A Quiet Revolution At St. Peters?

Jim Burroway

October 13th, 2014

That’s the reaction from Fr. James Martin, S.J. of the Jesuit magazine America to the mid-term report from the Roman Catholic Church’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family which was convene by Pope Francis last week. Stunning sums it up nicely. Others are calling it a “revolution,” but that word will always mean something rather less radical in the very slow-moving Roman Catholic Church, where speed is measured in centuries rather than minutes, than it does in the real world. So keeping that perspective is always advised.

The Synod was called to examine the many changes taking place in the world and the Church’s response to them — or lack of response or inappropriate response, as the case may be. Items for discussion include waht is termed “irregular marraiges,” which include civil marriages that haven’t been sanctioned by the Church (civil marriages of divorced Catholics, for example), cohabitation, and same-sex marriages. These two paragraphs indicate that the Church, under Pope Francis, appears willing to consider lessons learned from “beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries”:

In this light, the value and consistency of natural marriage must first be emphasized. Some ask whether the sacramental fullness of marriage does not exclude the possibility of recognizing positive elements even the imperfect forms that may be found outside this nuptial situation, which are in any case ordered in relation to it. The doctrine of levels of communion, formulated by Vatican Council II, confirms the vision of a structured way of participating in the Mysterium Ecclesiae by baptized persons.

In the same, perspective, that we may consider inclusive, the Council opens up the horizon for appreciating the positive elements present in other religions (cf. Nostra Aetate, 2) and cultures, despite their limits and their insufficiencies (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 55). Indeed, looking at the human wisdom present in these, the Church learns how the family is universally considered as the necessary and fruitful form of human cohabitation. In this sense, the order of creation, in which the Christian vision of the family is rooted, unfolds historically, in different cultural and geographical expressions.

Realizing the need, therefore, for spiritual discernment with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons, it is the task of the Church to recognize those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries. Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), 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.

[Note: Lumen Gentium, Nostra Aetate and Gaudium et Spes refer to three Vatican II Council documents.]

The document doesn’t offer much in the way of conclusions. Those won’t come until the Synod meets again in October of 2015. Instead, the report consists mainly of points for consideration, terms which are clearly influenced by Pope Francis’s push for what might be termed a “kinder, gentler church.” I don’t think the Church is about to undergo any significant doctrinal changes, but it does appear open to reconsider how it deals with situations that fall outside of its doctrines. That alone is surprising. But more surprising is what you’ll find under the heading of “welcoming homosexual persons”:

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.

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 the glass is at least beginning to fill part of the way. 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, err, “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. At a news conference following the report’s release, Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto, Bruno Forte was asked about that section:

Asked if that stance represented a change in understanding of sexual orientation at the highest levels of the church, Forte said Monday: “What I want to express is that we must respect the dignity of every person.”

“The fact to be homosexual does not mean that this dignity does not have to be recognized and promoted,” he continued.

“The fundamental idea is the centrality of the person independent of different sexual orientations,” Forte said. “And I think it is the most important point. And also the attitude of the church to welcome persons who have homosexual orientation is based on the dignity of the person they are.”

Asked how the church would respond to same-sex unions, Forte said such unions have “rights that should be protected,” and this is an “issue of civilization and respect of those people.”

Fr. Martin says those two statements represent “a revolutionary change“:

. Nowhere in the document are such terms as “intrinsically disordered,” “objectively disordered,” or even the idea of “disinterested friendships” among gays and lesbians, which was used just recently. The veteran Vaticanologist John Thavis rightly called the document an “earthquake.”

…The document is just the mid-point summary of the bishops’ meetings over the last week, and is not a final declaration. (Besides, the Synod has another session next year, after which Pope Francis will issue his final apostolic exhortation, which will be his own teaching on the Synod’s deliberations.) But it is still revolutionary, as were some of the comments of the participants during the press conference today. Clearly Pope Francis’s call for openness at the beginning of the Synod has allowed the bishops to listen carefully, to speak their minds and to be open to new ways of thinking. As was the case at the Second Vatican Council, the participants may have gone into this Synod not expecting much openness or change, but the Holy Spirit is afoot.

