Bishop Paul Dempsey:…The deeper problem arises in the sphere of language, at best it is experienced as cold and distant, at worst hurtful and offensive…

Reflection by Bishop Paul Dempsey to mark Pope Francis’ ‘Amoris Laetitia Family Year’

On 19 March 2021, the Feast of Saint Joseph, the Church celebrated five years since the publication of the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).  Pope Francis has invited the Church to reflect upon this document five years on and to celebrate family over the coming year.  This comes shortly after the announcement by the Irish Bishops of a synodal process leading to a National Synod within five years.  Further to this, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its formal response to the question regarding the blessing of the unions of same sex couples.  I have been reflecting upon this moment in the life of the Church and the challenge it poses for all who care for the Church’s position but are also aware of the complex nature of life and love.

In October 2015, the Synod on Marriage and the Family took place in Rome.  Out of this came Pope Francis’ exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).  In it he outlines the vocation of the family according to the Gospel which has been affirmed by the Church over time.  The Pope’s teaching stresses the themes of indissolubility, the sacramental nature of marriage, the transmission of life and the education of children.  However, the Pope also acknowledges that not all situations meet the ideal proposed by the Church and the need to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations.

Following the publication of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s response to the question of blessing unions of people in same sex relationships, many have expressed their anger, disappointment and disillusionment with the Church.  This has been experienced as another hurtful response from the Church to people with same sex orientation.  In an article published on 16 March 2021, Bishop Johann Bonny of Antwerp, who attended the Synod on Marriage and the Family in 2015, stated that during the synod,

“there were frequent discussions about appropriate rituals and gestures to include homosexual couples, including in the liturgical sphere.  Naturally, this occurred with respect for the theologically and pastoral distinction between a sacramental marriage and the blessing of a relationship.  The majority of the synod fathers did not choose a black and white liturgical approach or an all-or-nothing model.”

To understand the bigger picture of how the Church arrives at its teaching we must turn to Scripture and Tradition.  The Church studies and interprets the Scriptures and Tradition and from this teaches what it believes is the truth given to us by God.  If we apply this to the Church’s understanding of marriage, which is fundamental, it believes in and teaches the unitive and procreative ends of marriage.  In my assessment of the current situation, it seems people can understand the position that the Church has a duty and responsibility to proclaim its message, whether one believes it or not is another matter. Some agree with what the Church proclaims as truth, others do not. The deeper problem arises in the sphere of language, at best it is experienced as cold and distant, at worst hurtful and offensive. The statement that the Church “cannot bless sin” is seen as targeting or treating same sex couples in a way that others are not targeted or treated in the Church.  Many have found this deeply offensive.  As a result some feel they are not welcome and have no place in the Catholic Church.  There is a great sadness in this as no one should feel that they are not welcome in the Church, which is the Body of Christ.  Further to this, so many people in same sex relationships have enriched the life of the Church and continue to do so in parishes across the world.

In one of his first interviews after becoming Pontiff, Pope Francis was asked how he would describe himself.  His response was “I am a sinner.”  We all find ourselves in this category.  In my own life as a Christian I strive to live the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but knowing my sinful nature, I all too often fail at reaching that ideal.  However, I do need the truth of the Gospel to aim for, knowing that when I do fail, God’s mercy awaits me.  God’s mercy is more powerful than my sinfulness.  Pope Francis has reminded us that another name for God is mercy!  This is the approach I have tried to use in my pastoral ministry as a priest over the past twenty-three years and now as bishop.  It is something I am very conscious of when I celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a confessor, but also as a penitent seeking forgiveness.

So where do we go from here, what can we learn?  Firstly, the Church needs to hear what is being said in relation to language.  The Church must reflect upon how its language is heard and interpreted by people in today’s complex world.

Secondly, even though many are disillusioned by the statement from the Congregation, there are important points that may have been overshadowed in the commentary.  For instance, the document talks about “positive elements” in same sex relationships which are “to be valued and appreciated.”  This may seem insignificant, but to my knowledge, I do not recall the Church making such a statement before.

Thirdly, the Irish Church has recently embarked upon a “synodal journey.”  Synod means “walking together,” it is at the heart of Pope Francis’ model and understanding of Church and ministry.  The Irish Bishops have emphasised that this synodal journey must reach out to everyone, including those who feel they are not part of the Church.  A synodal path is not about changing the doctrine of the Church, it is about how we apply it more pastorally.  The journey involves prayerfully listening to the Spirit and discerning what God wants of us as a Church in the modern world.  This will not be an easy journey, the chaotic “field hospital” image of Pope Francis comes to mind, an image that many can identify with today.

Perhaps this struggle, this unease is at the very heart of the synodal way.  We would all like for it to be “neat and tidy” and to be in control.  This is not the way of synodality which requires humility to allow the Spirit to take charge.  Pope Francis reminds us of this call to humility when says: “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.”  (Evangelii Gaudium 47).  May we have the courage to “walk together” as a community of disciples with our minds and hearts open to where the Lord is calling us at this critical moment.


