Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Synod On the Themes of Family Is Held At Vatican

[Re-posted from earlier today]

The inevitable media headline from the final Relatio of the Synod on the Family will be: “Bishops scrap welcome to gays.” And this is literally true. The astonishing mid-term Relatio’s language of outreach, inclusion and welcome shrank last night into much more arid, cold and unsparing prose.

We don’t yet have an official English translation of the critical paragraphs, but the gist is clear. Gone are the paragraphs that extol the “gifts and qualities” of gay people; gays are no longer to be “welcomed” in a “fraternal space” but merely “accepted with respect and sensitivity”; the church should no longer “value” homosexual orientation; it should merely accept people with “homosexual tendencies.” Of the three paragraphs in the mid-term report, the two with the most positive language have been excised completely; and the remaining one reaffirms the tone and language of Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Here it is – in my unofficial Google-enabled version:

55. Some families live with members with homosexual orientation. In this regard, our view of the pastoral care appropriate to this situation refers to what the Church teaches: There is no foundation whatsoever to assimilate or to establish  same-sex unions as even remotely analogous to the plan of God for marriage and the family. “Nevertheless, men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. In their regard should be avoided every sign of unjust discrimination” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, 4).

Notice the very Ratzingerian foot-stamping:

There is no foundation whatsoever to assimilate or to establish same-sex unions as even remotely analogous to the plan of God for marriage and the family.

It’s not exactly subtle. My marriage, according to this version of the text, is light years away from the marriage of my own sister. There isn’t even a remote analogy between her family and mine. In fact, there is no foundation whatsoever to compare the two relationships in any way. Let me simply respond by saying what most Catholics who have encountered these relationships in our own lives would say: it is indeed hard to read this and believe it. This is not because I differ one iota from the church’s view that the life-long, procreative marriage between a man and a woman is a precious, beautiful and unique thing. Two men or two women cannot replicate it, if only because of basic biology. The sacrament of matrimony is a celebration of this unique institution – and cannot be re-fashioned into something else without diluting its central truth.

But where I differ from the old guard is in their refusal to see anything good or precious in the mutual love, responsibility and sacrifice that are as integral to same-sex unions as they are to heterosexual ones. To see nothing worthwhile there, nothing to value, nothing to affirm seems, well, untrue to the reality more and more of us live. As Cardinal Marx of Germany said earlier this week:

“Take the case of two homosexuals who have been living together for 35 years and taking care of each other, even in the last phases of their lives. How can I say that this has no value?”

He cannot, which is why this paragraph – along with two others on the pastoral care of divorced or re-married people – failed to win the 2/3 majority vote for it to be part of the official text.

But it was included anyway – with the vote tallies appended. And there you see why it is not wishful thinking to believe that something profound has indeed occurred so far in this Synod. Neither of the two previous popes would ever have allowed the original language to even see the light of day – Ratzinger as arbiter of church doctrine for decades could sniff heterodoxy on this like a beagle with a distant potato chip – and stamp it out with relentless assiduity. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI would have excised the outreach to gay people altogether. And the idea of a transparent vote tally – revealing a vigorous internal division on these questions – would have been unthinkable.

The true headline of this past remarkable week is therefore: the Vatican hierarchy cannot find a consensus on the question of pastoral care for gays, the divorced and the re-married, and the Pope is happy for this fact to be very, very public. These remain open questions for a year of continued debate and discussion before the second stage of the Synod this time next year and the Pope’s subsequent summary. That these are open questions is the real result of this Synod.

I also think its worth reading Pope Francis’ concluding speech to the Synod, which was granted a four minute standing ovation. It is a beautiful text – certainly more so than the unavoidable consensus-speak of what might be called the interim communiqué. Here is Francis’ Obama-style weighing of two different temptations to avoid:

A temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

Avoiding both these temptations is the goal – which has to be accomplished pastorally and with prudential judgment. In his speech, Francis nods to the traditionalists by quoting Benedict XVI verbatim, but then says this:

We will speak a little bit about the Pope, now, in relation to the Bishops [laughing]. So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of  their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: [rather] to go out and find them.

It’s hard not to see a little playfulness here. After all, the word “welcome” was one of the most contentious of the Synod, in so far as it was extended to gay people. And if the final Relatio turned that “welcome” into the more neutral “accept”, Francis turns it into something more radical still: to go out and find the lost sheep.