Joshua McElwee, Vatican correspondent for the independent and often critical National Catholic Reporter, live-tweeted the document’s release and the press conference. He was also encouraged by the Synod’s interim report:

Conservative Catholics, on the other hand, are in quite a lather. The anti-gay Lifesite News calls it an “Earthquake” and rounds up the usual dose of conservative outrage:

However, it has also met a sharp rebuke from Catholic activists. 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.”

…Patrick Buckley of European Life Network said the report is “an attack on marriage and family” that “in effect gives a tacit approval of adulterous relationships, thereby contradicting the Sixth Commandment and the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the indissolubility of marriage.”

Maria Madise, coordinator for Voice of the Family, asked whether parents must now “tell their children that the Vatican teaches that there are positive and constructive aspects to … mortal sins” such as cohabitation and homosexuality.

“It would be a false mercy to give Holy Communion to people who do not repent of their mortal sins against Christ’s teachings on sexual purity. Real mercy consists of offering people a clean conscience via the Sacrament of Confession and thus union with God,” she said.

“Many of those who claim to speak in the name of the universal Church have failed to teach the faithful. This failure has created unprecedented difficulties for families. No responsibility is taken for this failure in this disastrous mid-way report,” she added. “The Synod’s mid-way report will increase the incidence of faithful Catholics being labelled as ‘pharisees’, simply for upholding Catholic teaching on sexual purity.”

Of course, if the shoe fits, then Pharisees it is.

Timothy Kincaid

October 13th, 2014

It is truly astonishing and, while I have anticipated positive movement from Francis, I didn’t expect this.

What the Church has said is that gay relationships are good for gay people. And while that should be glaringly obvious, the Church has at times specialized in ignoring the glaringly obvious.

Also, it appears that the Church is now in a position of supporting some of the civil aspects of couples. If couples have “rights that should be protected”, then it may be that the Church will adopt a “we oppose marriage but support civil unions” stance.

I will be curious to see how this plays out in Italy and other Catholic European nations.


October 13th, 2014

If I am not mistaken, there was a time when Celibacy, marrying oneself to Christ/the Church, were considered the height of human calling, while marriage was an acceptable second-best, serving merely as a reflection of a greater path. It seems now, that language is finally being applied to once-unacceptable relationships.

I think part of the beauty here, for me, is seeing so well encapsulated, a step all anti-gay thinkers must pass through on their way to full acceptance. Some people transition so quickly, they never think about it. But on a time scale of years/decades/centuries, we get to watch it in all its glory. Once you recognize “the positive elements” of same-sex relationships, especially the elements that ‘reflect’ the ‘more perfect’ opposite-sex union, you can’t really go back to dismissing them as “intrinsically disordered.”

Those anti-gay Catholics drastically overestimate their influence. A “super majority” of American Catholics support marriage equality. I suspect the same is true in European nations. Once the leadership starts chipping away at the anti-gay theology, there won’t be any refuge for those groups in the RCC.


October 13th, 2014

Granted, there are parts of this working document that rub the wrong way, for instance, where the Church asks itself if they can be supportive of “these people” (i.e., homosexuals). Wouldn’t it have been affirming to say rather, “our gay brothers and sisters.”

Second, for many this is way too little, way too late. But I would like to point out that this is a 2,000 year old institution, and change comes SLOWLY, oh, SO slowly.

And to that point, this is remarkable. To prove that point, a visit to traditional Catholic blogs right now shows heads about to explode. They’re talking outwardly of schism…and I predict that if this document is ultimately accepted more or less in its current form, there will be a formal break…on the Right of the Church.

So ironic, these were the very same folks who ordered those of us more progressive in theology to leave the Church under the leadership of JP II and B 16, because we were being disobedient to Church teaching. Now, they’re the ones being “disobedient.” How delicious!

Ben in oakland

October 13th, 2014

I have a great deal of respect for Father Martin. quite like able guy, and he is one of the few priests I actually CAn respect. Neverthelesss, he is quite the optimist.

Chris, your comment just underlines what I have always said. This really isn’t about the alleged sin of homosexuality, but how much that alleged sin attracts, offends, frightens, and obsesses a lot of people, especially the homo-hating homos.


October 13th, 2014

The catholic church is realizing that if they stay as anti-gay as they are they will lose even more supporters in the west which means a loss in income. This shift is nothing more than an attempt to keep the money flowing. Although, when so many americans already disagree so much with catholic theology I don’t know they just don’t leave.


