Changing Times

10.12.14 9:45 AM ET

The Vatican's Same-Sex Synod: The Bishops Hear About Reality. Do They Listen?

A growing chorus in Rome, straight and LGBT, echoes Pope Francis as it asks the assembled bishops at a critical summit, ‘Who are you to judge?’

VATICAN CITY—Hundreds of celibate men from the Roman Catholic Church have spent the last week hearing people who actually have sex actually talk about it. The topics range from who should have it to when they should have it and how they should have it, which, according to British Bishop Vincent Nichols, is “not what we bishops talk about mostly, quite honestly.” Novelty aside, the real question is whether these avowedly chaste men of the cloth are listening.  

The last time anyone at the Vatican openly obsessed about sex as much we’re seeing at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops being held in Rome was back in 1968 when Pope Paul VI penned Humanae Vitae. That encyclical letter on the heels of the Second Vatican Council became the how-not-to manual of Catholic sexuality for some, and what amounted to a theological cold shower for others. The letter reiterated the unbendable teachings of the Catholic Church during the height of the sexual revolution, essentially banning everything that was revolutionary at the time, starting with The Pill, but hardly ending there. While the rest of the Western world explored free love, Catholics were instead told “no” to premarital sex, birth control, masturbation and homosexuality.  

Pope Paul VI and the Church at that time could be forgiven for puritanical idealism. Humanae Vitae was in response to unbridled sexual liberation, written well before the advent of the Internet or sexting, when pornography was either pulp or peep show, and when “50 Shades of Grey” was what happened when priests accidentally washed their white clerical collars with their dark cassocks. So it is little wonder that Pope Paul VI’s Church defined sex as nothing more than a sort of marital perk between men and women that was “noble and worthy” with a special emphasis on the sins of using contraception. It was not necessary to try to avoid pregnancy, the pope said, because the Church teaches that sex is meant only for the purpose of procreation. Essentially, anyone having the type of sex that isn’t open to giving life—like gays and lesbians—shouldn’t be having sex at all.  

In 1984, more than 15 very important world-changing years later, Pope John Paul II published his updated version of what Catholic sex ought to look like called the Familiaris Consortio or "Theology of the Body.” Not surprisingly, John Paul II backed up Paul VI’s views on all matters dealing with coitus, with even more emphasis on contraception, which had by then come to define how the Catholic Church justifies its narrow views on homosexuality. By reiterating that artificial contraception was still very much a sin, he underscored Church teaching that any sexual act without the chance of procreation would and will never be acceptable. In other words, same sex unions be damned. 

Nineteen years later, shortly before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) took things one step further, recalling Church teaching that same-sex love is defined as “intrinsically disordered” and “depraved” (the same as masturbation and heterosexual lust). Underscoring the CDF’s final word on homosexual unions in 2003, he said, “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.” He then quoted the Catholic Catechism teaching that, “Homosexual acts close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

Eleven years later, the Church under Pope Francis is about to produce another document on sex, this time a relatio derived from whatever consensus the extraordinary synod of Bishops can come to at their meeting on the family. There are hopes and fears from both sides that something drastic might or might not happen. There is plenty of optimism from the gay and lesbian community. After all, this is the pope who so famously quipped, "Who am I to judge?” when asked about a devout gay man entering the priesthood. But the fact that the synod is due to end with the beautification of the Humanae Vitae author, Pope Paul VI, might prove a bit of a spoiler in terms of the conclusions.  

The Synod fathers have heard surprising admissions from what at first appeared to be cookie-cutter perfect Catholic married couples invited to address the group. The most astonishing came from Ron and Mavis Pirola, a middle-aged Australian couple who have been together for 57 years. “That attraction that we first felt and the continued bonding force between us was basically sexual. The little things we did for each other, the telephone calls and love notes, the way we planned our day around each other and the things we shared were outward expressions of our longing to be intimate with each other,” they told the Synod members.  

They also explained how the Church clergy might learn a lesson about acceptance from everyday families when it comes to the reality of gays and lesbians. The Pirolas described to the prelates how Catholic friends of theirs were planning their Christmas family gathering to which their gay son wanted to bring his partner home, too. “They fully believed in the Church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family,” they told the Synod. “Their response could be summed up in three words, ‘He is our son.’ What a model of evangelization for parishes as they respond to similar situations in their neighborhood!” Their speech was met “very warmly, with applause,” according to bishops briefing the press afterwards. 

On the sidelines of the conference, the Pirolas told The Daily Beast they felt inspired by Pope Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” remarks. “We wanted to tell them that the reality for most Catholic families is that there are gays we love dearly,” Mrs. Pirola said. Not surprisingly, the Pirolas’ comments were met with accolades from the LGBT community and harsh criticism from conservative Catholics.