Just as vital in Francis’ vision is the open, tough and lively dialogue that this Synod represents. Nothing like this has been experienced since the Second Vatican Council. And in his concluding speech, Francis reveled in the turmoil:

It has been “a journey” – and like every journey there were moments of running fast, as if wanting to conquer time and reach the goal as soon as possible; other moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say “enough”; other moments of enthusiasm and ardor. There were moments of profound consolation listening to the testimony of true pastors, who wisely carry in their hearts the joys and the tears of their faithful people. Moments of consolation and grace and comfort hearing the testimonies of the families who have participated in the Synod and have shared with us the beauty and the joy of their married life. A journey where the stronger feel compelled to help the less strong, where the more experienced are led to serve others, even through confrontations. And since it is a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations.

The church is not a political party, voting on a platform, and shifting from one convention to the next. Its core doctrine is unchanged and unchangeable. But it has evolved and grown and changed in the way it has encountered the world throughout history. It has absorbed and assimilated new ways of thinking and newly discovered truths about humankind and attempted over the centuries to integrate them into its internal dialogue. So you have to look at a Synod like this one and not get too caught up in developments from last Monday to Sunday. You have to look beneath that surface to the tectonic shifts beneath. And the real shift, I’d argue, has been the glasnost of Francis – which may or may not lead to perestroika. The intellectual life of the church was a dark and stifling and deadly silent place until very recently. There is now a crack in the window, where light has been let in, and words said that can be excised from the final text but not expunged from the collective consciousness. And at the end, no consensus on the most contentious questions at hand. And a year to debate them further.

Those knots? They keep unraveling.

(Photo: Franco Origlia/AFP/Getty.)

The Backlash Mounts Against Francis

It was inevitable, but the tenor of some of the comments coming from the more traditionalist cardinals at the synod in Rome is getting sharper. Below is Cardinal Pell laying into the outreach to the currently excluded and marginalized:

You’ll notice the phrase “going out of business.” Also the distinction between the “good people” in the pews and presumably the “bad people” who are trying to emphasize mercy as well as truth. The first, I think, is a troubling argument. It treats the church as a business seeking customers, and thereby opposes a weakening of the brand. It compares this brand with others and argues that the more traditionalist churches have a better record of retaining members than more reformist ones. I find this argument disturbing whether it comes from those saying that a more inclusive and welcoming church would be good for business or those who believe a Benedict-style small and purist church is what’s necessary to keep the pews full. All that should matter for the church is whether what it is teaching is true, regardless of how many “customers” it attracts. But there is another worry here: the fact that many of the biggest donors to the Benedict XVI church may well withhold their money if Francis’ impact endures. The power of right-wing money in the church is not a conspiracy theory. We saw how powerful it was in sustaining the cult of the Legion of Christ and the child-rape epidemic.

The second “good people” argument Pell uses is simply in conflict with so much that Jesus says in the Gospels, in Jesus’s radical refusal to endorse the conventionally virtuous and devout as opposed to the marginalized, weak and fallen. Jesus specifically repudiates that kind of division – saying that the first shall be last and the last first, that those whom we regard as self-evidently “good people” may in fact be something rather different. This is not some minor theme in Jesus’ ministry; it is fundamental to it. And it is what Francis is clearly trying to recover in the church’s outreach to those whom Jesus met where they were, in their lives as they were living them, among collaborators, sex-workers, and women in ways then profoundly opposed by the religious authorities.

And the Relatio does not endorse non-procreative sex; it does not endorse communion for the divorced or re-married. Instead, it simply insists on what seems to me to be undeniable:

that, for example, cruel and technical exclusion for survivors of divorce should be supplemented or replaced with much more mercy and understanding; and that committed, loving relationships that fall short of the church’s marital ideal are not therefore without any positive or redeeming aspects, and should be engaged rather than simply stigmatized.

On the homosexual question, what the Relatio does is actually live up to church teaching on not treating gay people as if we are “intrinsically disordered” moral lepers or somehow outside the church we have always been central to. The positive language about the way in which gay couples sacrifice for each other, take faithful care of children, or fulfill all the moral requirements of marriage apart from procreative sexual acts seems to me to be a recognition of the simple truth. Moreover, no heterosexual Catholic in a marriage with few children or none is ipso facto deemed anathema in the way an openly gay couple is. And when the church can fire gay teachers for sins heterosexuals commit with total impunity, or demand that faithful choir members in their senior years get a civil divorce and separate after decades of cohabitation if they are to continue in communion with the church, it is being both callous and unfair.

This is not about truth versus mercy; it is about the way the two interact:

The demands do not vanish. God does ask hard things of all of us. But in this field hospital that is the Church in the modern world, the image that the synod document brings to mind is that of Simon of Cyrene. Simon could not free the Lord from his cross. He could simply walk with him and help him carry it. The synod fathers seem to be asking how the Church can do the same.

