Yesterday’s big news was the release of a remarkable document detailing the deliberations so far of the Synod on the Family, a gathering of Roman Catholic bishops called by Pope Francis to grapple with issues such as homosexuality and divorce and remarriage among church members. My take (that it’s a truly BFD that I didn’t even begin to expect) is below. John Thavis, a veteran Vatican observer, understands the significance:
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 … While defending the traditional teachings that reject divorce and gay marriage, the synod said the modern church must focus more on the “positive elements” in such relationships, rather than their shortcomings, and open a patient and merciful dialogue with the people involved. The ultimate aim, it said, is to use these “seeds” of goodness to bring people more fully into the church.
Barbie Latza Nadeau has more on what it said about marriage and divorce:
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.
That proposal to have, you know, actual married couples help other married couples is so blindingly obvious one wonders why it has until now been restricted to celibate priests – about the last people on earth with any deep understanding of what it practically takes to keep a marriage alive and healthy through its countless challenges. Burroway applauds the new tone the bishops used to talk about gay people:
This is the first time in the Church’s history that its leadership appears willing to look at our relationships in anything approaching a positive light. The document acknowledges that we have “gifts and talents” without having to, er, “balance” that that recognition with our living in sin. And it recognizes that there are same-sex relationships which rise “to the point of sacrifice” and “constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.”
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the word “sacrifice” in Catholic doctrine. It signifies an essential opening to all that is good and holy, whether it’s Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross or the daily sacrifices that we make as we go about our lives. Sacrifice is central to the Catholic understanding. Non-Catholics see it most visibly in the Lenten sacrifices and fasting, but Catholics see sacrifices, big and small, as a daily expression of their faith. Gay people living in same-sex relationships have been hitherto looked upon as selfish and narcissistic, unwilling to sacrifice their sexuality for their faith. And so for the Bishops to acknowledge that gays and lesbians are also living sacrificial lives is to suggest that something good and valuable is happening. That word’s appearance alone in this context is, I think, the most earth-shattering aspect of this statement.
The idea of gay couples offer anything “precious” in their relationships has never appeared in an official church document before. And the phrase “intrinsically disordered,” so reflexively deployed in the past, is nowhere to be found.
I’m with Jim on the profundity of the breakthrough. B.C. at the Economist offers a similar take:
While the Vatican will almost certainly try to assuage conservative alarm by saying that nothing in the Catholic world-view has fundamentally shifted, the change of tone is startling. Under Pope Benedict XVI, the official view of homosexuality hardened considerably—with a new stress on the idea that gay orientation, let alone practice, was “fundamentally disordered” and incompatible with the priesthood. This hardening coincided with ever-more damaging revelations about priestly child abuse, cover-ups and the existence of a “gay Mafia” in the internal politics of the Vatican.
Up to now, not many prominent Catholics have publicly considered the possibility that there might be any spiritual merit in same-sex unions. One of the few was Father Mychal Judge, the chaplain to the firefighters of New York who was one of the victims of 9/11. “Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against this kind?” he used to say. Perhaps he is smiling in heaven.
He was a Franciscan, after all. Tom Roberts asserts that one of the document’s biggest impacts is that it “takes the weapons out of the hands of the hierarchical culture warriors”:
What practically results from this document? Perhaps bishops will not be so quick to turn away from their schools the children of gay parents or to fire gays and lesbians involved in ministry because they are living openly with or married to a partner. Perhaps they will consider the “concrete circumstances,” as the document suggests, of people divorced and remarried and welcome them to the communion table.
A key term in Francis’s papacy from the start has been “mercy.” Application of the law and of doctrine, he preaches, must be tempered by mercy. In an earlier meditation, he said he wished the church to be “the place of God’s mercy and love, where everyone can feel themselves welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel.” That is not a recipe for cheap grace. The good life of the Gospel places some extraordinary demands on the believer.
The approach is clearly disorienting, however, to those who believe that the church must be a place where teaching and practice are absolute and immutable, where the dividing line must be clear between those who are in and those who are out.
It’s a depth charge against the neurosis of fundamentalism. Grant Gallicho compares this document to past ones by the church:
Of course it notes that gay unions are not “on the same footing” as traditional marriage. But even asking those kinds of questions constitutes a dramatic shift. Seeing them in a synod document was unthinkable under past popes. Just a decade ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instructed Catholics to oppose gay civil unions because, in part, it would lead to allowing them to adopt, which would “do violence” to children. You won’t find that tone in this document–with respect to gay people or anyone else. Francis sings in another key. It’s a tune he seems to want the whole church to learn.
