Last year, Pope Francis commissioned a worldwide survey to determine what Catholics thought on just about every controversial church dogma from contraception to gay couples. No other pope had undertaken such a task in modern history, and the results were an early sign of a conflict now described as a “fight for the soul of the Catholic Church.”
The survey underscored a widening divide between the faithful and the Catholic teachings they’re supposed to follow. The Vatican study portrayed a church badly wounded by sex scandals that needed to reform its position on same-sex unions and adopt a “respectful, non-judgmental attitude toward people living in such unions.”
Now that question of how gays fit into today’s church is more unclear than ever. On Saturday evening, a church synod that met to discuss family values released a final report rescinding earlier language hailed as a remarkable shift on same-sex unions. The rejection of the draft Vatican document brought the church debate on homosexuality back to where it began: with a clergy split between reformists and traditionalists and a pope pleading for unity and reform — and getting neither. For a pontiff who has an easier time amassing worldwide popularity than corralling conservative clergymen, it was a setback.
“God is not afraid of new things!” Francis boomed on Sunday, a day after warning of “hostile rigidity” by “so-called traditionalists.” “That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways. … That is why we Christians look to the future, God’s future.” He added: “By carefully surveying the signs of the times, we are making every effort to adapt ways and methods to the growing needs of our time and the changing conditions of society.”
The remarks capped a week that began with a splash of headlines about what first seemed like a pivotal document. Repudiating earlier language that called gays “intrinsically disordered,” the preliminary Vatican report welcomed gays and said they have unique gifts to offer the church and their partnerships. It called on the church to build on “the positive aspects” of “irregular relationships.” Rumbles of dissent began immediately.
Some bishops said the document didn’t represent the Vatican’s final word. And by week’s end, the landmark language was expunged from the final version, which ultimately said gays warrant “respect and delicacy.”
“Discussions in the synod hall had grown heated,” said the Catholic News Service.
Francis, who a British cardinal said has “torn up the rule book,” has long been the key player in the saga. It began more or less with his comment, “Who am I to judge?” on sexual orientation. Ever since, he has wore the mantle of reformer, though he perhaps chafes against it. “Pope Francis has long regarded these controversies as distractions that keep his followers from their true mission: helping the poor, comforting the miserable, waging war on greed and consumerism,” Cristina Odone of the Telegraph wrote in an insightful commentary. ” … For Francis, sexual mores are not at the heart of the Gospel — and they should not be at the heart of his Church’s ministry.”
Francis’ impromptu gestures of tolerance — from calling an Argentine woman to chat about divorce to castigating profligate clergymen — have made him a deeply divisive pope. Many have also been confused on where he stands. The pope has “done a lot of harm” by not saying “openly what his position is,” Cardinal Raymond Burke, who headed the Vatican’s highest court until Francis demoted him on Friday, told Buzzfeed. He added: “According to my understanding of the church’s teaching and discipline, no, it wouldn’t be correct” if Francis was trying to advocate for his own personal issues.
“The pope is not free to change the church’s teachings with regard to the immortality of homosexual acts,” Burke said. ” … The pope, more than anyone else as the pastor of the universal church, is bound to serve the truth.”
Such thinking is in line with recent church edicts. Cardinal Ratzinger — the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI — said “known truth cannot be changed.”
But what is truth? With this recent synod, the Odone wrote, Francis tried to split the difference between those with traditional and progressive views, opening up the church to gays in spirit if not in doctrine. In the end, however, even that turned out to be too controversial for many bishops.
“Given the sometimes intense debate that surfaced during the two-week Synod of Bishops,” Vatican expert John Allen wrote in the Boston Globe, “the final document is probably an honest reflection of where they stand — which is that for every bishop ready for daring change, there’s another worried about abandoning Catholic tradition.”
Noting that “the document is intended as a guide to discussion over the next year, ahead of a larger Synod of Bishops called by Pope Francis for October 2015,” Allen wrote, “it will still be up to Francis to decide what to do.”