The doctrine does not change, nor the call to repentance. But the Lord does rebuff those who would “tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4). Our challenge is to help families in their struggles to carry their crosses.

The document that will emerge at the end of this week – probably Saturday night but maybe later – will doubtless soften some of the language in the first draft, and add much more positive language about the point of life-long monogamous always-procreative matrimony. Like many other reformist Catholics, I understand that this is a dialogue and a conversation, and that these themes deserve space and emphasis, and may have been minimized too much in the first draft. But equally, if the core themes of welcoming the currently ostracized, of mercy as the critical Christian ally of truth, and of new language to minimize unnecessary cruelty are explicitly revoked, it will be sign that this astonishing papacy is under siege from the establishment.

And then it gets really interesting, doesn’t it?

[Update: via Rod, here’s a rather convincing, traditionalist account of how Francis really is the motor behind this Synod – and how he has, in many ways, already achieved a profound re-orientation. Must-read.]

The Relatio: The Old Guard Strikes Back


There’s been quite a bit of pushback, as I predicted, to the revolutionary pastoral content of Pope Francis’ Synod on the Family. But what some are missing, I think, is that the word “pastoral” is critical here. It does not mean “doctrinal”. There is no indication that the Synod intends even to relax strictures against re-married Catholics from receiving Communion, let alone its formal doctrines about the impermissibility of any sexual intimacy or committed relationships for gay people for our entire lives. Instead, it seems to me, the Synod’s mid-term Relatio is arguing that insisting on these exclusions, and using harsh language to describe them – “living in sin”, “intrinsically disordered” etc – does nothing to bring people into a greater communion with the church and its teachings. In fact, the emphasis on such categories of the damned risks creating a smaller, more rigidly orthodox church, devoted to sustaining and revering certain doctrines, in ways that make evangelization effectively impossible. So, yes, this Synod is a response to the collapse of the church in the West – intellectually, morally and institutionally – under John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The church right now is losing so many in their 20s and 30s, never to return, not because they have rejected the core teachings of Jesus, but because these stern strictures – coming from a hierarchy of celibates, child-abusers and their enablers – appall them in their rigidity, cruelty and indifference to the complex lives we fallible humans lead. A church that throws out a devoted couple of 43 years because they got a civil marriage license is a perfect emblem of that problem. So too are the abrupt firings of teachers in Catholic schools for the sin of pregnancy! When I asked recently if the Church has a future in America, this is what I was thinking of. And Pope Francis sees this so clearly. Rocco Palmo reminded us yesterday of previous words from Francis that help make sense of what is now happening:

I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.

“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin.

Notice that he seeks a balance between the “rigorist” of pure doctrinal judgment and the “lax” priest who abandons the teaching of the church. The point here is that the church has veered far too far in the direction of the rigorist after veering too far in the lax direction – and now needs mercy and listening and humility to re-engage those wounded or excluded or repelled by the recent past. And the way too many churches have treated gay people or divorced people or young cohabiting couples in the last three decades has been more like the Pharisees than Jesus.

But, of course, one also senses in Francis something that was very hard to discern in his predecessors and that places him more in the tradition of Cardinal Newman. It’s clear he believes that doctrine can develop, with new understandings of human nature. Here’s another passage from Francis on that very theme:

Human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth.

Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.

After all, in every age of history, humans try to understand and express themselves better. So human beings in time change the way they perceive themselves. It’s one thing for a man who expresses himself by carving the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace,’ yet another for Caravaggio, Chagall and yet another still for Dalí. Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.

[My italics.] I believe, for example, that we have grown in our understanding of what homosexuality is and who homosexual persons are. And yet the church – after accepting that the orientation is a given and blameless in 1975 – subsequently attempted to rein that understanding back, most notably in then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s brutal letter of 1986 and subsequent references to gay people as somehow inherently threats to the church. I just don’t think it’s possible, after reading and studying Francis’ own faith-journey and intellectual development, that he sees gay people that way. And so, while he will not change doctrine, he can still change the way gay people are treated pastorally, and declare that our gifts should be valued, our presence welcomed. That is the impact of the current shift.

At the same time, once you change the pastoral dimension, and see gay people as human, and our relationships as in many ways valuable and loving, I find it hard to believe the doctrine can remain unaltered in perpetuity. I think of how the church shifted its understanding of other faiths in the Second Council, or how it shed its still-resilient anti-Semitism in the same era. I don’t think this is Machiavellian, as Damon has it. And I don’t believe it is about “liberalization.”

