Bishops Debate How to Embrace Gay Couples in Roman Catholicism

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate a Mass to mark the opening of the synod on the family in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican October 5, 2014.
Pope Francis arrives to celebrate a Mass to mark the opening of the synod on the family in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican October 5, 2014. | (Photo: REUTERS/Tony Gentile)

Roman Catholic Bishops are said to be debating how to include gay couples living together without being married as part of the Catholic Church community, as the major Synod on the family gathering at the Vatican reached its half-way point. The bishops have reportedly ruled out changes to the traditional definition of marriage, but are working with the concept that gay people have "gifts and qualities" to offer the church.

"Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners," the bishops said, according to The Associated Press.

A document summarizing the closed-door debate reportedly noted that the bishops are looking into the "gifts and qualities" gay people can offer to the church. The bishops also asked if the Church is ready to offer gay people a welcoming place, "accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony."

Catholics and Evangelicals alike have noted that the talks signify a notable change in tone from the Church regarding such issues, but some question the liberal media's interpretation that Catholics are paving the way to accept gay marriage.

According to Father Robert Barron, founder of Word On Fire Catholic Ministries, in a recent post he writes: "The interim report on the Synod represents a very early stage of the sausage-making process and, unsurprisingly, it isn't pretty. Two more weeks of discussion will follow; then a full year during which the findings of the Synod will be further refined, argued about, and clarified; then the Ordinary Synod on the Family will take place (the one going on now is the Extraordinary Synod), and many more arguments and counter-arguments will be made; finally, some months, perhaps even a year or so, after that, the Pope will write a post-Synodal exhortation summing up the entire process and offering a definitive take on the matter. At that point, I would suggest, something resembling edible sausage will be available for our consumption; until then, we should all be patient and refrain from bloviating."

Evangelical theologian Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, asserted in his recent column that we "don't yet know exactly what the report means, but reports indicate that the synod is asking for a more 'pastoral' and 'more inclusive' approach to cohabiting couples, same-sex partners, and others, while retaining the traditional Catholic views on sexuality and the family. Should all of this even matter to those of us who are Protestants? We do not, as Martin Luther put it, accept the authority of popes and councils 'since these have often contradicted one another. ' And yet, there are some important questions posed here, that we should consider."

"This is a stunning change in the way the Catholic church speaks of gay people," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author. "The Synod is clearly listening to the complex, real-life experiences of Catholics around the world, and seeking to address them with mercy, as Jesus did."

The two-week meeting of bishops from around the world is aimed at tackling a number of controversial issues facing the Catholic Church, including how to respond to changing families and how to better communicate Catholic doctrine.

On the topic of gay people, Vatican leadership has said on numerous occasions in recent times that it is not considering changing its definition of traditional marriage, but spoke out against discrimination of gay people.

"On unions of persons of the same sex, the responses of the bishops' conferences refer to Church teaching. 'There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family. [...] Nonetheless, according to the teaching of the Church, men and women with homosexual tendencies 'must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided,'" the Instrumentum Laboris document published by the Vatican in June read.

During a session on the family last week at the Synod, a married couple asked Pope Francis and the bishops to welcome same-sex couples as a model of evangelization.

The couple, Ron and Mavis Pirola of Sydney, said: "The church constantly faces the tension of upholding the truth while expressing compassion and mercy. Families face this tension all the time."

They continued: "Take homosexuality as an example. Friends of ours were planning their Christmas family gathering when their gay son said he wanted to bring his partner home too. They fully believed in the church's teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family. Their response could be summed up in three (sic) words, 'He is our son.'"

While the meetings in October are only expected to provide a framework for dealing with the issues on the table, a second Synod meeting in 2015 will vote on any formal changes to church guidelines.

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