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Why Catholic bishops are meeting in Rome to discuss same-sex marriage

Pope Francis greets bishops during his weekly audience at St. Peter's Square on October 8, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Pope Francis greets bishops during his weekly audience at St. Peter's Square on October 8, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican.
(Franco Origlia/Getty)

Ever since Pope Francis casually dropped his game-changing "Who am I to judge?" last July, theologians and pundits have fiercely debated where exactly the Pontiff stood on the question of homosexuality. Did the remark really signify a break from his predecessor, Benedict, or was it just a more savvy way of rephrasing age-old doctrine? Did it signify a change of tone or substance?

As often happens, commentators were quick to interpret the Pope's words in ways that rather conveniently agreed with their own political positions. And then, like clockwork, various "clarifications" were issued by the Vatican, which only further muddied the waters.

The same thing is currently happening with a new document released this week from the Vatican — probably because it, too, addresses the issue of homosexuality.

The document — called the relatio post disceptationem, or the post-discussion report — summarizes the discussions that have taken place so far during the current synod, or assembly of Bishops, which runs October 5 to October 19 in Vatican City. The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family was called by Pope Francis last year to discuss "the new and urgent pastoral needs facing the family," a topic that includes divorce, remarriage, and homosexuality.

Given Francis' reforming spirit, many have been looking forward to the synod since its announcement last year, hopeful that the Church would finally take a nod from its Pontiff and change its official stance on LGBT people. Judging from some of the headlines and stories written about this latest document, you'd think that's what happened.

But as Patrick Hornbeck, chair of Fordham University's theology department, told me over the phone, what's happening this week "is not the watershed moment that some commentators are making it out to be."

So what exactly is happening at the Vatican? And what does that mean for both the Catholic Church and society at large?

1) Hold on. What even is a synod?

First things first. You pronounce it sih-nid, not sigh-nod.

The word synod comes from a Greek word that means "assembly," which is all a synod is: an assembly or meeting of Church leaders, called Bishops. The point of these meetings is to discuss specific issues related to Church teaching or administration.

Synods usually meet every three years — these are called General Ordinary Assemblies. However, if a Pontiff decides there is a particularly pressing issue that needs to be dealt with, he can call for an Extraordinary Synod, which is what's happening right now in Rome. Francis, perhaps taking his own advice to try and understand the "signs of the times," called for the special meeting to show that he wants his Church to be involved in dialogue with mainstream culture.

Francis smiles

Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he arrives in St. Peter's square for his weekly public audience on October 8, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Franco Origlia/Getty)

2) Why is the synod such a big deal?

The theme of the current synod is "Pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization." Two-hundred fifty-three participants are currently in session at the Vatican, discussing how best to apply historic Church teaching on family to contemporary settings. While the media has been focusing on homosexuality, the synod is actually discussing a host of contemporary family issues, including divorce and remarriage.

The entire Synod on the Family will span about two years. It began last year with Francis' request that bishops survey their parishioners to see where they stand on issues like divorce and homosexuality, and it will continue until next October's Ordinary Synod. As Elizabeth Dias points out at Time, it's important to view each phase in that process for what it is: a snapshot. And, she adds, "there will be more such snapshot documents in the coming months."

But while it's certainly misguided to exaggerate the developments at the Vatican, it might also be incorrect to downplay them. Though snapshots don't give us the whole picture, they do certainly give us a picture. In the case of this synod, they give us a picture of a Church, under the leadership of a reforming Jesuit, trying to navigate the tension between preaching and listening, between authority and humility.

3) OK. So what exactly did the document say about LGBT people?

Of the entire 14-page document, only three paragraphs discuss homosexuality. That section begins with an unqualified declaration that "homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community." The document then asks if churches are "capable of welcoming these people [and] guaranteeing them a fraternal space in our communities … without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family?"

That's right. This is not even tacit support for gay marriage. In fact, the document emphasizes, at several points, the church's traditional teaching on marriage between a man and woman. The document also clearly states that there are "moral problems connected to homosexual unions," and clarifies that "unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man or woman."