I think it’s about truth – and how we humans can grow in our understanding of it through history. I think Francis is simply ahead of most of us, and patient with history and aware of how slowly and incrementally a church can change. He knows he will not live for ever. But the seeds he has sown – some on barren ground and some on fertile earth – will sprout and grow and transform us in the end. This, at least, is my faith: we grow in the understanding of the truth.

(Photo: Pope Francis smiles after his weekly general audience in St Peter’s square at the Vatican on June 12, 2013. By ALberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Yes, This Is A Pastoral Revolution: Your Thoughts

Readers react to the big news of the week:

Perhaps to see where Francis is going, you should also consider the homily he gave Monday morning prior to the release of the Relatio:

This picture taken 21 March 2007 shows a“The scholars of the law also forgot that the people of God are a people on a journey, and when you journey, you always find new things, things you never knew before,” he said. But the journey, like the law, is not an end in itself; they are a path, “a pedagogy,” toward “the ultimate manifestation of the Lord. Life is a journey toward the fullness of Jesus Christ, when he will come again.” The law teaches the way to Christ, and “if the law does not lead to Jesus Christ,” he said, “and if it doesn’t get us closer to Jesus Christ, it is dead.”

Read the whole thing, it’s beautiful and very telling of where Papa Bergoglio is trying to take the church. It also is perhaps one of the best critiques of the modern understanding of natural law. Natural law does not evolve (so yes, the conservatives are right in one respect), but we’re on a journey and God reveals more of himself and his law to us on this journey.

I’m with you, Andrew; I cried tears of joy when I saw the Relatio, and burst to tears again upon reflecting upon the homily preached only hours before. But it’s going to be an uphill battle, and already the knives are drawn from certain prelates, especially the outspoken probably soon-to-be-former Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura – Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke.

A small dissent:

I think you’re too harsh when it comes to JP2 and Benedict.  JP2 came at a time when there was utter confusion.  He had to clarify teaching.  Benedict is an intellectual, a theologian.  Francis is at heart a pastor.  Can’t we appreciate different leadership attributes and characteristics?

Another dissent of sorts:

I wish I could be as excited about Pope Francis as you are, but as a woman who has been serving as organist in a very large Catholic parish for 1 1/2 years, I am actually losing enthusiasm and feeling left out.

I know that the LGBT community deserves this attention.  The issue is hot; it is smart to talk about it now.  I also believe it is heartfelt on Pope Francis’s part – after all, he has spent most of his life amongst men, many of whom are gay, so his direct experience has given him much to ponder and work out in his own mind.  (Ditto the bishops)

I understand that all revolutions can’t happen at once, e.g. it seems to be common thought that priests will be allowed to marry before the revolution of women being allowed to serve in diaconate or priesthood.  OK great, and I totally think priests should be allowed to marry; but here again, it is men before women.

Having had no prior experience with the Catholic church and being very excited to have started my tenure at the time of the new pope, I am sorry to say that I’ve come to see that women are indeed second-class citizens in the Catholic church.  They are there to serve the men.  OK, we are all here to serve humanity, but since the Church is a male hierarchy, that means the women serve the men.  I see it all over the place and am sick of the dynamic.

Having said my sour-grapes piece, I do honor that this is an exciting time for you as a gay Catholic, and I am truly happy for you in that.

Another draws attention to what Benedict’s right-hand man is up to:

The Synod is entering its second week, and as a cradle Catholic, I’ve been watching it as closely as possible.  I was born and brought up after Vatican II, and I understand only too well the reasons why Pope Francis called this Synod and what he hopes to achieve from it.

To be frank, I was touched by the Pirolas’ testimony about the gay son of their friends.  My late sister had a childhood friend who is gay and who is so well-loved he is like a brother to me.  You can imagine how upset I was by Cardinal Burke’s statements, and I don’t wonder why he was roundly criticized. I wonder, though, have you heard about Arch. Ganswein’s interview with Chi? He’s saying that same things Cardinal Burke says about homosexuals being “intrinsically disordered”, and he even said that nothing much would change after the Synod. How different from Pope Francis’ very merciful declaration “Who am I to judge?”

I try to follow Church-related news as best I can, and it really distresses me that for a long time now, Archbishop Ganswein says so many things that contradict Pope Francis’s direction for the Church. Now, there’s this interview with Chi, and right smack in the middle of the Synod.

Another reflects:

My brother died last month. He lived in Sullivan County, New York, and attended a parish run by Franciscans. At his funeral, the pastor made some remarks that turned around my whole concept of the Church, which I’ve stayed away from except for family weddings and funerals for decades.

Father acknowledged and was very harsh about the message of the Church in recent times. He talked about how we were all looked on as sinners first, last, and only. He was very plain that he found this approach wrong, damaging, and in need of reversal. He then went on to speak about my brother (who was a devoted parishioner) in a way that highlighted John’s humanity, devotion, and grace. I was filled with happiness that John had had this man as his priest, as my brother had a touch life and relied heavily on his faith.

