The headlines tell us this is big news:
• “Vatican stuns Catholic world with greater openness toward gays and lesbians,” Religion News Service says.
• “‘An Earthquake’: New Vatican Document Suggests Embracing ‘Gifts and Qualities’ of Gay People,” says David Badash at The New Civil Rights Movement.
• “A new welcome for gay Catholics in the church,” writes Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry.
So what just happened?
The news hook here is that a commission released a preliminary progress report — a “relatio post disceptationem” in Vaticanese. As Josephine McKenna reports for RNS:
The world’s Catholic bishops on Monday signaled a move toward greater tolerance of gays and lesbians, an about-face so unexpected that leaders of the church’s right wing called it a “betrayal.”
Noting that gays and lesbians have “gifts and qualities” to offer the church, the midpoint assessment reflected the impact that Pope Francis seems to be having on the two-week Synod on the Family as he pushes for a more open, less doctrinaire approach.
“Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing them a fraternal space in our communities?” said the communique from the nearly 200 bishops and lay delegates. “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?”
While they reaffirmed their opposition to gay marriage and same-sex unions, the bishops’ groundbreaking document nonetheless said homosexuality called for “serious reflection” and described it as an “important educative challenge” for the church.
Notice the question marks here — “Are we capable of welcoming these people?” The willingness to ask that question is, indeed, a new thing and a big deal — perhaps worthy of the “stunning” and “earthquake” descriptions from, respectively, Fr. James Martin and Vatican-watcher John Thavis, which seem to have been repeated in every news article on the report.
But also notice that this question has not yet been answered. It’s a loaded question — one that seems to acknowledge how it ought to be answered. But it’s also a yes-or-no question, and both of those answers still seem to remain in play.
Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin includes a longer quote from the relevant section of the report:
Welcoming homosexual persons
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?
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.
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.
That’s a change in tone that allows for the possibility of some changes of substance — while also insisting that many matters of substance may not be changed. As Burroway comments:
It’s interesting to me that the bishops chose to go with the more generic phrasing of “moral problems” rather than the more commonly used “intrinsically disordered” language of natural law. And it’s true that our relationships do pose “moral problems” — for the Church at least, if not necessarily for us. The Church’s moral problem is that it continues to treat gay people as outcasts and lepers. I know, that’s not what they meant when they included the phrase here, and you can also see the Bishops drawing some hard and fast limits on how far they’re willing to go. They are closed to the idea of sanctioning same-sex marriages, and they are sore about tax dollars being tied to nondiscrimination requirements.
But … 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.
(Kalli Joy Gray has a similar response, but with added snark: “It’s almost like gay people have some redeeming qualities and are even capable of love, just like regular human beings! This is a pretty big deal coming from the Vatican. …”)
I appreciate the cautious view Mark Silk takes in his column “Church as field hospital vs. Church as firewall.” He frames this report as part of a larger, ongoing (for centuries ongoing) debate between two factions within the Church:
The core debate is clear enough. On one side are the Franciscans — those who follow Pope Francis in seeing the Church as a field hospital caring for wounded souls. On the other are the Burkeans — those personified by Cardinal Raymond Burke, who want the Church to serve as a firewall against the moral corruption of the age.
These “Burkeans,” he says, embody the age-old argument of “rigorists” who believe that “the Church [is] a place for saints, not sinners.”
“Are we capable of welcoming these people?” is a question Christians have been asking since at least the book of Acts. And whenever that question is asked, the rigorists will always stand up to answer No.
Silk points out that a preliminary midway report from a single synod is not going to settle that dispute, and the synod’s final report (due in September) isn’t likely to either.
But in the long run, Silk says, “My money’s on the field hospital.”
I hope he’s right.