PREACH

Pope Francis Wins a Battle to Welcome Gays in the Church

The war’s not over. But make no mistake, the Vatican synod paved the way for significant changes to come in the lives of gay and divorced Catholics.

10.20.14 8:45 PM ET

As the prelates pack up to leave Rome after the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, there seems to be some confusion about whether liberal Catholics or staunch traditionalists carried the day. The synod midterm report softened the tone on gays and divorced Catholics; then the final document took a step back. But here’s the bottom line: the fact that they discussed previous taboos at all means Pope Francis scored a victory.

About midway through the first week of debates and deliberations, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, addressed a mixed crowd of prelates, diplomats and journalists at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and cited a sports analogy that’s become quite popular among Francis’s American fans. Francis’s strategy is a little like taking someone to a baseball game when they don’t really know the rules—and maybe didn’t care much about them.

Under Francis, the Church wants to bring people back into the stadium, as it were. “They see the crowds, they smell the hot dogs,” said Dolan, playing out the metaphor. “They get a cold beer. They’re watching the batting practice, the national anthem. They watch the ballgames and the teams, and they’re gradually enchanted and they gradually get into it,” Dolan said, implying that the Catholic Church with its pomp, ceremony, incense and Gregorian chants could be equally appealing. Once they’re inside, he says, “then they begin to ask some questions about the why’s and the rules and why this and why not that.”

That, he says, is how Pope Francis hopes not just to bring people to the Catholic Church, but to bring the Church to the people. Rather than ministering only to the officially worthy, minister to everyone—gay, divorced, disenchanted—and then worry about making them worthy. “Don’t lead with the chin, don’t lead with controversy,” Dolan said. “Don’t even lead with the mouth. Lead with the heart and you’re going to win a lot of people.”

That, of course, is not exactly how the Church worked before Francis came to town. During the last two pontificates, the rules came first, and often they tightened in response to cultural advances in the secular world. To many Catholics struggling with the pressures of real life in that real world, those rules meant Catholicism was an ever-more exclusive club where traditionalist prelates and Catholic fundamentalists could blackball anyone who couldn’t live by the rules. It was a Church in which homosexuals were “intrinsically disordered” and divorced and remarried Catholics were “adulterers.”

Unlike Francis, who lamented to the Jesuit America Magazine that “the church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” traditionalists believe that there is no room in the pews for anyone who can’t see things the way they do. Failed Catholic marriage followed by a second chance at love? Sorry, you’re out. Gay? You, too, especially.

When the synod’s interim report initially came out with language that seemed welcoming to sinners and saints alike, open-minded Catholics cheered and traditionalists ran for their Bibles. The original English translation of the document noted, “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” and asked, “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?” The language in the English translation was immediately dialed back to remove “welcoming” and sub in “providing for,” but the original Italian language text remained the same, which suggested the power of some of the conservative English speaking bishops from the traditionalist camp.

American Cardinal James Burke became the poster priest for the traditionalists during this synod, giving interviews that insisted the hard line in the Church is alive and well and that the welcoming language was the theological equivalent of a typo. He was especially displeased with the wording of the synod midterm report that softened the Church’s language on gays, divorced and remarried Catholics and couples living together.

“Of course, in the Catholic Church, her discipline is the mirror of her doctrine, and, therefore, you cannot uphold the Church’s teaching, while proposing a discipline contrary to the teaching,” Burke told Catholic World Report. “In my judgment, a false notion of the relationship of faith and culture underlies the agenda. Those who urge the agenda typically describe in detail all of the tragic aspects of the total secularization of culture and then propose that the Church has to change her language and discipline, in order to take into account the radical changes in culture,” said Burke. “The false notion of the relationship of faith and culture must be aggressively addressed to stop the spreading of a most harmful confusion.”

Burke later told Buzzfeed in a Skype interview that the pope’s “lack of clarity about the matter has certainly done a lot of harm,” essentially blaming the pope for not toeing the party line.

Burke is being dismissed as head of the Vatican’s high court and exiled to become the cardinalus patronus of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in a move many see as Francis’s revenge, and he may be the fall guy for traditionalists, but he is not alone.

Writing in the conservative Crisis blog Father Dwight Longnecker of South Carolina claims that Francis is making his job harder. “The dogmas, doctrines and disciplines of the Catholic faith are the tools of my trade,” says Longnecker in an open letter to the pontiff. “They provide the rules for engagement, the playbook for the game, the map for the journey and the content for the mercy and compassion I wish to display. … This is teamwork Holy Father. I can only do the job you want me to do if you do the job you have been called to do. With the greatest respect and love, please don’t feel that it is your job to tinker with the timeless truths. If my job is to be the compassionate pastor for those in the pew and beyond, then your job is to be the primary definer and defender of the faith. I can’t do my job if you don’t do yours.”

To welcome first and worry about the rules later has been the cornerstone of Francis’s papacy from the beginning, starting back in 2013 when he lauded the theological teachings of German Cardinal Walter Kasper. When Francis gave his very first Angelus blessing to the enormous crowd assembled in Saint Peter’s square last year, he spoke off the cuff and called Kasper a “superb theologian.” Francis told the crowd that Kasper’s 2012 book Mercy inspired him. “But don’t think I’m advertising my cardinals’ books. That’s not it,” Francis said at the time, drawing laughter from the crowd. “Cardinal Kasper said that to feel mercy—this word changes everything. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just.”

The traditionalists took that as a shot across their bow. But Kasper has the pope’s ear, and, it would appear his blessing. At the synod, although he is retired and supposedly had waning influence, Kasper has been the front man for open dialogue when it comes to softening language on gays and showing mercy to divorced and remarried Catholics. So much so, that many Vatican analysts suggest anyone criticizing Kasper is understood to be criticizing the pope himself.

In a book written by five traditionalist cardinals and published on the eve of the synod, Burke made no bones about traditionalists’ disagreement with the views of Kasper and, in effect, the pontiff. “We came to the conclusion that the direction proposed by Cardinal Kasper is fundamentally flawed, and so we believe our book is a positive contribution to get this discussion back on the right track,” Burke wrote in Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. “I certainly have serious difficulties with what Cardinal Kasper was proposing. In proposing it, he was urging a direction which in the whole history of the church [it] has never taken, a direction which would in some way involve either a disobedience to or at least a non-full adherence to the words of our Lord Himself….”

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Doctrine, the traditionalist fathers said, cannot be changed, even though there are exceptions: doctrine on slavery has changed over the years; so, arguably, has doctrine on “usury,” the payment of interest.

Even the most broad-minded Catholic bishops who attended the synod agree that changing doctrine when it comes to recognizing same-sex marriage and allowing the sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics is more than a long shot. But softening the tone and opening the door to gays and remarried Catholics remains within arms reach. Francis now has a whole year until the final definitive synod meets to enact whatever new teachings the Church plans to adopt, if any, on Catholic families and sexuality. Vatican insiders predict he’ll use that time to change the lineup for the next synod.

At the end of this one, Francis gave what many said was the best speech of his papacy. “It offered the vision statement of a moderate pontiff, urging the Church to shun both a ‘hostile rigidity’ and a ‘false mercy.’ He drew thunderous applause, including from prelates who shortly before, at least metaphorically, had been at one another’s throats,” says Vatican expert John Allen, editor of the Boston Globe’s Crux website. “In effect, it was the kind of speech that both a Raymond Burke and a Walter Kasper could walk away from feeling as if the pope understands them, and it seemed to allow what had been a sometimes nasty two-week stretch to end on a high note.” The ability to do that, more than anything else, may just be the true “Francis factor.”