New Ways Ministry and the Synodal Process

As the Church embarks on a two-year synodal process, the confusing optics of the recent New Ways Ministry controversy have only deepened a sense of unease regarding the Synod on Synodality and its impact.

Inside the Synod hall during meetings on the Synod on the Family in Vatican City on October 21, 2015.
Inside the Synod hall during meetings on the Synod on the Family in Vatican City on October 21, 2015. (photo: Vatican Media)

NEW YORK — U.S. Jesuit Father James Martin recently celebrated a “small, but historic step forward” in the campaign for greater inclusion of “LGBTQ” Catholics in the Church. 

Noting that the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops’ resource page posted links to a webinar produced by New Ways Ministry, a controversial “LGBTQ” advocacy group for Catholics long-opposed by the U.S. bishops for its dissent from Church teaching, Father Martin tweeted, “As Pope Francis has said, all voices must be heard at the Synod.” The Jesuit’s Dec. 6 tweet marked a brief kerfuffle on social media and at the synod’s communications office at the Vatican. 

Following Father Martin’s celebratory tweet, Thierry Bonaventura, the Synod of Bishops’ communication manager, learned that the organization was not approved by the U.S. bishops and so removed the link from the synod’s resource page. 

But after protests on social media, the links were restored with a public apology from Bonaventura, who said he was sorry for the “pain caused” and pledged not to exclude those “who wish to carry out this synodal process with a sincere heart and a spirit of dialogue.”

New Ways’ leaders accepted the apology, hailing the gesture as “historic.” The group also took the opportunity to announce that Pope Francis has written two letters of apparent support to the group, another development flagged by Father Martin in a Dec. 8 tweet

The skirmish, though short lived, revealed how social media can shape public perceptions of papal initiatives and Church teaching. The development also spotlighted both the promise and peril of the two-year synodal process of reflection and discernment green-lighted by Pope Francis and now moving to center stage in dioceses across the United States, where the faithful will fill out surveys and take part in public “listening sessions.”

 

‘Political Games’

“Synods and synodality have the potential to be a good thing, if done well,” Russell Shaw, the Catholic author and commentator, told the Register. “But if organizations and individuals see the synodal process as an opportunity to press their own special cause, it will be a big arena for people to play political games at the expense of the Church as a whole,” and that will “sour the whole synodal process.”

Father Philip Bochanski, executive director of Courage International, a Catholic apostolate backed by the U.S. bishops that helps Catholics with same-sex attraction live their faith, echoed this point.

“My concern is whether New Ways Ministry or any other group centered around some interest or agenda, rather than belonging to a particular parish or diocese, is misunderstanding what the synod is about,” Father Bochanski told the Register.

The diocesan consultations specifically call for outreach to Catholics alienated by the Church. And Father Goran Jovicic, a canon lawyer and theologian at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, said it was important to invite the participation of Catholics who have serious issues with the Church, including those struggling with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria. 

“The 2021-2023 Synod on Synodality offers an opportunity for dioceses and parishes to learn more about the pastoral needs of Catholics on the peripheries,” Father Jovicic told the Register.

“The main question here is whether the upcoming synod will be used for changing the teaching of the Church on homosexuality and transgender ideology or if it will be used to stress their equal dignity and to provide them accompaniment in following the call to holiness.”

 

Raising Expectations

Father Jovicic agreed that the process of consultations has raised expectation that Church teaching and discipline could be modified to better reflect changing societal norms. But he and other Catholic leaders contacted by the Register emphasized that the governance of the universal Church is entrusted to the Roman Pontiff and the College of Bishops and that this function is exercised only through an ecumenical council (Canon 330-336). 

In contrast, synods of bishops are consultative bodies. Canon law defines the Synod of Bishops as “a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and meet together at fixed times to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world” (Canon 342). 

Father Jovicic explained that the concept of synodality highlights the common dignity and mission of all the baptized “in exercising the variety and ordered richness of their charisms, their vocations and their ministries.”  

Many Catholics do not understand such distinctions, however. And news coverage of recent synods on the family, youth, and the Amazon encouraged the expectation that such deliberations could result in major changes to Church teaching. 

 

Sense of Unease

Now, as the Church embarks on a two-year synodal process, the confusing optics of the recent New Ways Ministry controversy have only deepened a sense of unease regarding the Synod on Synodality and its impact.  

“The synodal process will give people a chance to feel they are listened to,” Hudson Byblow, who speaks on issues of special concern to Catholics with same-sex attraction, told the Register. “But it could also give false hope to those who don’t understand that the Church is the upholder of truth, not the inventor of truth.”

Rather than pressing for change on Church doctrine, Byblow is looking for a revival of parish life that touches the congregation as a whole and welcomes those still looking for their place in the Church and yearning for Christian fellowship. 

Catholic author and journalist Philip Lawler offered a more pointed response to the Vatican’s recent treatment of New Ways Ministry.

