The Catholic Church could be making a dramatic progressive shift away from its historical condemnation of homosexuality, according to a Vatican document issued on Monday, which asks if Catholics can recognize the "gifts and qualities to offer" of gay people and same-sex couples. After a week of closed-door meetings centered on the family and attended by nearly 200 bishops, the Church gave its first summary of the discussions and the challenges posed internally for consideration over the next year -- and the tone is markedly different than previous statements on what the Vatican considers "irregular" unions.
“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community," the document, known as a "relatio," states. "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?”
The summit, or synod, has already made waves, and tackles more issues than the Church's stance on homosexuality. The synod also raised questions about acceptance of unmarried cohabitation, as well as the decision to have children out of wedlock. According to John Thavis, a journalist and Vatican scholar, the document "represents an earthquake, the 'big one' that hit after months of smaller tremors."
"[A] new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation, taking into account the due differences," the relatio says. "Indeed, when a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage."
But the document does not indicate an official shift in Church doctrine, nor does it offer many clear signs of what is to come. The synod has yet another week of discussion ahead, during which time the document will be finalized and rewritten. It will then be a subject for thoughtful consideration over the next year, before Pope Francis convenes a second synod in the fall of 2015, when official pastoral changes can be proposed. If, however, this week's relatio guiding the Church away from condemnatory language and a view of homosexuality as "inherently disordered," the Vatican could be on the way to opening its doors more officially to people of myriad sexual orientations.