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Was the Vatican Shift on Same-Sex Marriage Really An 'Earthquake'?

Franco Origlia, Getty Images

The Vatican made news on Monday for not condemning same-sex marriage. Catholic leaders struck their most conciliatory tone yet on the issue, following a week of closed-door meetings called a “synod.” In a preliminary document summarizing the deliberations, the leaders said that, "Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?" 

CNN and Reuters called this a "stunning" and "dramatic" shift in tone. John Thavis, a Vatican expert, called it "an earthquake."

To understand this reaction, consider how far the Papacy has come on LGBT issues in what is, by Church standards, a short span of time. John Paul II said in 2005 that the "family is often threatened by legislation which—at times directly—challenges its natural structure, which is and must necessarily be that of a union between a man and a woman founded on marriage." His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, took many occasions to condemn gay marriage publicly. On World Peace Day and Christmas, Benedict equated gay marriage to an attack on the "essence of the human creature" and presenting a "serious harm to justice and peace." He even called gay couples "intrinsically disordered." But Francis? In September of last year he famously said, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?"

That doesn’t mean Francis or the Vatican is ready to condone homosexuality. Reportedly, in a private conversation with a bishop in December, Francis said he was “shocked” at gay adoption. The synod document also maintained that same-sex marriage "cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman."

Nor it is clear that this rhetorical shift will evolve into a doctrinal one anytime soon. Among other things, the group of American Catholic Bishops who have long advocated against gay marriage will need more convincing. But the synod document, says Vatican reporter Tom Roberts for TNR, “in effect takes the weapons out of the hands of the hierarchical culture warriors.” John Allen writes at the Crux, a Boston Globe website on Catholic news, that "None of this means that Catholic doctrine is on the brink of changing, as the synod has made clear that’s not in the cards," But, he adds, it may augur a new era of what might be called “lifestyle ecumenism,” in which the church approaches people living outside its ideal for marriage with friendship rather than condemnation."

In other words, this could be the start of Church finally being nudged in a slightly more welcoming direction. 

Rebecca Leber

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