Changing Times

10.17.14 9:43 AM ET

Catholic Church Says It’s OK to be Gay, Sort Of

Vatican prelates change their tone, but not the rules when it comes to gay and divorced Catholics.

VATICAN CITY — In what is being seen as a dramatic shift in tone along the lines of Pope Francis’s “who am I to judge?” mantra, the 191 Catholic prelates taking part in the extraordinary synod of Bishops released the first draft of their working document on Monday. Gone, at least for now, are judgmental descriptions of homosexuality like “intrinsically disordered” and “depraved.” They’re instead replaced with a more neutral tone and careful introspection on the matter. “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?” The authors of the working document called a relatio post disceptationem ask. “Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.”

The authors go on to warn that gay marriage is still forbidden, and caution that pressuring the Church to accept what it cannot accept will only backfire. “The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman,” the document states. “Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.”

The relatio stops short of suggesting any doctrinal change like allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to take communion or allowing divorced Catholics to remarry in the Church without annulment, but it does take a galactic leap forward in terms of acceptance of what it referred to as “irregular situations” and “wounded families.”

In particular, the Synod Fathers seem to recognize that the world has changed drastically since the last time they formally discussed the sex lives of Catholic families and how they can minister to them—even reaching out to those couples cohabitating or married in civil unions that aren’t recognized by the Church. “A new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation, taking into account the due differences. Indeed, when a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage,” the authors write. But they also caution: “Very often, however, cohabitation is established not with a view to a possible future marriage, but rather without any intention of establishing an institutionally-recognized relationship.”

Vatican experts have credited the softer tone to the “Francis effect.” John Thavis, author of The Vatican Diaries called the document an earthquake. “In pastoral terms, the document published today by the Synod of Bishops represents an earthquake, the “big one” that hit after months of smaller tremors,” Thavis wrote on his popular Decoding the Vatican Catholic blog. “The document clearly reflects Pope Francis’ desire to adopt a more merciful pastoral approach on marriage and family issues.”

Throughout the relatio, the authors nod to what is clearly a wide division between traditional and progressive prelates in the church, though the document seems to always side with Francis’s more merciful stance. No doubt, this is aided by Francis’ appointment of six handpicked prelates to help draft the final document on Friday, much to the surprise of Synod attendees and Vatican specialists who read into it that Francis wanted to ensure his stamp of approval on the final outcome.

On the discussion of whether or not cohabitating and remarried couples could be considered valid Catholics—obviously a controversial topic among the prelates—they seem at least to agree that there are positive aspects of these relationships that until now the Church has openly condemned. “A new sensitivity in today’s pastoral consists in grasping the positive reality of civil weddings and, having pointed out our differences, of cohabitation,” they write. “It is necessary that in the ecclesial proposal, while clearly presenting the ideal, we also indicate the constructive elements in those situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to that ideal.”

The bishops also suggest they need to challenge themselves to try divorce prevention by working harder to prepare couples during the engagement stage, focusing more on the challenges that lie ahead for them and less on the strictly doctrinal regulations of taking the sacrament of marriage. In other words, they agree they need to provide better advice on what marriage is in real life rather than what it is on paper. And they suggest the dioceses even provide a sort of follow-up care for newly married couples after the honeymoon, which, they conclude, is best done by other married couples with experience that celibate clerics don’t have. “The complex social reality and the changes that the family is called on today to deal with require a greater undertaking from the whole Christian community for the preparation of those who are about to be married,” the Synod fathers write. “The early years of marriage are a vital and delicate period during which couples grow in the awareness of the challenges and meaning of matrimony. Thus, the need for a pastoral accompaniment that goes beyond the celebration of the sacrament. Of great importance in this pastoral is the presence of experienced couples.”

And when marriage still fails, the synod fathers write that many of their clerical colleagues suggest they need to make annulment “more accessible and flexible” to help people who want to stay in the Church feel welcome. They also draw a clear line between divorced and remarried, and simply those who are divorced. Even though the Church does not recognize divorce, it would seem that those who have not yet remarried should feel free to take communion, with the synod fathers seemingly making the general assumption that divorced people who aren’t remarried are obviously alone and not having sex or cohabitating. “Divorced people who have not remarried should be invited to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their state,” they write, which would seem to imply that the Church is willing to turn a blind eye to some aspects of the divorce question.

Many divorced and remarried Catholics will feel encouraged by the draft document, which does not pave the way to taking communion, but neither slams the door on the idea. “In the same way the situation of the divorced who have remarried demands a careful discernment and an accompaniment full of respect, avoiding any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against,” they write. Though there is still no clear answer, some synod fathers apparently suggested that divorced and remarried could be offered a “spiritual communion” rather than the sacrament itself. “Suggesting limiting themselves to only “spiritual communion” was questioned by more than a few Synodal Fathers: if spiritual communion is possible, why not allow them to partake in the sacrament?” they wrote. “As a result a greater theological study was requested starting with the links between the sacrament of marriage and the Eucharist in relation to the Church-sacrament.”

Listening, accompanying, respecting, valuing, discerning, welcoming, dialogue are words repeated throughout the new document being discussed by the synod of bishops in Rome this week, writes Father Thomas Reese in the National Catholic Reporter. “Words of condemnation and marginalization were avoided,” he says. “However these discussions develop, it is clear that the church is embarking on them with a new pastoral style that is more compassionate and affirming.”

This week the synod fathers will meet in small groups to discuss further each of the relatio points. Several bishops who presented the document to the press pointed out that not all Synod Fathers are happy with the softer tone. Cardinal Peter Erdo told reporters that some (presumably more traditionalist) bishops want the words “some unions are disordered” to be added back into the text when it comes to homosexual unions, which is a distinct possibility in the final draft. Another bishop was apparently disheartened to find the word “sin” appear only once in the entire document.

Once the bishops hammer out their differences, they will then submit revision recommendations to the authors for a final document that will be released after the Synod concludes next weekend. That document will be used as a basis for discussion at the much larger and more definitive Ordinary Synod on the Family set for October 2015. Pope Francis has also called for dialogue and continued discussion in parishes across the world leading up to the final Synod where any of any real changes will be made.

The first draft of the document is promising but it is far from final, according to Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines who helped present the document to the press on Monday. “So,” he said smiling. “The drama continues.”