In spite of those reservations, the language of the document does seem like a definite step forward on issues of LGBT inclusion. As James Martin, Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America Magazine, explained to me, "This is the first time I've ever seen reference to the 'gifts' of an LGBT person (without an immediate caveat against sin), and certainly the first time that I've ever seen the love between a same-sex couple referred to as 'precious' and a kind of self-sacrificing love."

4) What does the document say about divorce and remarriage?

Though much of the buzz surrounding the document pertains to its remarks on homosexuality, "everyone knows that the hottest issue at this synod is the question of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics ought to be able to receive Communion," writes John L. Allen Jr. for Crux.

Because the Church teaches that marriage is indissoluble, Catholics who have been divorced and remarried, without having first annulled their previous marriage, are not allowed to receive communion. (Divorced people who have not remarried are invited to the table.)

Pope reading

Pope Francis delivers his speech during the Synod on the Families, to cardinals and bishops gathering in the Synod Aula, at the Vatican, on October 6, 2014. (Andreas Solaro/Getty)

The document clearly states that while "the situation of the divorced who have remarried demands a careful discernment and an accompaniment full of respect," the Church should avoid "language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against." However, on the question of whether or not to allow these remarried Catholics to participate in communion, the document noted the Bishops were divided in their opinions, and therefore, further discussion would be necessary.

One compromise the Bishops might make, notes Allen, is to invoke the theological concept of gradualism. In Catholicism, gradualism refers to the belief that some people modify their behavior gradually rather than all at once, but that even these incremental changes are steps in the direction of holiness. To be clear, gradualism is a pastoral principle — not a doctrinal one. (National Catholic Register has a great explainer on gradualism if you'd like to read it.)

According to Allen, Bishops that want to allow remarried parishioners to take communion "need to find a way to justify it that doesn't seem to call into question the principle that marriage is for life." Invoking the principle of gradualism "could be one way of doing the trick," he notes, since that would essentially let moderate Bishops have their theological wafer and eat it, too.

5) Does the statement about homosexuality actually change any doctrine?

No.

As far as official church doctrine is concerned, Hornbeck told me that nothing has changed.

As Dias rightly points out at Time, the Church can become more inviting without giving up its teachings on homosexuality: "To 'welcome gays' does not mean the Church is no longer equating 'gay' with 'sin.'"

But while traditional doctrine on homosexuality hasn't been altered, it also, notably, hasn't been emphasized with the same hostile language of the culture wars. For example, notes Gerard O'Connell in America, the document doesn't refer to "natural law" or describe homosexuality as "intrinsically disordered" — two phrases that have historically been the cause of much discrimination endured by LGBT people.

Dignity USA, the organization of LGBT Catholics and their allies, issued a statement noting the "unexpectedly positive" tone of the midterm document. Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke called the document an "unanticipated step forward," adding that it marks "the first positive statement ever from the Vatican on same-sex relationships. That's very significant."

6) What does this synod mean for Catholicism going forward?

O'Connell thinks this synod signals that "a new wind is blowing" through Catholicism. This wind, he says, "reveals a clear desire for the Church to dialogue in a fresh, positive, and hopeful way with the family as it is in today's world."

Hornbeck told me it's important to note that the document certainly "is a word of hope" for LGBT people. But in spite of the welcoming chord the document strikes, Hornbeck thinks the theological framework in which the new language is framed is ultimately problematic.

Hornbeck is referring to a key development from Vatican II, which involved the question of whether or not truth exists outside of Catholicism. After lengthy deliberations, the Church council decided to open "the horizon for appreciating the positive elements present in other religions and cultures, despite their limits and their insufficiencies." In other words, the Church decided, there are "many elements of sanctification and of truth … found outside of [the Church's] visible structure," but those elements are merely "imperfect forms" or imitations of the real thing.

Paragraphs 17 to 19 of the synod's document actually use this same line of reasoning and apply it to non-traditional forms of marriage, including same-sex marriage. The argument goes like this: maybe newer forms of marriage don't exactly adhere to the Catholic doctrine of sexuality, but that doesn't mean there aren't "positive elements" to those "imperfect forms" of love.

That's why, despite the progress Hornbeck thinks the document clearly shows, he thinks its overall scope is unfortunately limited. If, he argues, Catholic theologians are using that particular argument from Vatican II, "then same-sex marriages will always be guaranteed to be of a lower status than heterosexual unions."

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