As a non-Catholic following news from the Vatican last week it was surprising to realize that the Pope isn’t always infallible. For about 24 hours it seemed like the Catholic Church was going to take a giant leap into the 21st century. But then reality took hold. In a major turnaround, conservative bishops won the day and gave what some would consider a stinging rebuke to the Pope.
The pope had called a meeting titled the “Synod on the Family.” It was a two-week meeting in Rome intended to launch a year of discussion on major issues of the church related to families. According to the Washington Post, the meeting “convened to help the Catholic Church improve its outreach to diverse modern families ended Saturday with a summary paper that removed earlier, revolutionary language that cited the value of same-sex and divorced families.”
The Post reported that the document first released as a mid-meeting draft written by a small group of bishops appointed by the pope, including Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, contained the words, “that the Church must ‘turn respectfully’ to couples such as those who live together unmarried or are of the same-gender and ‘appreciate the positive values’ those unions may have.” Those few words apparently sparked a revolt by more conservative bishops who won the day and had them removed from the final report of the Synod. It was also reported that while initially one of the documents of the Synod had used the word ‘welcoming’ when referring to homosexuals and the church, it was changed to ‘providing for’ homosexuals.
Then according to Reuters, “after the final report of the Synod was released the Pope gave a sermon to 70,000 faithful in St. Peter’s Square and he sounded defiant when he said, ‘God is not afraid of new things. That is why he is continuously surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways.’”
As someone who isn’t a member of the church it has been interesting to watch as this pope moves to bring together his supporters and take more control of the church’s hierarchy. We can all only hope he will be granted enough years to move it forward in meaningful ways. The Catholic Church is a large and old institution and like any big institution change doesn’t come easy, but it can come.
In some ways what happened in the recent Synod is what happened in the United Methodist Church in 2012. At that time many members of the Washington/Baltimore group of the church, led by Foundry United Methodist Church in the District of Columbia, went to the UMC General Conference in Tampa excited about resolutions they had managed to pass to change the church’s Book of Discipline on the issue of same-sex marriage. They went with high hopes but came up against a brick wall of conservative church leaders who refused to budge on the issue.
Many of us who have fought for the civil and human rights of minorities, women and the LGBT community, have understood clearly that the progress we have made is all about civil law. That alone has been a long, hard fight. During that fight we have been incredibly careful to make the case that religious liberty is just that — the right to practice one’s faith according to the tenets of the faith. Our progress on marriage equality has been faster because people have understood we are changing only civil law. Some of the fights we are now still having on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act are partially related to how to differentiate where civil law and our Constitution end and church law begins. We are debating the impact of civil law on the practice of religion.
As we gain our human and civil rights under civil law, and we are in many ways still far from securing those, we will be working to have those rights inculcated into the culture and accepted. Once that happens I believe that there will be more pressure on religious institutions by their own members to also be more accepting. Clearly that will take time. But when those like Pope Francis are willing to speak up and fight for universal acceptance of all people recognizing that we have all been made in God’s image, I know that time will come.