For those who’ve come to expect from Pope Francis a shift in tone toward mercy and acceptance, his current Vatican assembly does not disappoint. The 12-page report released midway through this landmark two-week meeting of Roman Catholic bishops is already stirring up controversy with its amiable language regarding gay people, divorce, and unmarried couples.
But, what do its contents — which include an acknowledgement that gay people “have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community” and a discussion of the “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation” — actually mean?
We checked in with Father James Martin, SJ, (Twitter, Facebook) a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, and author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, about the implications of the synod and the interim report it has produced. So, here are five thoughts about what this landmark meeting means (and could mean) for the future of the Catholic Church:
What motivated this “family meeting” called by Francis? What was his intention?
Pope Francis has always been a big fan of synods, and from the beginning of his papacy he talked about the concept of “synodality,” that is, the idea that bishops, as a group, are an important deliberative body, helpful to the pope in his decision making and in explaining church teaching.
But by calling a synod on the family, the pope reminded us of the need to focus on some of the basics in the Church. It wasn’t a synod on theology, much less a synod on some arcane doctrine, but on the lived experiences of what we sometimes call the “people in the pews.” What he was trying to do, in essence, was to call bishops from around the world together to advise him on some topics of interest to almost every Catholic.
This meeting is being seen as a big shift. Is it? What, in your mind, is the major news of this report?
It is a big shift, I think. Catholic Church teaching hasn’t changed, but the tone certainly has. And even though this is an interim document from a synod that’s not even halfway through its work, the way that they’re talking — in particular about gays and lesbians — is quite remarkable.
For instance, I’ve never seen a document from a synod of bishops, from a national bishops’ conference or from the Vatican that speaks so clearly about the “gifts and talents” of gays and lesbians in the Church, and I’ve certainly not seen a document anywhere in the Church that says anything positive about affection between same-sex couples, as this one did. A lot of people are faulting the media for focusing on the gay and lesbian section of the document, but that really is the most striking change, I would say.
Do you think this is a first step toward an eventual shift in church doctrine on gay sexual identity, divorce, and unmarried couples?
I think that the Church teaching will always remain the same on the sacramentality of the marriage between a man and a woman. But, I do think it’s an opening up of the way that the Church ministers to gays and lesbians, the way that the Church can help them feel welcomed, and the way that the Church is deepening its understanding, and, yes, appreciation of gays and lesbians.
You notice that the language “intrinsically disordered” or “objectively disordered” is not being used in this particular document. That doesn’t mean that the teaching has changed, but it’s a reminder, from the synod, that the Church needs to reach out to gays and lesbians as fully human, as fully loved children of God. In fact, one of the sections is labelled explicitly: “Welcoming Homosexual Persons.”
What will this mean for your average gay person or couple in a Catholic parish?
Even though this is just an interim report, I think that the news of it will make them feel more welcomed. I think it might also help them feel that the church is listening to them. Remember that much of what the bishops are contributing comes from surveys that were taken in their dioceses in preparation for this synod. It was supposed to be a real grassroots way of listening to what we call the “people of God.”
So, I hope that LGBT Catholics feel more listened to, more welcomed, and more loved by God.
Are these changes in tone, which have been the big story of Francis’ papacy, turning points for the Church? How would you compare this to Vatican II?
It reminds me of the Second Vatican Council, the great Church council in the early 1960s, when so much change was happening. Once people realize what the Holy Spirit can do, it gives them a lot more trust and openness and freedom. Pope John XXIII, who had convened the Council, said at the time that he wanted to “open the windows” of the Church and let in some “fresh air.” So, there are a lot of similarities between this synod of Bishops and Vatican II. Certainly, it’s not an “ecumenical council,” to use the formal category for Vatican II, and it doesn’t enjoy the same level of teaching authority, but there are a number of similarities.
First, there was a sense of, as there was during the Second Vatican Council, that a lot of the participants knew what to expect. Going into the Council, for example, there were certain documents that were more or less written, and there was a certainty among some of the participants about what the final message of the documents would be. But once people started talking, everything opened up. And you had some real surprised. So that’s the first similarity.
Second, there were these factions within the Church — some that were for change, some that were for keeping things the same, some that were for compromise — and that’s very much the same as it is today. And you can see how strongly they’re opposing one another. As an aside, I would say that shouldn’t bother or scandalize anyone. Differences in the church go back as far as Saints Peter and Paul.
And third, the pope had set the tone at the beginning of both meetings. That was very much in evidence in the Second Vatican Council, when Pope John XXIII opened the Council by saying, “Nowadays, the Church prefers the medicine of mercy rather than severity.” That set a certain tone for the whole of Vatican II. At the beginning of this synod, Pope Francis urged all the participants to be open, and not to hold anything back. And of course the strong theme of his papacy, I think, has been mercy.
So, a merciful tone underlies both the Council and the synod today.
Image courtesy of Religion News Service.