Vatican Report on Gays and Lesbians is Neither “Stunning” nor “Revolutionary” October 14, 2014

Vatican Report on Gays and Lesbians is Neither “Stunning” nor “Revolutionary”

A report released this week by the Vatican is being heralded as “revolutionary” for its modern take on homosexuality, cohabitation, and other topics the Church hasn’t taken kindly to in the past.

Whether it actually is revolutionary is another story altogether.

The report was borne out of a two-week meeting of Catholic bishops focusing on family issues (which Sara Lin Wilde wrote about here). While stopping short of endorsing same-sex relationships, it acknowledges that LGBT people do have “gifts and qualities” to offer to Christians and ponders whether Catholics should consider opening their arms to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters:

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 document acknowledges that increasing attention toward LGBT issues has become a problem for the Church (ya think?) and that they still don’t support marriage equality:

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.

Still, it takes a big step by saying that plenty of same-sex couples are raising kids and that those kids’ needs should take precedence over all else. It’s almost suggesting that kids do just fine with two moms or two dads — but doesn’t actually say so.

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.

The document also upholds the Church’s stance against birth control and deems cohabitation “not ideal,” but containing some “constructive elements.” It also suggests that there might be a way to allow divorced and perhaps even remarried Catholics to receive communion, another issue that has caused major contention in the Catholic world. Over at the New Yorker, Alexander Stille wrote that merely addressing today’s “modern families” with bishops was a bold move for Pope Francis, let alone coming to the conclusions the group did:

In calling for a synod on the family, Francis followed a precedent set by John Paul II in 1980. But this new gathering has a very different tone. John Paul made it clear that he would brook no dissent on the Church’s teachings regarding sexuality and family life, while Pope Francis has given the impression that all subjects are open — at least for discussion. “The Lord asks of us a renewed openness,” Francis said, in a homily in Saint Peter’s basilica on the eve of the synod. “He asks us not to close off dialogue and encounter but to gather everything that is valid and positive, even by those who think differently from ourselves and adopt different positions.”

With regards to the “gays might be okay” section of the document, some conservative Catholic groups are already upset, while leaders of progressive groups are thoroughly pleased:

“Overall I am very excited by this news,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an LGBT-friendly Catholic ministry in Mount Rainier, Md., told the Washington Blade on Monday. “It’s really a total reversal of the attitude and approach the church leaders have taken regarding lesbian and gay people for decades now.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, an LGBT Catholic group, described the document as “surprisingly positive.”

“For the first time the Vatican has said something positive about same-sex couples,” she told the Blade. “Sort of acknowledging they’re could be mutuality and sacrifice in the commitments that we make to one another, that is a tremendous step forward.”

Maybe the most quote-worthy reaction came from the Rev. James Martin, an author and priest who called the report “revolutionary” in a Facebook post:

“This is a stunning change in the way that the Catholic Church speaks about gay people.”

“The synod said that gay people have ‘gifts and talents to offer the Christian community.’ This is something that even a few years ago would have been unthinkable.”

Yes, this is more tolerant language than we’ve heard from the Vatican previously, and it’s pretty well aligned with other statements the “progressive Pope” has made on homosexuality so far. I can appreciate that.

But, as the New York Times put it, this doesn’t change Church doctrine or teaching. When it comes down to it, the Catechism still refers to gays as “intrinsically disordered” and demands gays be chaste. There is no call to action here ordering churches to start welcoming LGBT people or calling on priests to marry same-sex couples. Rhetorical questions about compassion and vague statements suggesting that “gays are people too” do not amount to sweeping change.

This Vatican statement contains a lot of nice words, and that will certainly make some Catholics feel better about belonging to a historically homophobic institution. But when it comes down to it, they’re just words — and they don’t help the actual LGBT Catholics who suffer at the expense of bigoted doctrine. We’ll need a lot more from the Church before we can consider this a “total reversal” in Catholic attitude.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Shane for the link)

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