My parents weren’t religious and I’m not Catholic. Yet, the pope was at the center of some of my most unforgettable childhood memories. When I was 10, my folks visited Rome. Seeing the pope was a highlight of the trip for my Mom, who was often ill. “Pope John [the XXIII] gave me a new life,” she said, describing what it meant to her to stand with many others to receive the Pontiff’s blessing.
In the early 1960s, the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (a.k.a. Vatican II), which Pope John XXIII convened to open up “the windows” of the Catholic Church to the modern world, was everywhere. “It’s about time!” I remember my Dad, who was Jewish, saying when he heard that Vatican II had declared that the Jews hadn’t killed Jesus Christ.
My ears pricked up recently when I heard the news from an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops convened by Pope Francis. On Oct. 13, this Synod, made up of 190 voting bishops and cardinals, issued a preliminary report saying not only that there are “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation,” but that gays and lesbians have “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” While confirming the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality and marriage, the 12-page document even said that some same-sex couples give each other “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” and “precious support in the life of the partners.” The report also offered welcome to divorced Catholics and to straight unmarried couples who live together.
Given that the Catholic Church has long taught that homosexuality is “disordered” and that LGBT people are “living in sin,” to many of us, the spirit of the preliminary report echoed that of Vatican II. We knew it wasn’t a final report and that change in an institution such as the Catholic Church, wouldn’t be easy. But we dared to hope that the church’s windows had begun to be opened.
Not unexpectedly, conservatives at the assembly objected to the preliminary report’s welcoming language toward gays and lesbians and civilly married straight couples. Backtracking, the final report issued at the Synod’s end on Oct. 18, said that gays must be met with “respect and sensitivity,” but nixed the talk of our “gifts” to the “Christian community.”
This backtracking isn’t good news, but it doesn’t mean all hope for LGBT people in the Catholic Church is gone. As with politics, seeing how the sausage is made in religion isn’t pretty. Yet, at the opening of the assembly, Pope Francis signaled that he wanted the sausage making to be out in the open. “Speak clearly,” Francis said, “No one must say, ‘This can’t be said.’”
Mary E. Hunt, a Catholic feminist theologian and her partner are parents of a child, who they adopted. “I’m not part of a traditional family,” Hunt said in a phone interview with the Blade, “I’m part of what the church considers to be a problem.”
The bishops and cardinals at the Synod are celibate, Hunt said. “They don’t make the mature adult decisions that you make when you’re part of a family unit – with spouses and children,” Hunt said.
What’s important in a “tweeting” universe is that the world got to see how the report was crafted at the Synod, she added. “Lots of groups, such as New Ways Ministry, and our group, lobbied the Synod about the future of the church,” said Hunt, co-director of Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual. “No one can say we didn’t hear the experiences of lots of people.”
This report isn’t the last word on these matters. In October 2015, another Synod will again take up these issues.
It would be naive not to realize that change occurs slowly in the Catholic Church. Yet, justice can’t be set back forever.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer, a poet, and Yale Divinity School graduate, is a regular contributor to the Blade.