October 13th, 2014

Just a couple of days ago, Raymond Burke, former Archbishop of St. Louis and now Cardinal in charge of something at the Vatican used the “intrinsincly disordered” language when urging that children not be exposed to gay or lesbian couples. So, is this two steps forward, one step back? Or is this just a PR stunt by an organization that is still desperate to distract attention from its ongoing criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice and aid and abet known rapists?

This language tells a lot, I think:

“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.”

This goes way beyond the hissy fits pulled by the Catholic Church in equality states that closed up their adoption agencies rather than treat lesbian or gay couples as if we were human (even though Catholic Charities in Boston placed some 13 children with same-sex couples in the decade before marriage equality – all through the foster system and all successfully). This goes directly to the Catholic leadership in places like Uganda or Eastern Europe – reassuring them that the Church will not interfere to protect the rights of LGBT people. If your country wants to stigmatize and attack innocent LGBT people and lock them up (if not execute them) for the crime of being gay, so be it. The Church will not complain if you support these crimes against humanity.


October 13th, 2014

Last December, Pope Francis removed Burke from the Congregation for Bishops, the church body that selects new bishops, and replaced him with Cardinal Donald Wuerl. There has been suggestion that Burke was given a largely ceremonial post after having been “side-lined” by the Pope. (Wiki)

Google Raymond Burke to see the ridiculous vestments he loves to affect. Particularly the Cappa Magna that has as much material in it as a block-long Rainbow Flag.

Mark F.

October 13th, 2014

Call me skeptical.

L. C. Burgundy

October 13th, 2014

These are the acts of the Johnny-come-lately church looking for some good PR. Color me unimpressed. The real work on incorporating gay people openly in Christian churches was done long ago, by other churches who were most definitely not Roman Catholic. I refuse to give any special credence or credit to a church where none is due.


October 13th, 2014

That language — that’s some proper, convoluted sophistry.

I guess you can see it in a positive light. Having grown in a Catholic Hispanic family, that entire text just dripped in condescension and presumptuous pity, that it was hard to appreciate the “change”.

They still look at us as if we’re broken toys held together by adhesive tape. We’re imperfect, while they are ideal.

I also wouldn’t put that much stock in some big change. The Catholic Church has a growing demographic in Africa and Latin America will only expect more participation as well. The advances in Latin America have been primarily in the elite sphere of politicians and judges. Popular opinion of gay people and how gay people live in these countries is still decades behind.


October 14th, 2014

Would love to watch Scalia reading this article…


October 14th, 2014

““It is essential that the voices of those lay faithful who sincerely live out Catholic teaching are also taken into account.”

All 8% of them.

This is encouraging to a certain extent, but there is going to be a lot of resistance to making it definitive. Look for it to be watered down, at best.


October 14th, 2014

I wonder if the Pope’s “infallibility” will be called into question by his Right wing, just as any ideas (including Republican ones, like the Health Insurance Mandate, trial-by-drone, spying on Americans) are automatically fire-bombed by the Right wing here.

You can bet that Scalia and his fellow Opus Dei cult-members are trying to come up with a way to cast doubt on Francis’ legitimacy.


October 14th, 2014

That should have read, “…just as any of Pres. Obama’s ideas…”

WHERE’S a dang edit button?!?!?


October 14th, 2014

And just like that the vatican walks it back

Big Al in NY

October 16th, 2014

It’s been reported that at least 50% of the Catholic clergy—top to bottom—is gay; Cardinal Spellman was known to have a young Broadway star as a lover, and Pope Paul had a younger priest. The fact that no one has done a damn thing about OFFICIALLY changing the Church’s policy toward homosexual acts, shows what loathsome hypocrites most of them are.
If Pope Francis is an exception, let him do more than merely issue a lot of feel-good platitudes about “let’s be nice to everybody” and put his so-called “infallibility” on the line by COMMANDING the Church to categorically repudiate two thousand years’ worth of homophobia and welcome openly-gay people (and women, too, for that matter!) to full participation, INCLUDING the highest level of clergy and the Papacy itself.
It’s time they gave us more than vague, platitudinous bullshit.

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