I’m sad to report that a day after the funeral the priest suffered a stroke. He was already frail; deacons performed most of the Mass while Father sat to the side. I haven’t had a report on his condition lately, but I hope that he is recovering.

I regret that in my rejection of Catholicism as I learned it (and as a gay man, as I experienced its rejection of me), I didn’t understand the fullness of a spiritual life possible in some corners of the Church, a fullness that my brother lived.

My lesson from this is to not think I know what is in a person’s heart or mind, or what comprises their faith, until I’ve taken the time to speak with them and hear them. I never spoke to my brother about these things; I just assumed what his mindset was from the fact of his strong faith. My loss, now, but hopefully not in the future.

(Photo by Getty)

Francis vs The Theocons

They are, naturally, having a collective breakdown. Here’s a taste:

John Smeaton, co-founder of Voice of the Family, a coalition of 15 international pro-famiy groups, said it is “one of the worst official documents drafted in Church history.” “Thankfully the report is a preliminary report for discussion, rather than a definitive proposal,” he said in a press release. “It is essential that the voices of those lay faithful who sincerely live out Catholic teaching are also taken into account. Catholic families are clinging to Christ’s teaching on marriage and chastity by their finger-tips.” … At the Vatican press conference this morning, Michael Voris of ChurchMilitant.TV challenged the authors on this section. “Are the Synod fathers proposing that ‘gifts and qualities’ flow from the sexual orientation of homosexuality?” he asked. “Is the Synod proposing that there is something innate in the homosexual orientation that transcends and uplifts the Catholic Church, the Christian community, and if so, what would those particular gifts be?”

Maggie Gallagher is close to collapse:

I hope to respond intellectually to the synod report. Tears right now are streaming from my face, and it is not about objections to welcoming gay people. There is something more profoundly at stake for me. Is this me? In the corner?

Cardinal Raymond Burke, demoted rather abruptly by Francis, is apoplectic:

He strongly criticized yesterday’s Relatio … which the Catholic lay group Voice of the Family had called a “betrayal,” saying it proposes views that “faithful shepherds … cannot accept,” and betrays an approach that is “not of the Church.” … The relatio, he said, proposes views that many Synod fathers “cannot accept,” and that they “as faithful shepherds of the flock cannot accept.” … “Clearly, the response to the document in the discussion which immediately followed its presentation manifested that a great number of the Synod Fathers found it objectionable,” Burke told Olsen.

“The document lacks a solid foundation in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium. In a matter on which the Church has a very rich and clear teaching, it gives the impression of inventing a totally new, what one Synod Father called ‘revolutionary’, teaching on marriage and the family. It invokes repeatedly and in a confused manner principles which are not defined, for example, the law of graduality.”

To get a flavor of how Burke would respond to a family welcoming their son and his partner for Christmas, check this out:

At Patheos, Father Dwight Longenecker writes:

We are to “value their sexual orientation”? Again, what exactly does that mean? Am I to value what my own catechism calls an intrinsic disorder? How do I do that? Do I value their orientation by saying, “I think it’s wonderful that you desire to have anal intercourse with another man?” Would that be honest or true to natural law and the divine revelation? Just how do I do this without “compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony”?

Celibate lesbian Catholic Eve Tushnet helps explain why valuing gay people cannot be reduced to anal sex (the priest above sees all gay people as sodomites and lesbians as non-existent):

For many of us our sexual orientation does flow out into expressions of love. For example, I agree with Wesley Hill that for some gay people it’s precisely our orientation which makes us unusually attuned to same-sex friendship. That may be especially true in our particular cultural moment, in which homosexuality is quite public and friendship relentlessly shunted into the private and even the trivial sphere. And I obviously don’t mean that gay people have “better” or deeper friendships than the rest of you people! Nonetheless I think the language of gay people having “gifts to offer” may help gay Catholics explore how our sexuality can be expressed, rather than repressed: how it can be channeled into friendship, artistic creation, teaching, etc.

Some reactionaries are simply in denial. George Weigel uses the occasion to attack the New York Times, which is as good a sign as any that he is still reeling. Then he makes the utilitarian point that rigidly orthodox churches survive and more open ones fail in the modern world:

Christian communities that maintain a clear sense of their doctrinal and moral boundaries survive and even flourish, while Christian communities whose doctrinal and moral boundaries become porous wither and eventually die. Why have the Catholic leaders who have gotten the most press at this synod, including Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, failed to grasp that? Why do they want to emulate the pattern charted by the dying communities of liberal Protestantism?

