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One word that explains the Vatican split over LGBT rights

Pope Francis greets the cardinals as he arrives at the Synod Hall for ordinary public consistory on October 20, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Pope Francis greets the cardinals as he arrives at the Synod Hall for ordinary public consistory on October 20, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican.
(Franco Origlia/Getty)

Accogliere.

That was the Italian word heard 'round the world last Monday, when the Vatican's Synod on the Family released its relatio post disceptationem. The post-discussion report summarized the discussions that had already taken place during the first part of The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, which ran in Rome from October 5-19. The Synod 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.

Accogliere is an Italian word which translates as "to welcome." It was used in Monday's document in a section titled "Welcoming homosexual persons" — "Are we capable of welcoming these people?" the document asked.

As soon as news of accogliere broke, media outlets everywhere began praising what many considered to be a major step forward on the Church's treatment of LGBT people. DignityUSA, the organization of LGBT Catholics and 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."

But the celebration was short-lived. Just days after the landmark document was released, it was revised, as the Washington Post explains.

Facing outrage from traditional Catholics, top clergy at a Vatican meeting on Thursday altered a document meant to guide future outreach to gays and lesbians, changing the goal of "welcoming homosexual persons" to "providing for homosexual persons."

Of course, "provide for" is not a correct translation of the Italian word accogliere. As Patrick Ryan, Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, quipped to me in an email when I asked if the word could ever be translated as provide for, "Whoever is telling you that does not know Italian."

At the National Catholic Reporter, Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for NCR, insisted that the new translation wasn't accurate. He also said that "no explanation was given" for the change, but that it looked like "some of the English-speaking bishops got the secretariat of the synod to change the translation."

It seems important to note that the only version that was (mis)translated was the English one, as the Irish Times notes, which has led to "speculation that conservative forces in the anglophonic world, perhaps in North America, Africa and Asia, were behind this unprecedented development."

Patrick Hornbeck, Chair of Theology at Fordham University, told me that Thursday's document was "absolutely" changed from Monday's, but he also reminded me of our conversation last week, when he told me that the working document wasn't really the landmark moment that everyone was hoping for.

"I think commentators on the Catholic Church's relationship to LGBT communities were so excited about the prospect of a sliver of opening on the Church's relating to same-sex couples that there was a rush to positive judgment about the initial report," Hornbeck said.

When asked if people were right to feel disappointed by the synod's nixing of the word "welcome," he told me they were, but said there were two possibilities for the change. Maybe, said Hornbeck, the first document didn't accurately represent the bishops' views on homosexuality, and therefore, the change wasn't really a "change," per se, but an attempt to more accurately capture the bishops' thoughts on this issue. The second possibility, he continued, is that the first document did, in fact, capture the bishops' views, but in light of criticism "they began to change their tune." If the first option is true, then the original hype over the word "welcoming" was misguided. If, however, the second is true, Hornbeck thinks "there's more cause for disappointment."

In spite of anyone's thoughts as to the chain of events that led to the new English translation, Hornbeck is impressed with the level of transparency Pope Francis brought to the synod. "What is remarkable is this is the first time a pope required the Vatican to make votes available to the media."

Here's how James Martin, Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America Magazine, explained it:

Pope Francis asked to have all of the paragraphs presented in the "final" report, even those that failed to win the majority needed for full passage (a two-thirds majority).  Two of those three dealt with LGBT Catholics, and one addressed divorced and remarried Catholics.  What's more, the Pope asked that the voting results be shown alongside all the paragraphs, which were voted on separately.  Gerard O'Connell called this a break with 49 years of tradition.

But transparency or not, many are disappointed with what they see as a major setback in the Church's relationship with LGBT communities. In a statement issued from DignityUSA in response to the synod's final report, Duddy-Burke regretted that "doctrine" was given precedence of the "pastoral need" to welcome LGBT people.

Said Duddy-Burke, "DignityUSA remains committed to the truth that LGBT people are beloved children of God and deserve full inclusion in our Church and society."

Francis seems well aware of the disagreement between those who want the Church to be more welcoming to the LGBT community, and those who want to reinforce traditional Catholic teaching that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." In his closing remarks to the synod, Francis encouraged and admonished those on the right and left, warning against both a "temptation to hostile inflexibility" and a temptation to "bow down to a worldly spirit."