The knots begin to be untied:
On the question of marriage and civil unions, the Pope reaffirmed that “marriage is between a man and a woman”. States seek to justify civil unions “to regularize different situations of living together”, pushed by the need to regularize the economic aspects between people, such as, for example, to ensure health care, he said. “We have to look at the different cases and evaluate them in their variety”.
On this, as on contraception, the Pope is not calling for a change in doctrine about the sacrament of marriage. What he is clearly saying, I think, is that you don’t have to change doctrine to respect the civil society’s and secular state’s decision to accommodate gay couples and families within its existing arrangements for heterosexual households. This was his position in the internal church struggle in Argentina, reflecting his understandable concern that a Benedict-style counter-revolution against gay couples would not only be counter to the spirit of the Gospels, but deeply divisive for the church as a whole and damaging to its broader goal of evangelization. A 21st Century bishop of Rome might well accede to civil unions for gay couples and “not judge” the sincere consciences of gay couples seeking civil protections and rights under the law. That would end a misguided cultural war against an entire younger generation in the West, while not abandoning core doctrinal teachings on the family.
It’s a pragmatic and humane position – whereas Benedict’s was both a loser among most Western Catholics and clearly inhumane, and even callous, at times. I expect to see it nudged forward at the Synods this year and next.
I expect mercy to be primary in grappling with the questions of divorced Catholics, contraception and gay lives. Less judgment, more mercy. You know: like Jesus. And look at the stark difference between Francis’ approach to doctrinal and theological debate and Benedict’s relentless imposition of total orthodoxy:
Pope Francis praised Cardinal Walter Kasper’s keynote talk on the family to the assembly of cardinals (the Consistory) on 20-21 February which the interviewer said had sparked divisions among them. “It was a most beautiful and profound presentation, which will soon be published in German. It dealt with five points, the fifth of which was the question of second marriages”, Francis commented. He said he would have been “worried” if there had not been “intense discussion” and, moreover, the cardinals knew they could speak freely. Indeed, “the fraternal and open confrontations make the theological and pastoral theology develop. I do not fear this; on the contrary I seek it.”
In my view, it is this new and overdue opening of the Catholic mind for which Francis may one day be remembered most of all.