But this is not an argument against the mercy espoused by the first week of this Synod. It’s a very tired argument from the 1980s. One wonders why Weigel thinks the church in Ireland has all but collapsed in a generation? Too chill and welcoming to outsiders – or a clerical elite that believed it could get away with raping children because its boundaries were not porous at all? Last but by no means least, here’s Rod Dreher:

I suppose anything could happen, but it seems to me that the fix is in. This is a pastoral synod, not a doctrinal one. But the change in pastoral practices it mandates will be a de facto change in doctrine, because that’s exactly how it will be received by the Catholic public.  Recall these 2013 remarks by Ross Douthat, commenting on Pope Francis’s “who am I to judge?” remarks:

“But still, such a tonal difference … on a fraught, high-profile topic is surely newsworthy, even if the news media inevitably offered misinterpretations of its significance as well.

And it’s especially newsworthy since a latitudinarian statement on this topic is of a piece with the tone of Francis’s pontificate as a whole. Popes do not change doctrine, but they do choose what to emphasize and what to downplay, which issues to elevate and which to set aside, where to pass judgment and where to talk about forgiveness, and so forth. And we’ve seen enough of this pontificate to sense where Francis’s focus lies: He wants to be seen primarily as a pope of social justice and spiritual renewal, and he doesn’t have much patience for issues that might get in the way of that approach to Christian witness.”

You can also teach falsehood by failing to teach the whole truth.

Yes, This Is A Pastoral Revolution, Ctd

Synod On the Themes of Family Is Held At Vatican

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 This picture taken 21 March 2007 shows awith 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 whichat times directlychallenges 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)

Yes, This Is A Pastoral Revolution

This picture taken 21 March 2007 shows a

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 Synod On the Themes of Family Is Held At Vaticanfragile 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.)

The Power Of Francis’ Glasnost

Synod On the Themes of Family Is Held At Vatican

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI understood the power of open dialogue, which is why they did all they could to shut it down within the Catholic church. The sensus fidelium, the insight that ordinary Catholics may have into the Christian life, was all but banished in favor of top-down control and increasingly fastidious theological certitudes. And perhaps the most striking thing so far about the Synod now going on in Rome is simply that: a venting of reality in that airless context, that, while not in opposition to church teaching, is nonetheless frank about its challenges in the modern world.

And language matters. Ed Morrissey notes:

The most intriguing part of that discussion, at least as noted in the briefing, was a call to change the language associated with those teachings [on marriage and sexuality] and find more inclusive and welcoming language instead. The specific terms that some bishops wish to stop using are “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered,” and “contraceptive mentality.”

Each of these terms is designed to define human beings in ways that can only wound and alienate. A couple co-habiting before marriage cannot be reduced to “sin” without obliterating everything else that may be wonderful about their relationship – and that may well lead to a successful marriage that is perfectly orthodox. Suggesting that all couples who use contraception can be reduced to endorsing a “culture of death” is equally likely to push flawed human beings away from Jesus rather than toward him. And, as for “intrinsically disordered”, Ratzinger’s prissy prose was impossible for a gay Catholic to read without feeling punched in the gut. The key to a renewal of Christianity in our age will be a shift in language, a reintroduction of the core truths of the faith with words that are not designed to wound, hurt or alienate, and that can convey truth in a positive manner for a new generation.

Then there is the remarkable testimony of an Australian married couple – about the central role that sex plays in supporting their marriage vows:

The couple explained that “gradually we came to see that the only feature that distinguishes our sacramental relationship from that of any other good Christ-centred relationship is sexual intimacy and that marriage is a sexual sacrament with its fullest expression in sexual intercourse.” “We believe,” they added, “that until married couples come to reverence sexual union as an essential part of their spirituality it is extremely hard to appreciate the beauty of teachings such as those of Humanae Vitae. We need new ways and relatable language to touch peoples’ hearts.”

Well: good for them. And wouldn’t Catholic marriages be better if more were able to tell their sexual story in ways currently repressed? There is, after all, an obvious and almost painful limitation on the clerisy’s ability to understand sexual intimacy, because they have all taken vows of celibacy. (Another gigantic obstacle, of course, is that of the nearly 200 voting participants in the Synod, only one is a woman. Of the 253 total participants, only 25 are women.) But the Australians had another point to make on the question of homosexuality:

“The domestic church” represented by the family, “has much to offer the wider Church in its evangelizing role,” the couple continued. “For example, the Church constantly faces the tension of upholding the truth while expressing compassion and mercy. Families face this tension all the time.” The couple went on to illustrate this with an example relating to homosexuality. “Friends of ours were planning their Christmas family gathering when their gay son said he wanted to bring his partner home too. They fully believed in the Church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family. Their response could be summed up in three words, ‘He is our son’.”

