"Seismic shift" at Synod?

VATICAN CITY – If the media has not paid too much attention to the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, they certainly paid attention today. After the first week of prepared interventions and informal discussions, the Vatican published a proposed report today covering the general thrust of the discussion. Entitled “Relatio post disceptationem” and prepared by Synod rapporteur general Cardinal Peter Erdo, the document roughly followed what was known of the debate over the past week. One section in particular, though, appears to have grabbed everyone’s attention, as the Catholic Church addressed its relationship with the homosexual Catholics and their role within the church:

     50.        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?

51.        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.

52.        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.

We’ll get back to the analysis of this in a moment. For now, let’s focus on the media reaction to it. CBS News reported that groups called this “a seismic shift” for the Vatican:

Gay rights groups hailed a “seismic shift” by the Catholic Church toward gays on Monday after bishops said homosexuals had gifts to offer the church and that their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided homosexuals with “precious” support.

In a preliminary report half-way through a Vatican meeting on family life, the bishops also said the church must recognize the “positive” aspects of civil unions and even Catholics who cohabitate, with the aim of bringing them to a lifelong commitment in a church wedding.

The report summarized the closed-door debate that Pope Francis initiated to discuss a host of hot-button family issues such as marriage, divorce, homosexuality and birth control. No decisions were announced, but the tone of the report was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance rather than condemnation, and it will guide discussions until a final document is issued Saturday.

The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein offered a little more reserved reaction, although she quotes Fr. James Martin as considering the approach “stunning”:

The document reaffirmed that traditional teachings are the “ideal” but was remarkable to some in its openness and lack of emphasis on condemnation of untraditional relationships.

On same-gender unions, the document said “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.”

The Rev. James Martin, a Catholic writer with the Jesuit magazine America, wrote that the document was “stunning.”

“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, from even the most open-minded of prelates–that is, a statement of outright praise for the contribution of gays and lesbians, with no caveat and no reflexive mention of sin,” Martin wrote. “That any church document would praise same-sex ‘partners’ in any way (and even use the word “partners”) is astonishing.”

John Thavis, one of the savviest Vaticanistas here, called this “a pastoral earthquake,” with emphasis on pastoral. As John notes, the relatio in its current draft form (a point to which I’ll return shortly) reaffirms the Catholic teaching on marriage and family life. In fact, most of the first half of the document relates the current teaching and the current crisis. The relatio delves into difficult pastoral issues, but does not actually signal any changes in doctrine.

Take for instance one of the hot-button issues coming into the synod — divorced and remarried Catholics and their access to the Eucharist. The relatio frames the debate on the subject at the Synod, and then largely punts the question to a future task force to see whether there can be any theological support for broadening access. It does assert that the Church will begin reforming and streamlining the annulment process, but that effort was already underway with another task force that has already begun its work. The key to understanding this passage is this language in paragraph 42 about pastoral care of “damaged” families, emphasis mine:

What needs to be respected above all is the suffering of those who have endured separation and divorce unjustly.

The discussion outside the Synod in the briefings and some outside interviews hasn’t focused on innovating on the sacramental nature of marriage, but rather discerning just how many of these broken marriages were never valid in the first place. After getting the surveys back from the dioceses about the understanding of marriage in the pews, the bishops are worried that the problem of formation may be widespread. Some Catholics erroneously believe, for instance, that just the act of divorce disqualifies them from the Eucharist (it’s remarriage, not the divorce itself), which means that there may be a lot of Catholics who are just excluding themselves because no one made it clear to them what the teaching actually is. But the language of the relatio emphasizes “unjustly,” which suggests strongly that they are still measuring that by traditional Catholic teaching on the validity of a marriage. That is why we are seeing such an emphasis on making the annulment process — which offers an opportunity to discern whether the marriage was sacramentally valid — more efficient and more pastoral rather than a trial, literally and figuratively.

