the survey would be used in a way that helps LGBT Catholics.
“Language about tendencies is problematic,” Shine, who oversees young adult ministries for New Ways, told ThinkProgress in an email. “That said, I think the intentions of reaching out to and providing pastorally for LGBT people and their families is what is really guiding this process … Pope Francis has encouraged genuine dialogue during this whole synodal process.”
“Still, it’s an open question whether the American bishops will truly listen to the faithful as their peers in other parts of the world have done,” he added.
The use of the term isn’t unprecedented, as “homosexual tendencies” already shows up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which also refers to LGBT people as “objectively disordered.” But the dispute over the question comes on the heels of a firestorm of controversy around homosexuality that rocked this year’s Synod on the Family. While prominent Catholic leaders were meeting at the synod this past October, a preliminary document was released on behalf of the attendees that used conciliatory language when speaking about LGBT people. Although initially celebrated by Catholic LGBT advocates, the report angered many conservatives, triggering a backlash that led to the assembly changing the language in the English translation of the document. Similarly, a paragraph with LGBT-affirming language failed to garner formal approval for inclusion in the synod’s final report, winning a majority of votes from those assembled but falling just short of the two-thirds threshold needed for final inclusion.
The synod’s sudden about-face frustrated many Catholics who hoped to see the church move closer to equality, especially since polls show that Catholic laypeople are disproportionately in favor of LGBT rights compared to many other global religious groups (in the United States, Catholics are actually more supportive of LGBT rights than any other major Christian group). Still, advocates are quick to point out that Pope Francis included the LGBT-affirming paragraph anyway, justifying the unusual step by listing the vote tallies on the side. And while he insisted in a recent interview that same-sex marriage never “crossed [his] mind” at the synod, the first Argentinian pope has made comments that hint at a desire for a more open-minded conversation about civil unions, and he made headlines last year for answering a question about gay priests by saying “who am I judge?”
Both progressive and conservative Catholics have a stake in the church’s ongoing debate over homosexuality — particularly the outcome of next year’s synod. Technically speaking, neither the synod nor the survey have the power to change existing church doctrine or dogma, as both are ultimately meant to advise the church and the pope about how to address family issues. But the questionnaires and meetings are meant to reflect the ever-developing perspective of the church, and possibly set the stage for Pope Francis to make changes sometime in the future.
In fact, despite the survey’s problematic phrasing, some progressive Catholics say they are happy the Vatican is even bothering to ask the laity about LGBT issues in the first place.
“Regardless of the wording, the survey itself is a step in the right direction towards providing better pastoral care of LGBT people, as is the Vatican asking for wider inputs from ‘all levels’ for the 2015 synod on the family,” Stephen Seufert, state director of the progressive Catholic group Keystone Catholics, told ThinkProgress. “Both the survey and the Vatican document released yesterday relating to the 2015 synod are indications of a church that wants to focus less on rigid, uncompromising doctrine and more on providing greater pastoral care.”
James Salt, executive director of the left-leaning advocacy group Catholics United, echoed Seufert.
“The fact that they are explicitly asking this question is a sign of progress,” he said. “Rather than retreating to a position of doctrine, they are reflecting the changing world that we live in.”
Responses to the survey, which is conducted differently depending on the diocese, are due by April 15. Next year’s synod is scheduled for October 4–25.