This, Ron and Marvis explained, “is a model of evangelization for parishes as they respond  to similar situations in their neighbourhood!” “The Church’s teaching role and its main mission is to let the world know of God’s love.”

This is what so many Catholics are already doing – because Christianity is about, among many things, a defense of human dignity and a love of the family. The hierarchy – which again has no such direct experience of actually navigating the challenges of parenting, and which seems incapable of seeing gay people as “first-class citizens” – has lost sight of this. They are still bound by fear – fear of actual gay people, of our happiness and self-worth, of our living example of the complexity of human love and sexuality. They cling to arid doctrine with little appreciation of how anyone can actually live it and not, in the heterosexual world, be cruel or dismissive or discriminatory or callous, or in the homosexual world, be uniquely alone, isolated, and without the sexual intimacy that the Australian couple celebrated as integral to their relationship.

What were seeing, I think, is how the mere fact of open discussion can shift the very direction of such discussion. We saw this in Vatican II, when new currents in the world and church transformed the meeting in ways no one quite expected. And Francis’ leadership in this contrasts so powerfully with his predecessor’s. He is not telling the church what it should do or how it should change. He has simply made it impossible for the lived reality of most Catholics to be ignored or dismissed any longer.

Some things cannot be unsaid. Some testimony from actual, broken but struggling Christians can never be forgotten. Dialogue shifts minds and hearts from the bottom up, not the top down.

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

(Photo: Pope Francis leaves the Synod Hall at the end of a session of the Synod on the themes of family on October 7, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. By Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

The Vanishing Idols


The Synod convened by this remarkable Pope is now in session – and there are some reactionary voices being heard – as there should be. The head of the Polish church just described cohabitation as “the self-mutilation of [a couple’s] love”. He also noted with dismay that “some parents like to teach boys that they should clean up after themselves, and not wait until girls do it for them.” Ed Morrissey just reported that the opening statement by Cardinal Peter Erdo was also uncompromising: “Erdo emphasized that recognition of divorce and remarriage without a church finding of nullity in the first marriage ‘is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive.'”

And this is how it should be. Along with arguments about the need for pastoral change and adjustment – the Pope himself, after all, just married a previously divorced couple in the Vatican! – the arguments for no change at all need to be heard. What’s truly new about this papacy is its endorsement of this very debate – the very thing that John Paul II and Benedict XVI made anathema. Can you imagine this tweet appearing at any time since 1979 until now?

James Alison has taken up that offer. Last Friday he addressed a meeting in Rome for “The Ways of Love,” an international conference on Catholic pastoral care for gay and trans people. It’s not part of the Synod of Bishops on the Family. It’s an off-off-Broadway production, as it were. But it should not be dismissed for those reasons. Some of the most important discussions during the Second Vatican Council occurred informally off-site, and aired issues that emerged eventually as central to the Church’s opening to the modern world. The question of same-sex love and homosexual dignity is not likely to be part of the formal Synod. But it hovers around it – even as the Church in America has intensified its cruelty and unjust discrimination against homosexuals seeking to follow Jesus.

So you may be surprised to find in James’ latest talk in Rome an element of joy and magnanimity. He sees the emergence of gay and trans people’s own self-understanding of our equal worth in the eyes of God as quite simply irreversible, unstoppable – not a breakdown of the church’s teachings but an eruption within it of Catholicity itself:

This has been exactly our experience as LGBT Catholics over the last thirty or so years. It has become clearer and clearer, until it is now overwhelmingly clear, that what used to seem like a self-evident description of us was in fact mistaken. We were characterized as somehow defective, pathological, or vitiated straight people; intrinsically heterosexual people who were suffering from a bizarre and extreme form of heterosexual concupiscence called “same-sex attraction.” That description, which turned us, in practice, into second-class citizens in God’s house, is quite simply false. It turns out that we are blessed to be bearers of a not particularly remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. And that our daughterhood and sonship of God comes upon us starting as we are, with this variant being a minor but significant stable characteristic of who we are. One, furthermore, which gives gracious shape to who we are to be.

His talk is worth reading in full because it brilliantly analogizes the strictures against gay people to the very early church’s strictures against inclusion of Gentiles. Saint Peter shocked his early followers by insisting that all such categories melted away in the new age of Jesus: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Or in Saint Paul’s words that ring through the ages:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Alison conjures up the radicalness of all this for the Jewish sect then struggling to find its way in the world after the Resurrection:

Well, each one of us was as shocked as the person next to them: the first-class citizens finding themselves on the same level as us, with all their purity and sense of separateness deflated, and having to overcome a certain repugnance about dealing with people like us; and the second class citizens having to get used to taking ourselves seriously and behave as sons and daughters, rather than dirty servant children who had a sort of built in excuse for impurity.

