The Synod on the Family in Rome today caused an 'earthquake' – the word is being used on Catholic blogs everywhere – when it appeared to tweak the Church's line on homosexuality and second marriages. 'Line', please note, not its teaching on the sinfulness of all sexual acts outside marriage, which it does not have the authority to change and will remain intact long after this pontificate.
But the 'line' matters, and here it is, unveiled in an alarmingly haphazard fashion in a document called the relatio post disceptationem – a half-way report on the discussions read aloud in the synod hall this morning. As Mark Greaves of the Catholic Herald reports, it has been drafted by synod fathers selected by Pope Francis:
The document calls on the Church to build on the 'positive aspects' of relationships that are deemed irregular – such as between remarried couples or same-sex partners – and keep the 'doors always wide open' to people in those relationships.
The relatio says that the Church reaching out to divorced Catholics does not represent a 'weakening of its faith' but an exercise of charity.
The document cites calls by many synod participants to speed up the annulment process.
Regarding people who are gay, the document says: '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?
'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 document also emphasises the 'principle of graduality', the idea that Catholics move towards full acceptance of Church teaching in steps, and that the Church needs to accompany them with patience and understanding.
It speaks of 'accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation', noting that such unions can reach 'a notable level of stability through a public bond' and be 'characterised by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests'.
I'm astonished by such boldness. The principle of graduality is not new – but St John Paul II emphasised that it should be Catholics that move gradually, not the Church. The 'earthquake' has been created by the implication – welcomed by liberals, greeted with dismay by conservatives – that the Church is moving, not towards doctrinal change but towards a much more relaxed attitude towards gay couples and people in second marriages (ie, divorced people or those married to them).
You can read the full text of the document by clicking here.
Most Catholic commentators on Twitter are either celebrating or blowing their top. But even more revealing is the fact that, according to the respected Vatican commentator John Thavis, some of the synod fathers are themselves bemused by the document:
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 the relatio, 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 emphasised that this text was not the final version and said with a smile, 'So the drama continues'.
It does indeed. But given the extent of the divisions that the synod reveals, which are certain to be replicated in parishes around the world, I don't know what he's got to smile about.