'Seismic' Shift on Gay People From the Vatican, but Will There Be Aftershocks?

The headlines popped up immediately when a gathering of Catholic bishops, officially called the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, said a few things that show a stunning change in church attitudes, if not doctrine, on the very existence and lives of LGBT people. Truth be told, it is really lesbian and gay people we are talking about here; the church is far from ready to deal with the B and the T.

And I bet you all the money in the Vatican's coffers that Bill Donahue of the Catholic League is still screaming in his office -- or on Fox News -- as you read this.

So I take all of this "news" with a grain of salt -- a huge grain of Mediterranean Sea salt -- as someone raised Catholic and whose experience of Catholicism both here and in Italy has been mixed at best. I've seen good and evil. I've seen charity and hypocrisy. I find the basic values of the church a roadmap for life but the actions of the church hierarchy itself often at odds with those very principles. And I know the majority of those in the pews feel the same. So is this a new day?

Popes come and go. The doctrine has stayed the same -- for millennia. In the more recent past, in the early 2000s, the bishops said that the church does not have a pedophilia problem but a homosexuality problem.

That said, yesterday's statements, which will be part of a larger set of working proposals for a meeting to be held in October 2015, signal the kind of change I never thought I would see in my lifetime, especially given my unique familiarity with the Catholic Church, both personally and professionally.

First, a quick summary on what church official teased as possible changes in their stance on gay and lesbian people and families:

  • The report firmly restates the Catholic Church's position that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that "unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between a man and a woman." No surprise there. This is something that will not change for a very long time. That's why we have separation of church and state. LGBT Catholics will not be getting married at St. Patrick's Cathedral anytime soon.
  • The report concedes that there are examples of good gay relationships "in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of partners." My curiosity over what they consider a "good" gay relationship is only overshadowed by my pleasure that they use the word "partners," and that the words "intrinsically disordered" are nowhere to be seen. This is a good thing.
  • The report also stated:

    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?

    OK, besides the fact that the word "homosexual" went out of style with shoulder pads, these are good questions. The answer has been "yes" and "no" depending on the church -- and the country that that church is in. I know that the most devout Catholics in my family, to a person, would say "yes" and "yes" to the questions above. But we have seen that that is simply not the case everywhere, when gay congregants are unwelcome at Catholic churches, gay teachers are fired from Catholic schools and families are refused baptism.

    The next one is nearest and dearest to me. The report adds that the church should pay "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." As a parent I could not agree more. But the messages our children are getting from the church clearly need to change -- a lot. As the marriage-equality movement has demonstrated, children are the lynchpin to truly breaking through institutional bias, so let's hope it happens here as well.

    Finally, the report laments any outside pressure from "international bodies" that make "regulations inspired by gender ideology" a prerequisite of financial aid. It's the ultimate sign that "money talks." And the Vatican, rich beyond measure but not doing nearly enough for those in need, seems to be paying attention to funders' nondiscrimination requirements. Good.

    But let's get out of our myopic American pews for a second and think about this development. Friend and fellow activist John Bare said to me in an email:

    This new document is breathtaking and powerful, represents a true step forward, and we all should be on our knees praying that it gets adopted as the formal statement of the Synod before the German and American hierarchies' pick it over like a dead carcass.

    Well said. As someone who rarely gets on her knees, I could not agree more.

    But here it where this lapsed Catholic may well kneel. In a recent morning homily, Pope Francis asked people to reflect on the following questions:

    Am I attached to my things, my ideas? Am I closed? Am I at a standstill, or am I a person on a journey? ... Am I able to understand the signs of the times and be faithful to the voice of the Lord that is manifested in them?

    If that is the message that this new pope is sending from the Vatican, then maybe there is hope for the kind of church that so many want, one that does not remain at a standstill and takes a journey that can both reflect the reality of our times and be faithful to the best values that the church offers us.