“To me, the salient fact is that the Vatican — or at least the synod office — is promoting the work of an organization that has drawn warnings from both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,” Lawler told the Register, in a reference to a 2010 USCCB statement that categorically rejected New Ways Ministry’s claims to be a Catholic apostolate. 

“There is quite obviously an effort underway to encourage greater acceptance of homosexuality, without ever actually responding to the substance of those earlier critiques.” 

No doubt, New Ways Ministry has channeled significant resources into its multilayered response to the synod, and that is in keeping with its long-standing record of advocacy for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer LGBTQ Catholics.” 

Though New Ways Ministry’s most recent tax filing is not available, according to its 2020 tax form, the group had apparent income of $967,000 with $300,000 for programs and expenses. 

During the same year, the group spent $96,000 on social media/digital outreach and claimed 676,000 website visits, 3,700 blog subscribers, 13,700 Facebook page followers across three pages, and 4,450 Twitter followers, with 1,768 on Instagram.

 

New Ways’ Approach

A recent column on the group’s website poses the question, “Does Pope Francis’ De-Emphasizing ‘Sins of the Flesh’ Open a Door for LGBTQ Catholics?” And news stories attack “LGBTQ-Negative” groups and speakers that promote Catholic teaching on chastity.

“From the Margins to the Center: A webinar on LGBTQ Catholics and synodality” is one of several synod-related initiatives advertised on its website. Visitors are also invited to provide more direct feedback to the synod’s Vatican-based organizers by using an email address provided by Bonaventura.

Two more New Ways Ministry presentations on the synod are on the calendar, and a separate webpage, SynodMeetings.com, features a searchable database listing the dates and locations of scheduled listening sessions for each U.S. diocese. 

The webinar “From the Margins to the Center” is led by Robert Choiniere, the director of adult formation at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in New York City, a parish known locally for its outreach to the “LGBT” community. 

Choiniere’s webinar offers a brief discourse on the development of Catholic doctrine, contrasting what he describes as the “imperial” hierarchical model that once defined the magisterium with the new, more inclusive model of synodality adopted by Pope Francis. The presentation also provides an “action plan” to make sure “LGBTQ” voices are heard during the synodal process. Those who have been traumatized by their pastors are encouraged to find a listening session at a different parish or to deputize a friend to speak on their behalf. 

 

Courage’s Approach

But if New Ways Ministry is making the synod a high priority and helping supporters become “protagonists” in the Church, Courage International, the apostolate for Catholics with same-sex attraction that is approved by the U.S. bishops, has opted for a very different approach, grounded in the parish community of its members rather than the activism of an interest group. 

Well before the synod fathers gather in Rome next year, “the main blessing to be expected from this process is that pastors will hear from their people about what is going on in their lives,” said Father Bochanski, picking up on his message to Courage members.

The priest is worried, however, that some Catholics are being misled about the purpose of the synod. And he is equally concerned that attempts to politicize the synodal process could derail the hard-earned progress of Catholics who have struggled for years to rebuild their relationship with God and ties to the Church.  

He further noted that the emergence of “LGBTQ” activist groups bent on changing Catholic doctrine is hardly a new phenomenon, and bishops and pastors overseeing the synodal process should be prepared for it. More than two decades ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1986 instruction on the “Pastoral Care for Homosexual Persons” offered a similar warning.

The authors of the CDF instruction upheld the “intrinsic dignity” of every person made in God’s image, condemned verbal and physical attacks on homosexual persons, and strongly encouraged pastoral accompaniment for all baptized Catholics. 

But the document also took note of “pressure groups” designed to change Church teaching and directed bishops to distinguish between organizations that seek to help their members live their supernatural Christian vocation more completely and those “guided by a vision opposed to the truth about the human person, which is fully disclosed in the mystery of Christ.” 

 

Participate Locally

Father Bochanski said his latest newsletter discusses the synodal process and encourages members to take part locally, “so that their pastors, their bishops and those who assist them know there are people in front of them living with this experience and asking for this kind of pastoral care.”

Some of the Catholics he serves “are not very public about their life,” he said. “So if they have any hesitation, they can see if their diocese has a process for contributing anonymously, or they can send a message to us, and we will communicate with the diocese or bishops’ conference.”

The important thing for every Catholic to know, no matter the state of their relationship with the Church, he said, is that “every Christian by their baptism has the right and responsibility to approach their pastors,” and no one should have to depend on an advocacy group to get their voice heard.

“The more we divide up into interest groups, the less we will be able to hear one another and provide the pastoral care people are looking for,” he said.

People need to be able to approach their bishop as a spiritual father. 

“Those who love the Church and what it teaches can let the listening sessions be an opportunity for real dialogue,” he concluded. “If the diocese is a family, it won’t be just an announcement from dad on his way out to work, but a real conversation.”

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