There has already been a great deal of controversy in the Catholic blogosphere over the document released on October 13 by the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. The Relatio, as it is technically called, is an interim document that essentially is a summary of the discussion so far by the bishops at the Synod, and a prelude of the next phase of the discussion. It bears no doctrinal weight at all. It’s like a working early draft of what will be discussed at the regular Synod of Bishops in 2015, and that eventually may form a part of an apostolic exhortation to be issued by the pope in 2016.
Much of the controversy has centered on the alleged change of tone in the document regarding homosexual persons. And, admittedly, the document says some startling things about the proper attitude we should have towards our homosexual brethren, such as:
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies… must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.
These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Or even this:
Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
Scandalous abandonment of the traditional Catholic condemnation of homosexuals, right? How could they have forgotten to say this:
The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.
Well, actually, the first three passages aren’t from the supposedly-liberal/radical Relatio at all — they’re direct quotations from the allegedly arch-conservative Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2358 and 2359, issued by Pope John Paul II and written under the direct guidance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI). Only the last passage is from the new Relatio.
Maybe it’s not such a ground-breaking ecclesiastical earthquake, after all. The fact of the matter is that the Relatio reflects a mindset among the bishops that is very much in keeping with the Catechism, and that is — or at least should be — old hat among Catholics. While we cannot accept the morality of any sexual sin or the validity of same-sex “marriages”, we still have to relate to homosexual persons as people made in the image and likeness of God, subject to the same sad legacy of concupiscence (i.e., “disordered inclinations”) as all of us, but who are loved by God and should be loved by us.
That’s nothing new in Catholicism, even if we have sadly failed to make it clear in our public statements. I am as guilty of this as anyone.
There are some rather striking passages in the Relatio, in which the bishops note the existence of positive elements in imperfect relationships (such as cohabitation of men and women, and in same-sex unions). In my mind, this is a crucial hint as to the pastoral strategy that our bishops — and most likely the Holy Father — are leading us towards. It will not involve the slightest adjustment of doctrine, but it is indeed a change in tone and emphasis.
To get this, we need to think long and carefully about what, to me, is the most interesting phrase in the Relatio. It is a very striking statement about the mission of the Church:
Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.
The gaze of Christ is one of invitation, which calls us to a response, which has consequences for how we live. But the love comes first, and that’s what will attract people to the Lord.