A top Vatican panel assisting Pope Francis went further than the Church has gone before in affirming non-traditional relationships, saying Monday that the Church must “turn respectfully” to couples such as those who live together unmarried or are of the same-gender and “appreciate the positive values” those unions may have.
The comments blew away some longtime Vatican experts because they put the Catholic Church – the world’s largest – squarely in the middle of the mainstream public discussion about sexuality and marriage, rather than in one corner focused mostly on unchanging doctrine. What changes to doctrine or practice might follow from the suggestions, if any, weren’t at all clear.
The comments came in a document a small handful of clergy — including DC’s Archbishop Donald Wuerl — prepared to summarize what has happened during the first half of a two-week long “synod” Francis called in order to confront the Church’s most contentious issues. The document was the first real information the Vatican has released on what’s gone on in the rare high-level meeting of 190 top clergy, who are launching a deeper look at church teaching and practice around family issues. It’s meant to guide further talks for this week and in coming months.
The document reaffirmed that traditional teachings are the “ideal” but was remarkable to some in its openness and lack of emphasis on condemnation of untraditional relationships.
The Rev. James Martin, a Catholic writer with the Jesuit magazine America, wrote that the document was “stunning.”
“The Synod said that gay people have ‘gifts and talents to offer the Christian community.’ This is something that even a few years ago would have been unthinkable, from even the most open-minded of prelates–that is, a statement of outright praise for the contribution of gays and lesbians, with no caveat and no reflexive mention of sin,” Martin wrote. “That any church document would praise same-sex ‘partners’ in any way (and even use the word ‘partners’) is astonishing.”
On that, the document said “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.”
Patrick Hornbeck, chair of the theology department at Fordham, a Catholic university, said the document’s power was in its perspective.
“Some questions were asked here that have never been asked publicly by bishops: What good can we find in same-sex unions? In many ways for the first time in a long time the Catholic Church is saying it wants to ask really hard questions about how people truly live their lives,” he said. “But the fact that the question is being asked doesn’t mean the answer will be what progressive and liberal Catholics want it to be..it would be a mistake to see this document as in any way definitive or significantly revolutionary.”
Nonjudgmental language was used when discussing everything from living together to divorce.
In a section entitled “the relevance of emotional life,” the clergy wrote that in a society with economic challenges and changing norms “a greater need is encountered among individuals to take care of themselves, to know their inner being, and to live in greater harmony with their emotions and sentiments, seeking a relational quality in emotional life. In the same way, it is possible to encounter a widespread desire for family accompanied by the search for oneself. But how can this attention to the care for oneself be cultivated and maintained, alongside this desire for family? This is a great challenge for the Church too. The danger of individualism and the risk of living selfishly are significant.”
What concrete changes – if any — could come of this language wasn’t clear, and many lines in the document were phrased as questions. Many Catholics who have left the church cite teachings that ultimately condemn being gay or using contraception. Some leading clergy involved in the meeting immediately challenged the document and pushed for more edits and detail. Some wanted there to be a clarification that Catholicism teaches that “some unions are disordered.” Some challenged the the idea that, when you’re talking about core issues like marriage, holiness and truth can be found outside the church.
The document is a kind of jumping-off point for discussion. It will be rewritten again when the synod closes this weekend and is meant to launch a year of conversations and reflections among Catholics. In the fall of 2015, Pope Francis has planned a second synod at which actual pastoral changes could be proposed.
Voice of the Family, a global coalition of traditional Catholic groups, released a statement calling the document a betrayal. “Why not give Communion to polygamists if we give it to divorced and remarried?” the group asked.
As many things related to Pope Francis, the document drew the attention of groups outside the Catholic Church.
Russell Moore, the policy leader for the Southern Baptist Convention – the country’s largest Protestant denomination — suggested the document was dangerously emphasizing grace over “truth.”
“Should we patiently love and offer the gospel to those who are refusing to repent of immortality.. Yes. Should we baptize and admit those into membership who refuse to walk away from such things? No,” Moore wrote.
Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the major GLBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said the language was significant – particularly during a year that has seen a rise in gay and lesbian Catholics being fired as teachers or leaders from U.S. Catholic schools and parishes.
“It may very well be that we are never in full agreement with the Catholic Church in terms of [marriage] but today was certainly a step in the right direction towards a recognition of our lived experience,” said Sainz, who said he left Catholicism himself over this issue. “There has been so much hurt and ridicule. I have to believe many will see this as a hopeful beginning to a very long road. But it will be a very, very long road.”
In releasing the document at a news conference at the Vatican, Luis Antonio Tagle, a top cardinal from the Philippines, noted that debate was just beginning: “The drama continues.”
On people who marry outside the church or create families without marriage, the document wrote: A “new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation….” and “In such unions, it is possible to grasp authentic family values or at least the wish for them. Pastoral accompaniment should always start from these positive aspects.”
Longtime Vatican reporter John Allen wrote that the document could offer a perspective on family and sex akin to the one that the landmark Second Vatican Council did on ecumenism – or the Catholic Church’s relations with other parts of Christianity. While before Vatican II, many Catholics hesitated to even walk into a Protestant church, after such “taboos were gone,” Allen wrote Monday. “Without overdramatizing things, something similar may be going at the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family vis-à-vis people living in what the church considers “irregular” situations..
Hornbeck said the document is part of Francis’ effort to shift the contemporary dialogue about what plagues healthy families.
“He’s not so quick to assign liberalism or secularism as the cause. He wants to engage in a much more broad discernment, that economic, cultural, political and social changes are challenging not just the traditional model but how people actually live their lives,” he said.
The document didn’t alarm all traditional Catholics. Writer Eve Tushnet, a lesbian Catholic who advocates for celibacy, said she was struck by the document’s acknowledgment of the “mutual aid” same-sex couples provide one another.
“I think this is an attempt to stop propagandizing and acting as if the only good things ever done are done within faithful traditional Catholic marriages. When you do that, no one believes you,” she said.