The other night, I had the privilege of participating in one of the listening sessions for the continental phase of the Synodal process. The basis for our discussion was a lengthy document produced by the Vatican after it had compiled data and testimony from all over the Catholic world. As I have been studying and speaking about synodality, I very much enjoyed the exchange of views. But I found myself increasingly uneasy with two words that feature prominently in the document and that dominated much of our discussion—namely, “inclusivity” and “welcoming.”
Again and again, we hear that the Church must become a more inclusive and welcoming place for a variety of groups: women, LGBT+ people, the divorced and civilly remarried, etc. But I have yet to come across a precise definition of either term. What exactly would a welcoming and inclusive Church look like? Would it always reach out to everyone in a spirit of invitation? If so, the answer seems obviously to be yes. Would it always treat everyone, no matter their background, ethnicity, or sexuality, with respect and dignity? If so, again, the answer is yes. Would such a Church always listen with pastoral attention to the concerns of all? If so, affirmative. But would a Church exhibiting these qualities never pose a moral challenge to those who would seek entry? Would it ratify the behavior and lifestyle choices of anyone who presented him or herself for admission? Would it effectively abandon its own identity and structuring logic so as to accommodate any and all who come forward? I hope it is equally evident that the answer to all those questions is a resounding no. The ambiguity of the terms is a problem that could undermine much of the Synodal process.
In order to adjudicate this matter, I would suggest that we look not so much to the environing culture of the present day but to Christ Jesus. His attitude of radical welcome is nowhere on clearer display than in his open-table fellowship, that is to say, his consistent practice—countercultural in the extreme—to eat and drink not only with the righteous but also with sinners, with Pharisees, tax collectors, and prostitutes. These meals of sacred fellowship Jesus even compared to the banquet of heaven. Throughout his public ministry, Jesus reached out to those considered unclean or wicked: the woman at the well, the man born blind, Zacchaeus, the woman caught in adultery, the thief crucified at his side, etc. So, there is no question that he was hospitable, gracious, and yes, welcoming to all.
By the same token, this inclusivity of the Lord was unambiguously and consistently accompanied by his summons to conversion. Indeed, the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in his inaugural address in the Gospel of Mark is not “Welcome!” but rather “Repent!” To the woman caught in adultery, he said, “Go and sin no more”; after meeting the Lord, Zacchaeus promised to change his sinful ways and compensate lavishly for his misdeeds; in the presence of Jesus, the good thief acknowledged his own guilt; and the risen Christ compelled the chief of the Apostles, who had three times denied him, three times to affirm his love.
In a word, there is a remarkable balance in the pastoral outreach of Jesus between welcome and challenge, between outreach and a call to change. This is why I would characterize his approach not simply as “inclusive” or “welcoming,” but rather as loving. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that to love is “to will the good of the other.” Accordingly, one who truly loves another reaches out in kindness, to be sure, but at the same time he does not hesitate, when necessary, to correct, to warn, even to judge. My mentor, Francis Cardinal George, was once asked why he disliked the sentiment behind the song “All Are Welcome.” He responded that it overlooked the simple fact that, though all are indeed welcome in the Church, it is “on Christ’s terms, not their own.”
An overall concern that I have, very much related to the consistent use of the terms “welcoming” and “inclusivity,” is the trumping of doctrine, anthropology, and real theological argument by sentiment, or to put it a bit differently, the tendency to psychologize the matters under consideration. The Church doesn’t prohibit homosexual acts because it has an irrational fear of homosexuals; nor does it refuse communion to those in irregular marriage arrangements because it gets its kicks out of being exclusive; nor does it disallow women’s ordination because grumpy old men in power just can’t stand women. For each of these positions, it articulates arguments based on Scripture, philosophy, and the theological tradition, and each has been ratified by the authoritative teaching of bishops in communion with the pope. To throw all these settled teachings into question because they don’t correspond to the canons of our contemporary culture would be to place the Church into real crisis. And I sincerely do not believe that this shaking of the foundations is what Pope Francis had in mind when he called for a synod on synodality.