The Pope has restated Catholic teaching on marriage at the opening of the three-week gathering of bishops, known as the Synod.
Presiding over the Mass to open the Synod – which is considering the role of family in the modern world – Pope Francis dedicated much of his discourse to the subject of love between a man and a woman, appearing to reaffirm traditional teaching.
He said: “This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self.” He also referred to opposite-sex marriage as the “true meaning of the couple and of human sexuality in God’s plan.”
The Synod, which is made up of approximately 300 church leaders from across the globe, will be discussing the treatment of LGBT Catholics, the church’s approach towards couples who cohabit outwith marriage and divorced Catholics who wish to continue taking communion. The meeting of the Synod is arguably the most significant such gathering since Vatican II, given the calls for reform and the Pontiff’s recent decision to make it easier for Catholics to annul their marriages – which may be indicative of a change of direction.
The Synod also meets against the backdrop of Polish-born priest Krzysztof Charamsa’s announcement that he was in a same-sex relationship, who was dismissed from his post on the basis that his announcement was “grave and irresponsible”. Charamsa has hit out at what he believes is the Church’s “backwards” attitude towards homosexuality, telling the Italian daily newspaper Corriere Della Sera that “it’s time the Church opened its eyes and realised that offering gay believers total abstinence from a life of love is inhuman.”
Charamsa added that the Vatican was “ignorant about homosexuality” and accused it of “lagging behind” in its approach towards gay Catholics. Official Church teaching currently describes same-sex relationships as “intrinsically disordered”.
Pope Francis also called for “love and understanding” and two years ago suggested that, while homosexual activity was sinful, homosexual orientation was not. “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?“, he said during an impromptu press conference in 2013. He also met with a gay former student of his, Yayo Grassi, and his partner during his tour of the USA, suggesting a different approach to his predecessors. However, while the Pontiff appears to be seeking greater understanding on issues of sexual morality, his reaffirmation of Catholic teaching on marriage suggests he wants to do this without radically altering the Church’s current theological positions.
The Synod’s discussions during the next few weeks are expected to be contentious at times, with many more liberal Catholics advocating change on a wide range of issues, and conservatives likely to offer significant resistance. Prior to the Synod meeting, a number of Catholic pro-equality activists, known as Rainbow Catholics, held a conference calling for acceptance of gay people in the life of the Church, while some conservative Catholics held another, discussing how gay people can remain celibate and live in accordance with the Church’s rules.
Ultimately, while the Synod is a permanent body headquartered in Rome, it acts in a purely advisory capacity and exists to “assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith…and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world”; it has no authority to make decisions or determine issues and does not operate democratically.
Essentially, while the Synod will discuss the relevant issues and make recommendations, ultimately any decisions on how to apply Church teaching – and whether to make changes – will be the Pope’s.
It is widely felt that this Synod will be a key moment in Pope Francis’s leadership. The media spotlight on LGBT issues – and particularly the case of Krzysztof Charamsa – has brought the Vatican’s approach towards homosexuality into sharp focus. While this is only one of a number of issues the bishops will be considering in their deliberations, it has undeniably increased the pressure on Pope Francis to find a way forward.
At a preliminary Synod last year, an initial statement – which marked a change of tone, if not official teaching – referred to the “gifts and qualities” of homosexual people. However, this was omitted after a backlash from some conservatives, underlining the challenges Catholics progressives continue to experience against the strength of the conservative lobby.
If Pope Francis is genuinely committed to a more welcoming, merciful and compassionate church, his vision must be reconciled with overdue action on the status of gay Catholics if it is to be credible. Indeed, the Pope’s popular image as a progressive reformer is likely to be compromised if he fails to instigate some kind of advancement – however small. As Mgr Charamsa has demonstrated this week, the issue can no longer be ignored or sidestepped. While radical shifts in the Church’s teachings are unlikely, the Synod may well recommend a gradualist approach towards the creation of an inclusive church – but even that is far from certain.
Some of those calling for change are, however, optimistic. Martin Pendergast, a former Catholic priest who now campaigns for greater inclusion of LGBT people in the Church, told the Rainbow Catholics event that he believed Charamsa’s courage in coming out would lead to a “more open” Synod debate: “It may encourage others, particularly bishops who might have been nervous about talking too radically about divorce, remarriage and same-sex relationships, to speak more openly and more honestly.”