The headlines coming out of the Vatican yesterday are nothing less than eye-popping. Here’s just a handful:
- Washington Post: Vatican stuns Catholic world with greater openness toward gays and lesbians
- USA Today: Catholic bishops show new tolerance toward gays
- ChristianToday.com: Synod on the Family: Could the Catholic Church be liberalising on divorce, contraception and homosexuality?
- Huffington Post: Vatican Proposes Dramatic Shift In Attitude Towards Gays, Same Sex Couples
- New York Times: At the Vatican, a Shift in Tone Toward Gays and Divorce
What is going on here? Did the Roman Catholic Church really just nullify its 2,000-year old teaching on the nature of marriage and sexual ethics? If all you had were these headlines, you might think so.
The questions have emerged as a result of a meeting of Bishops that Pope Francis convened last week and that just issued a report. Having read the entire report, I think we can answer the question that everyone is asking: Has the Catholic Church changed its position on divorce and gay unions?
The short answer is no. The synod reaffirmed what Roman Catholics have always believed about marriage, sex, and family. It insists that the “doctrine of the faith” must be affirmed (§11) and that “natural marriage” is still the norm (§18). The synod reconfirmed “forcefully the fidelity to the Gospel of the family” (§40). On homosexuality, the synod says “that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman” (§51). In essence, the synod did nothing to overturn the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church as it is spelled out in the catechism.
But this does not mean that document is without serious problems. Perhaps the chief issue is that the bishops are trying to teach church leaders how to make “courageous pastoral choices”—choices which seem to contradict what the church says it believes in the catechism. Perhaps this tension is seen most clearly in the section on homosexuality. The English translation includes the following lines:
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?
As a Protestant, I would agree that churches need to be welcoming to gay people. And by that, I mean that we need to have our arms wide open to gay people, to invite them to come to Christ on the same basis everyone else does—through repentance and faith. We invite all people—including our gay neighbors—to come and to drink from the waters of life. This invitation to join us is a summons to conversion.
But that is not what this document has in mind when it talks about “welcoming these people.” In fact, I’m not sure that conversion is at all in view here. The synod seeks for a way to value gay “sexual orientation” without abandoning “Catholic doctrine.” But here is the contradiction. The church’s doctrine says that gay orientation is “objectively disordered.” Yet these bishops are calling for a pastoral practice that values their sexual orientation. Unless something has been lost in translation, that is a hopeless contradiction—one that undermines the confession that Roman Catholics claim to uphold.
What should cause concern is the possibility that some within the Roman Catholic church wish to maintain the language of the catechism but adopt pastoral practices that contradict it. This enables them to say that the church’s teaching has remained constant and that the only change is in how it is applied in people’s lives. But in this case, that distinction doesn’t work. One cannot value something and at the same time repent of it, and yet that is what this synod appears to be calling for. Most people (I think) can see the contradiction.
In my view, the problem with this statement from the synod is not so much ethical as it is soteriological and ecclesiological. This announcement highlights the fact that the differences between Protestants and Catholics are still with us and are still profound. The idea of gradualism is no doubt bound up with Roman Catholic notions of progressive justification. That error is compounded by the inclusivist tendencies of Vatican II. The main errors of this document relate directly to longstanding differences between Protestants and Catholics on fundamental issues of authority, the nature of salvation, and the nature of the church. I do believe there is important error here, it’s just not quite in the way suggested by the headlines.
So has the Roman Catholic Church changed its teachings on homosexuality and divorce? At the level of official Catholic doctrine, the answer is no. The teaching of the Catechism has not changed. But at the level of pastoral practice, they may have accomplished a de facto revision. I think we have to watch and see what the final statement from this synod will be and how the implications play out in the actual practice of the church. If it turns out to be a de facto revision, it will be an enormous capitulation to the spirit of the age. The world is watching. We’ll all know soon enough.