Note the comparison to the “violence” done to children in gay relationships with this:
The Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.
Rebecca Leber likewise emphasizes the difference Francis has made:
To understand this reaction, consider how far the Papacy has come on LGBT issues in what is, by Church standards, a short span of time. John Paul II said in 2005 that the “family is often threatened by legislation which—at times directly—challenges its natural structure, which is and must necessarily be that of a union between a man and a woman founded on marriage.” His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, took many occasions to condemn gay marriage publicly. On World Peace Day and Christmas, Benedict equated gay marriage to an attack on the “essence of the human creature” and presenting a “serious harm to justice and peace.” He even called gay couples “intrinsically disordered.” But Francis? In September of last year he famously said, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
John Allen draws a parallel between the Synod and Vatican II’s approach to ecumenical efforts, which sought to “find a theological logic for the widespread popular desire to break down the walls between the various Christian churches”:
Vatican II did so by elaborating a new theology of the church: While the fullness of the church, according to Catholic doctrine, may exist only in Catholicism, there are nevertheless precious elements of it to be found outside that deserve honor and respect.
With that, the world changed. Before Vatican II, many Catholics hesitated to even enter a Protestant church; afterwards, such taboos were gone. While ecumenism hasn’t yet achieved full reunion, it’s still among the most stunningly successful Christian movements of the late 20th century.
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 – cohabitating couples, gays and lesbians, people who divorce and remarry outside the church, and so on.
Alexander Stille discusses the notion of gradualism, one aspect of yesterday’s document that’s been much-debated:
One idea that has emerged at the synod is that of “graduality”; that certain behaviors, although contrary to doctrine, can nonetheless lead people on the right path. Pope Benedict XVI, a doctrinal traditionalist, acknowledged that it was right for a prostitute with AIDS to use condoms. While this did not constitute a change in the Church’s stance against birth control (or prostitution), it was a recognition that taking care not to transmit a deadly disease to others is a moral act that points a person in the right direction. In opening the synod, Cardinal Erdo invoked the idea of graduality in speaking about the birth-control encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” In a briefing session for journalists, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, of Great Britain, said that graduality “permits people, all of us, to take one step at a time in our search for holiness in our lives.”
The draft report refers directly to gradualness as a key to welcoming those whose lives are imperfect but who wish to be welcomed in the Church.
Elizabeth Tenety elaborates:
Is graduality just moral relativism in disguise—or a more realistic approach to modern sex and spirituality?
“It’s trying to present a positive, welcoming, fully alive view of human sexuality,” explained William Mattison, an associate professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America.
“When we speak of gradualism, it’s not because we’re lightening up the rules but it’s that we’re all struggling to get there,” Mattison added. “The danger would always be that people perceive that you sacrifice the ideal, but that need not be the case.”
So take the example of an engaged couple who is living together before marriage, as 37 percent of Catholics have, or currently are. Are they “living in sin”? Or are they on their first step towards embracing the fullness of the Catholic vision for marriage? Will a priest welcome them to be honest about their situation and get married in his church, perhaps with some special classes or a request that they go to confession? Or will he turn them away for not being serious about what the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony entails?
Elizabeth Dias, however, ratchets down expectations for what the document portends:
First, here’s what the document actually is:
The relatio is a mid-Synod snapshot of 200+ Catholic leaders’ conversations that happened in the Synod hall last week. It is a starting point for conversations as the Synod fathers start small group discussions this week. It is a working text that identifies where bishops need to “deepen or clarify our understanding,” as Cardinal Luis Antonia Tagle put it in Monday’s press briefing. That means that the topic of gays and Catholic life came up in the Synod conversations so far and that it is a topic for continued reflection.
Second, here’s what the document is not:
The relatio is not a proscriptive text. It is not a decree. It is not doctrine, and certainly not a doctrinal shift. It is also not final. “These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view,” the document concludes. “The reflections put forward, the fruit of the Synodal dialogue that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015.”
Emma Green adds:
Although there won’t be any specific doctrinal changes made until the synod gathers again in Rome next fall, the report hints at doctrinal changes to come, particularly in terms of simplifying the process for annulment of marriages. But even in the near future, the most important changes might be more subtle, pastoral shifts: The Church wants to be a more welcoming place for people whose relationships don’t fit into the template of man and wife, till death do they part.
All the caveats are well taken. But the words along have already transformed the church. That is Francis’ gift to us: a language of mercy, not judgment. It is the language of Jesus.
(Photo: Pope Francis leaves the Synod Hall in Vatican City at the end of a session of the Synod on the themes of family on October 13, 2014. By Franco Origlia/Getty Images)