  • Bishop Paul Dempsey is Bishop of Achonry.
  • On the 19 March 2021, the fifth anniversary of the publication of Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia on the joy and beauty of family love, Pope Francis inaugurated the year ‘Amoris Laetitia Family’, and this will conclude on 26 June 2022 on the occasion of the X World Meeting of Families in Rome.  The IX World Meeting of Families took place in Ireland during August 2018, and this included a visit by Pope Francis. 

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    This is excellent, and very much along the lines of Pope Francis himself. But it seems, as with Humanae Vitae 55 years ago, that the “deeper problem” is not one of language but of substance. Even if the immaculate doctrine of the church on sex as unitive and procreative is ignored in practice, that does not mean it has lost its teeth or does not block all genuine dialogue and consultation, to the detriment of the church’s life and credibility.

  2. Soline Humbert says:

    No bishop Paul Dempsey, the deeper problem does not reside in the sphere of language. I agree with Joe #1 that it is one of substance.
    The nub of the issue is the statement as reaffirmed in the CDF Responsum that ”same-sex unions are not ordered to God’s plan”.
    Is that teaching actually true?
    Has it been received by the faithful (the sensus fidei)?
    Concerning the synodal path, if it is limited to applying more pastorally the doctrine of the church, as bishop Dempsey states, it will surely run into multiple dead-ends very quickly. Without the option of developing doctrine we will remain stuck with unreceived teachings held as immutable doctrines. ”Pastoral” contortions and ”nicer” language will not be substitutes for grasping those nettles. If there is no possibility for teachings (including those presented as doctrine) to be examined and reflected upon, the hierarchical clerical pyramid will remain firmly in place despite all the talk of upside down revolution.
    Genuine dialogue and consultation will remain blocked.
    Some of us would like to know before we embark whether we are being taken for another lake cruise, or genuinely heading for the high seas…

  3. Colm Holmes says:

    Bishop Paul Dempsey says: “A synodal path is not about changing the doctrine of the Church, it is about how we apply it more pastorally.”

    If the National Synodal Assembly is not about discussing developments in doctrine and only about finding gentler language then it will be a waste of time.

    We have too many Branch Manager Bishops. We need more People’s Bishops who will listen to the People of God and convey in strong terms to Rome what the Holy Spirit is doing in Ireland.

    Take a look at the Liverpool Synod which has produced a video to explain some of the many issues outside the remit of their synod:
    I would hope that the National Synodal Assembly in Ireland will send an even longer video to Rome.

  4. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Quite obviously missionary synodality cannot happen if doctrinal development is ‘off the table’.

    To identify the mistake of a ‘fixation on sex’ – as Pope Francis has repeatedly done – is by implication to say that there is an imbalance in the church’s moral theology – and to vindicate Sean Fagan’s contention that a rehabilitation of the concept of ‘sin’ needs to focus on what denies justice to so many inside and outside the church.

    Quite obviously this is the fixation with social ascent – the lust for superiority and celebrity and the fear of shame that tends to corrupt those who achieve that. (i.e. ‘Pride’)

    As the church’s analogue is clerical careerism it is not difficult to see why a fixation with lay sexuality will be hugely convenient for so many of those who do seek, and achieve, power within the church. It is the perfect diversionary strategy – but it is also blinds the fixated to the source of social injustice and conflict, and will paralyse the church’s missionary endeavour for as long as it dominates the church’s agenda.

  5. richard o'donnell says:

    While I appreciate that the bishop is probably trying his best to put a Christian slant on the cold, distant, hurtful and offensive language of the CDF, he sadly does not get the point either. It is not only the language that is the problem; it is the message itself. It is not the message which the vast majority of Roman Catholics are discerning/hearing from the Spirit, who whispers to us all; lay, clerical and even non Christian. This type of leadership, while well meaning, is futile.

    He states that “the church studies and interprets the scriptures and tradition and from this teaches what it believes is the truth given to us by God.” I am sure he genuinely believes this. But this again just demonstrates the absolute absurdity of the Church’s teaching and leadership here. Some members of the Church study and intercept the scriptures … But only the clerical Church is allowed to teach or at least approve what is taught. This restriction is imposed by the clerical church itself. The problem for this clerical church now, of course, is that most lay members of the Church no longer accept this ridiculous notion and many see it as offensive and power grabbing and so just walk away. They walk away from the Church: but not from God. No one has a monopoly on God.

    He states that “A synodal path is not about changing the doctrine of the Church, it is about how we apply it more pastorally. The journey involves prayerfully listening to the Spirit and discerning what God wants of us as a Church in the modern world.” Hopefully, he will re-read this statement, and see the contradiction here. If he has made up his mind, not to change Church doctrine, before he tries to listen to the Spirit, what is the point in listening to the Spirit? Listening to the Spirit with an open/prayerful mind and then deciding that Church teaching should not change is one thing. But deciding in advance what to hear or not hear is, it seems to me, a bit pointless. But, then again, what do I know? I am only a lay person. But I am loved by God as are all human beings whatever their inter-relationships status.
    However, the bishop’s prayer at the end of his statement shows signs of hope. He might yet surprise us.

  6. Iggy O Donovan says:

    Bishop Paul Dempsey. I will take you seriously when you state your unequivocal position on the case of Tony Flannery. Thus far the episcopate have engaged in a deafening silence on this monstrous injustice.

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