Well: we can now see the seeds of growth being planted by Pope Francis. Plenty of analyses have already been written insisting that nothing much has changed in the first week of the Synod on Family Life; that established doctrine – even on matters such as the re-married being allowed back to the Lord’s table at Mass – remains unaltered; that this is window dressing, and not the window itself. The only way to answer this critique is to watch the Synod – see this extraordinary moment from last week – and read its first Relatio and to find oneself – certainly as a gay Catholic – in a certain amount of shock. The drama certainly continues; a huge plurality of the bishops appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI will be pushing back hard against what Francis has already done; in fact, they already were, which may have been why Francis appointed six new over-seers of the Relatio at the last minute.
The result – though this will never be admitted or conceded – is a thorough repudiation of the last two papacies. They were both dedicated to upholding a very traditional and uncompromising view of family life and marriage, describing those outside of that model as problems to be guarded against, and even talking of some human beings as “intrinsically disordered” because of their seeming inability to live up to the uncompromising standards the church upheld. This created a fortress church, of the holy, in which those who fell short often felt excluded, even demonized, by the language and rhetoric coming from Rome.
Now compare that with the way Francis talks about family life in the very opening part of the Relatio:
Evening falls on our assembly. It is the hour at which one willingly returns home to meet at the same table, in the depth of affection, of the good that has been done and received, of the encounters which warm the heart and make it grow, good wine which hastens the unending feast in the days of man. It is also the weightiest hour for one who finds himself face to face with his own loneliness, in the bitter twilight of shattered dreams and broken plans; how many people trudge through the day in the blind alley of resignation, of abandonment, even resentment: in how many homes the wine of joy has been less plentiful, and therefore, also the zest — the very wisdom — for life.
This is looking outside the church to the family dinner – with wine of course! But it also sees not some pristine vision, but also the crooked reality of so many – the countless who dine alone, or whose exhaustion after work strains family life still further, or whose career has crashed, or whose job has just been lost, or the grown children unemployed who live in the basement. The single mother; the abused wife; the frustrated father; the traumatized children. This seems to me where Jesus is – not among the perfect, but among the wounded; and not in austere and brutal judgment, but beside them, listening, caring, loving.
This is where the church should really start:
It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.
The abstract certitudes of the Bavarian theologian cede to the pragmatic pastor from Buenos Aires. And what we are seeing here is similar to what we saw at the Second Vatican Council. Just as that Council for the first time recognized that other faiths can have insight into the divine, so this Synod is also recognizing the goods and positive aspects in families and relationships outside the pristine model.
Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man, the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings … Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm.
Which is when we stumble across the nub of all of it:
The truth is incarnated in human fragility not to condemn it, but to cure it.
So let me address one of the more controversial and revolutionary aspects of this document, and one which obviously affects me deeply: the section the document actually titles:
Welcoming homosexual persons
Yes, you read that right. Instead of being seen as intrinsically disordered human beings naturally driven toward evil – and thereby a contaminating influence to be purged when we become visible (see the recent acts of cruelty and rigidity toward gay parishioners around the country), the church is now dedicated to welcoming gay people. You can write a long disquisition on how this changes no doctrine, but it seems to me you are missing something more profound – a total re-orientation of the church toward its gay sons and daughters. I have managed to find churches that do indeed welcome gay people; but even they rarely publicly declare that they welcome us with open arms – as we are, “her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love.”
Here is the key section:
50. Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
51. The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension: it appears therefore as an important educative challenge. The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.
52. 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. Furthermore, 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.
I never thought I would live to read these words in a Vatican document. Gone are the cruel and wounding words of Benedict XVI to stigmatize us; instead we have the authentic witness of someone following Christ who came to minister to the broken and the hurt, the fragile and the strong, the people who had long been excluded from the feast – but now invited to join it as brothers and sisters – “a fraternal space” in the church. Notice too that the church is now emphasizing a pastoral “accepting and valuing” of homosexual orientation, yes, “valuing” the divine gift of our nature and our loves. Yes, the doctrine does not change. The sacrament of matrimony is intrinsically heterosexual – a position, by the way, I have long held as well. But it is possible to affirm the unique and wondrous thing of heterosexual, life-giving union without thereby assuming that gay people are somehow intrinsically driven to evil, as Benedict insisted. It is not either/or. It has always been both/and.
And look too at the positive aspects of a gay relationship: “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice.” Instead of defining us as living in sexual sin, the church is suddenly seeing all aspects of our relationships – the care for one another, the sacrifices of daily life, the mutual responsibilities for children, the love of our families, the dignity of our work, and all that makes up a commitment to one another. We are actually being seen as fully human, instead of uniquely crippled humans directed always and everywhere toward sin. And, yes, there is concern for our children as well – and their need for care and love and support.
Of course I cannot write these words without something breaking inside of me. It is like a long, dark night suddenly seeing a crack of daylight. Or rather it is like the final breaking of bread within me, a sacrament of love being released within, of a faith made more whole, of a home finally found.
Know hope. Know joy.
(Photos: A grey-beam coming through a stained-glass window, on every spring and autumn equinox, at the Strasbourg cathedral, eastern France. By Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty; Pope Francis leaves the Synod Hall at the end of a session of the Synod on the themes of family on October 13, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican.By Franco Origlia/Getty Images.)