Regardless of where the collective hierarchy is, it is quite clear that Pope Francis does not see gay people as second-class citizens. If they are earnestly seeking the Lord, “who am I to judge?” It is also clear that the moral movement I described earlier today cannot but affect the people of God, as they wrestle with a a new understanding of gay people – which the church itself recognized as long ago as 1975 – and try to do God’s will. But James has moved on already. He sees gay Catholics not as a problem to be solved but as an opportunity to be seized:

We, as well as anyone, know how the Spirit of God humanizes us, not destroying culture, but defanging it from all that is violent and destructive of who humans are called to be. We know that thanks to Jesus there is no such thing as religiously pure or impure food, there are no such things as religiously mandated forms of mutilation, genital or otherwise. We know that only culture, and never God, has demanded the veiling and covering of the glory of the head and hair of women. We know that the same Spirit that taught us these things, making available to us what is genuinely true, has enabled us to discover the graced banality of our minority variant condition, allowing it to be the shape of our love that turns us into witnesses of God’s goodness as we are stretched out towards those who are genuinely suffering from terrible injustice and deprivation.

It may seem bleak for many LGBT people right now, grappling with Christianity and the institutional church’s cruelty and dehumanization. But James sees through this, the way Jesus saw through the exhausted taboos of his time. There is a serenity to him that comes with a faith lived, and not imposed.

(Photo: Pope Francis delivers his speech during  the Synod of the Families, to cardinals and bishops gathering in the Synod Aula, at the Vatican, on October 6, 2014.By Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images.)

Francis On Tying and Untying The Knots

Pope Francis Celebrates Weddings During Sunday Mass

This fall, we’ll begin to see the impact of the new bishop of Rome on the church with the opening of the October Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, focusing on the family and evangelizing in the modern world. There isn’t much chance of a change in doctrine on many of these issues – the ban on divorced Catholics re-marrying in church and receiving communion, the disapproval of cohabitation before marriage, the ban on contraception, and certainly the aversion to same-sex commitment and love. But Francis has already shown that he is prepared to take a non-linear approach to these questions – and he keeps surprising.

What Francis seems to be saying is that in all these questions, while the doctrine will not change, the call to mercy should be paramount. In other words, in individual cases, the decision to marry a couple who have been living together or have experienced one or more divorces should be left to a merciful pastor, not a rigid and distant dogma. How to get this point across? As so often, Francis uses his own actions, rather than words:

The Holy Father presided over the wedding of 20 couples Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica. From a distance, the group seemed fairly typical: the couples ranged from ages 25 to 56 and were all from the Diocese of Rome. But the underlying storyline is far more telling: one bride was already a mother, some of the couples had already been living together, and others had previously been married.

This is what our beloved Joe Biden would call a BFD. Priests who might have married similar couples in the past could be subject to discipline from Rome. Now, the bishop of Rome himself is presiding over them. Elizabeth Dias explains why this matters:

Since local churches currently tend to make their own decisions about serving communion to divorced and remarried, or cohabitating Catholics, any overarching guidance from the Holy Father this October could mean significant change. Cohabiting couples cannot be denied marriage by policy in the Catholic Church, but a priest is not obliged to marry a couple, and so Pope Francis’ example of presiding over a wedding for couples who had lived together will likely encourage other priests to follow suit.

Is the Holy Father subverting formerly rigid teachings? I don’t really think so. His restatement of the core Catholic understanding of the sacrament of marriage – that its core is the uniting of a man and a woman – is pretty substantive and full-throated:

“This is what marriage is all about: man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man. Here we see the reciprocity of differences.”

Well, that should finally alienate America’s blank slate progressives. What I think is going on here is simple sensitivity to the individual person and a particular situation – think of Jesus and the woman about to be stoned for adultery  – and Francis regards mercy and forgiveness as the core Christian virtue. To show no mercy in today’s world is to consign countless people to a life outside the church altogether, when they may sincerely be attempting to live out the Gospels in an imperfect world with flawed human nature. If that is the case, then you can almost hear Francis’ response: “Who am I to judge?”

Know hope.

(Photo: Brides attend the Sunday Mass held by Pope Francis at the St. Peter’s Basilica on September 14, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During the Mass Pontiff celebrated the marriage of twenty couples. By Giulio Origlia/Getty Images)