First, all you snickering cynics out there—including my fellow Catholic atheists and otherwise gay brethren—let’s not make fun of what rhymes with “relatio.” Instead, let’s take the Vatican document released today, relatio post disceptationem (Report After Debate), seriously and at face value.
One of the report’s 58 sections, “Welcoming homosexual persons,” has prompted the usual hysterical responses, both from outraged conservative Roman Catholics who think the Church is being taken over by radicals and from the cult of adoring Pope Francis worshippers who are happy for the same reason. They’re both wrong.
What we can say is this: any Vatican document dealing with homosexuality that consciously dispenses with the Ratzingerian term “intrinsic disorder” and instead speaks of the “gifts and qualities” that LGBTQ folk “have to offer” is, at the very least, breaking away from a Church tradition of pigheaded bigotry, a tradition reinforced with excessive relish by the current pope’s two right-wing predecessors. John Paul II embraced Benedict’s encyclicals on homosexuality, written when the latter was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. These Vatican documents claimed, among other things, that homosexuality represented “an intrinsic moral evil” and that gays and lesbians, who clearly suffered from an “objective disorder,” were “essentially self-indulgent.”
So, what’s new in today’s document—which is really just a one-week progress report for the Synod on the Family, which is a two-year process?
On one hand, not much. The section of the document dealing with homosexuality maintains the Church’s position that heterosexual marriage between a man and a woman is superior to all other primary relationships. It also maintains the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and reiterates that “moral problems related to homosexual unions” cannot be denied.
On the other hand, a fair bit. The document recognizes that mutually validating gay relationships do exist. “It has to be noted,” the document says, “that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” (Whoa! Stop the presses!) And it poses a couple of questions that would have been unthinkable in the hellfire-and-damnation milieu of the homophobic John Paul II/Benedict epoch: “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?”
Longtime Vatican watcher John Thavis (The Vatican Diaries) noted at the end of his blog today that some Catholics are holding their noses at the English translation of that second question, specifically the stronger connotation of the word “valuing” from the Italian valutare, which can mean anything from valuing or appreciating to considering, evaluating or judging. Others, like Vatican court head and troglodyte Cardinal Raymond Burke, responded with the sour grapes typical of the curial Ratzingerian set, who are feeling pretty besieged these days.
The key difference suggested by today’s document is the absence of “sin” as the guiding concept of concern for discussion and the predominance of “mercy” as the guiding principle implied by the leadership of Pope Francis. That may seem progressive to liberal Catholics, those who still count themselves among the believers, but it is actually a form of condescension. For what the document is finally acknowledging, more than sixty-five years after the first Kinsey report, is that gays are people, too. Now, that might seem too sarcastic or belittling to say of an institution that claims some 1.2 billion souls. But it bloody well should be said.
The fact that a patronizing attitude toward gays and lesbians should be seen as an improvement after decades of hateful demonizing really tells you something about a Church whose influence still extends to the furthest reaches of the liberal democracies and the Western world. But if this Synod results in any degree of change toward that end, it will be an improvement nonetheless. Because, to cite just one example, any attempt at dialogue and inclusion within the pews is likely to stem the tide of queer teen Catholic suicides that plagued the John Paul II/Benedict years.
Although His Holiness would never admit it, there would surely be another positive result of a pro-gay stance, however limited in scope: better, less damaged men would be attracted to the priesthood. Gay priests, in particular, would feel more at liberty to be themselves and pursue adult relationships without being vulnerable to blackmail or subjected to clerical witch hunts. And priests of either persuasion would be less likely to succumb to the charms, to the beauty, to the fresh, unblemished innocence of the pre-adolescent male.
That, above all else, would be a result worth celebrating.