The Synod’s decision to drop the acronym LGBT from its final document represents a missed opportunity for the Church; a chance to build bridges with young gay people, to demonstrate a keenness to love and listen, that was sacrificed to a reflexive obsession with preserving the status quo.
Instead of “LGBT” the synod on young people, which concluded this weekend, chose to use loaded language to describe sexuality, like “sexual inclination” and “homosexuality”. We know this because “LGBT” appeared in the working document - for the first time in Vatican history. It was controversial: Cardinal Luis Tagle of the Philippines said he had “a hunch” the phrase would stay in; shortly afterwards German Cardinal Marx told a press conference that the acronym would not be used because: “We must not allow ourselves to be influenced by ideological pressure, nor to use formulas that can be exploited.”
But this is not an ideological issue: it is, above all, a question of politeness. Referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people using the language they use themselves isn’t a theological endorsement, it’s good manners - which is why it is used in the style guide of every national newspaper in this country, including The Tablet’s. Instead of making this small concession, the synod chose to use outmoded language that clings, neurotically, to the Catechism’s description of people with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” and says that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."
Gay people object to the word “homosexual” because it is evocative of the highly medicalised language once used to diagnose being LGBT as a disease - the charity GLAAD has more guidance about this. The phrase “sexual inclination” is as bad as “tendency”: “inclination” reduces the romantic love experienced by gay people, love of the same force and magnitude as a Shakespeare sonnet or a Donne poem, to something slightly above the craving for a digestive biscuit.
The Synod “believes it is reductive to define a person’s identity solely on the basis of their ‘sexual orientation.’” The criticism that gay people reduce their identity to something other than Christ is somehow never levelled at people who identify as mothers, young people, celibates - or even Catholics. The Church’s problem will not be solved by gay people being “less gay”. The Church does an excellent job of telling gay people what it thinks they are not, or ever could be - husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, ‘ordered’ - so it's no surprise that gay Catholics are often left to define themselves by one of the few things the Church says they are.
There is some cause for celebration within Section 150. The paragraph, which passed with a tight majority of 178 bishops in favour and 65 against, calls for “a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral elaboration” of questions around sexuality. This comes across a bit like “finding other ways to explain why we’re right”, but let’s see. Synod also wants to encourage the journeys of LGBT people who are currently being accompanied within a church community. Again, language of accompaniment can come across as overbearing - perhaps the gay Catholic in your church wants to be left alone to come to Mass, safe in the knowledge that no one is going to call her intrinsically disordered that morning? - but it is a crucial reminder that LGBT Catholics can and should be invited to lead in and contribute to their local church. Most heartening of all is the strong reminder “that God loves every person and so does the Church, renewing its commitment to stand against any sexual discrimination and violence”. This is an important message to bishops in areas of the world, like parts of Africa under Sharia law and the Middle East, where being gay is still punishable by death.
There’s no denying that this is a scant offering for a community that had hoped for more from Pope Francis. Few progressive Catholics would have dared to dream that Synod might open a conversation about “intrinsic disorder”, or that it might acknowledge that even the acronym LGBT excludes queer, intersex and asexual Catholics. What is, perhaps, most heartbreaking is that LGBT Catholics pinned their hopes on so little: being discussed in a language that wasn’t overtly offensive, with words that will - for many gay people - trigger memories of bullying and harassment. The Synod made much of its aim to be Christlike, to accompany young Catholics like Jesus accompanied his disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Jesus spoke to the marginalised and suffering with love and respect: against that benchmark, the Synod fathers have fallen very short - but there is cause for hope.