The ultra conservative pro-life Voice of the Family coalition immediately called the Pirola talk “damaging” to the synod. “The example given by the Pirolas—of ready acceptance of a son and his homosexual lover to a gathering where the grandchildren would welcome them into the family—gives a false lead to families and parishes. It is no example of love and mercy towards anyone,” Maria Madise, Voice of the Family’s coordinator wrote on the organization’s website. “The unqualified welcome of homosexual couples into family and parish environments in fact damages everybody, by serving to normalize the disorder of homosexuality.” Her remarks were followed by suggestions for what Catholic families should do to deal with homosexual children including, “The correct guidance for Catholics is that the parents of homosexuals should tell them that their love for their son or daughter moves them to explain that homosexuality is not part of God’s plan for their happiness.” 

The head of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, John Smeaton, told reporters that the Synod fathers who took the Pirola testimony to heart pose a grave danger to the church. “Those Synod Fathers who … welcomed the Pirolas’ disturbing testimony show that they are totally out of touch with the real problems faced by families,” Smeaton said. “The homosexual agenda is forcing its way into schools, universities, workplaces and sports clubs. The last thing families and parishes need is for Church leaders to tell them to welcome homosexual couples.”

American Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Vatican’s prefect for the Apostolic Signitura,  was equally damning in his response to the Pirolas’ openness on the matter of gay children of Catholics. Speaking to conservative LifeSite News, he suggested that the Pirolas were wrong to accept their friends’ decision to embrace their son’s sexuality. “We wouldn’t, if it were another kind of relationship—something that was profoundly disordered and harmful—we wouldn't expose our children to that relationship, to the direct experience of it,” he said in a videotaped interview with LifeSite. “And neither should we do it in the context of a family member who not only suffers from same-sex attraction, but who has chosen to live out that attraction, to act upon it, committing acts which are always and everywhere wrong, evil.”  

The Vatican’s English and French language spokesman Father Tomas Rosica, who has been sitting in on much of the closed-door synod to relay what information he can to the press, pointed out that despite the areas of obvious disagreement, there are some clear messages coming out of the meeting, especially with regard to the language that the Church traditionally uses to describe sinners. “There's a great desire that our language has to change in order to meet the very complex situations the church faces,” he told reporters. “Language such as ‘living in sin,’ ‘intrinsically disordered,’ or ‘contraceptive mentality’ are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to Christ and the Church.”

Despite the obvious opposition to acceptance of the LGBT community from conservative groups, there is palpable hope Catholic gays and lesbians might find a place in the Church. 

Last week, as the Synod was getting underway in Rome, a number of side summits sponsored by the LGBT associations lobbied sympathetic prelates. On the eve of the summit, the gay-friendly American-based Catholic New Ways Ministry co-sponsored a well-attended forum called the The Ways of Love: International Conference Towards Pastoral Care with Homosexual and Trans People that featured Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary bishop from Australia, as keynote speaker. 

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“It was God who created a world in which there are both heterosexuals and homosexuals,” Robinson told the conference attendees. “This was not a mistake on God’s part that human beings are meant to repair; it is simply an undeniable part of God’s creation. The only sexual acts that are natural to homosexuals are homosexual acts. Homosexual acts come naturally to them, heterosexual acts do not. They cannot perform what the Church would call ‘natural’ acts in a way that is natural to them.”

A few days later in Portugal, Catholic LGBT groups held their first ever World Congress of Homosexual Catholics’ Associations with 28 different associations from 16 countries present. The discussions shaped a letter to Pope Francis and the Synod fathers in Rome asking for “urgent change” in the way the Church ministers to gays and lesbians. “I think the church is so woefully behind the rest of society they have no choice but to at least take the first step,” Francis De Bernardo, director of New Ways Ministry, who attended the conference in Portugal and sponsored the Ways of Love conference in Rome, told The Daily Beast. “When you are learning to walk, you have to take the first step.”

The 1968 Humanae Vitae was the product of a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control ordered by Pope John XXIII, now a saint, before he died. Even then, the banning of artificial birth control was seen as a protective shield that would keep the question of same-sex unions off the table—although, in the context of those closeted times, same-sex marriages seemed a very remote possibility in almost any context.  

That meeting was smaller in scale but not so different from the synod going on in Rome now in the sense that the Vatican invited laity including couples and experts to talk about the changing world of sexuality and married life—something presumably foreign to the celibate clergy. It was clear then that the Church fathers only listened to what they wanted to hear. Now, 46 years later, many Catholics are wondering if the Church’s hearing has improved.