The Synod also slammed the door shut on change in any sense on contraception and birth control. The relatio dispenses with that subject in three paragraphs almost at the very end:

53.        It is not difficult to notice the spread of a mentality that reduces the generation of life to a variable of an individual’s or a couple’s plans. Economic factors sometimes have enough weight to contribute to the sharp drop in the birthrate which weakens the social fabric, compromising the relationship between generations and rendering the view of the future less certain. Being open to life is an intrinsic requirement of married love.

54.        Probably here as well what is required is a realistic language that is able to start from listening to people and acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional opening to life as that which human life requires to be lived to its fullest. It is on this base that we can rest an appropriate teaching regarding natural methods, which allow the living in a harmonious and aware way of the communication between spouses, in all its dimensions, along with generative responsibility. In this light, we should go back to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, which underlines the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control.

55.        So help is required to live affectivity, in marriage as well, as a path of maturation, in the evermore profound welcoming of the other and in an ever-fuller giving. It has to be emphasized in this sense the need to offer formative paths that nourish married life and the importance of a laity that provides an accompaniment consisting of living testimony. It is undoubtedly of great help the example of a faithful and profound love made up of tenderness, of respect, capable of growing in time and which in its concrete opening to the generation of life allows us to experience a mystery that transcends us.

In other words, they are endorsing Humanae Vitae, which shouldn’t surprise anyone since they will beatify its author on Sunday, Pope Paul VI. The only change from this Synod will be to find ways to express it more effectively.

That’s not to say that this is business as usual, though. Even paragraphs 50-53 shouldn’t be new, although in practice they are. Those with same-sex attraction should be welcomed to the Church, within the parameters of its teaching, but that’s true of all of us who are “disordered” by original sin. For those of us who live in mortal sin, we cannot come to the Eucharist but we are still members of the Church and our parishes. Recognizing that partnerships provide positive aspects to the worldly lives of these brethren is a big shift in rhetoric for the Catholic Church, even if it’s common sense; if those partnerships didn’t, no one would enter into them in the first place. The Church is concerned with welcoming everyone back so that the children can get proper formation in family life, as well as caritas toward their parents.

The issue of the Eucharist and divorce has a catch, too, and it’s called “a law of gradualness” in paragraph 47:

 47.        As regards the possibility of partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering. For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path – under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop –, and with a clear undertaking in favor of the children. This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances.

Again, the very next paragraph punts this question in the form of “a request for greater theological study” in the very next paragraph. The application here of what had been called “the law of graduality” in last week’s session seems to be what St. John Paul II warned might happen more than thirty years ago while developing Familiaris Consortio, his treatise on the family. At the 1982 synod, John Paul II warned that there may be the law of graduality in application, but no graduality to the law. This has Elizabeth Scalia worried enough for two posts, and the idea that one can accept the Eucharist — which comes with full communion with the Church — while gradually moving away from mortal sin would be revolutionary.

This and other issues that arise in the relatio have provoked a sharp response at the Synod already, as John Thavis relates:

The relatio has already occasioned some pushback. Following its presentation in the synod hall, 41 bishops spoke about the content, and several pressed for clarifications on specific points:

— Some asked whether, in the section on homosexuality, there shouldn’t be mention of the teaching that “some unions are disordered,” a reference to the phrase the church has used to describe homosexual relations. That information came from Cardinal Peter Erdo, the primary author of therelatio, who spoke to reporters at a Vatican press conference.

— Sources said other bishops questioned the analogy the relatio drew between the principle of finding “elements of sanctification and of truth outside” outside the visible structure of the church, expressed in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, and the broader idea that positive elements can be found not only in sacramental marriage but also in irregular unions.

— At least one bishop asked what happened to the concept of sin. The word “sin” appears only rarely in the 5,000-word relatio.

At the press conference, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines emphasized that this text was not the final version and said with a smile, “So the drama continues.”

It does, and it will. The final version of the relatio will be issued on Saturday, and it might end up being amended and “clarified” significantly. The Synod has shifted into small-group discussions, and earlier today Pope Francis added a number of people to work on the final relatio, including the highly-regarded Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Even that document won’t be the final word; the debate will continue between the bishops for the next year until the Ordinary Synod. But the next version of the relatio will still make for lively debate, too.