VATICAN CITY — Gay rights groups hailed a “seismic shift” by the Catholic Church toward gays on Monday after bishops said homosexuals had gifts to offer the church and that their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided homosexuals with “precious” support.
In a preliminary report half-way through a Vatican meeting on family life, the bishops also said the church must recognize the “positive” aspects of civil unions and even Catholics who cohabitate, with the aim of bringing them to a lifelong commitment in a church wedding.
The report summarized the closed-door debate that Pope Francis initiated to discuss a host of hot-button family issues such as marriage, divorce, homosexuality and birth control. No decisions were announced, but the tone of the report was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance rather than condemnation, and it will guide discussions until a final document is issued Saturday.
“For the LGBT Catholics in the United States and around the world, this new document is a light in the darkness – a dramatic new tone from a church hierarchy that has long denied the very existence of committed and loving gay and lesbian partnerships,” said Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign, the biggest LGBT rights organization in the U.S.
Conservative groups denounced the report as heresy and a “betrayal” that will only serve to confuse Catholics.
In an indication of the chasm that is apparently underway within the church leadership itself, Francis decided late Friday to add six progressives from four continents to the synod leadership to help prepare the final document after several conservatives were elected to leadership positions. None of Francis’ appointees were Africans, who are traditionally among the most conservative on family issues.
Bishops clearly took into account the views of the pope, whose “Who am I to judge?” comment about gays signaled a new tone of welcome for the church. Their report also reflected the views of ordinary Catholics who, in responses to Vatican questionnaires in the run-up to the synod, rejected church teaching on birth control and homosexuality as outdated and irrelevant.
The bishops said gays had “gifts and qualities” to offer and asked rhetorically if the church was ready to provide them a welcoming place, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.”
For a 2,000-year-old institution that teaches that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered,” even posing the question was significant.
“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 bishops repeated that gay marriage was off the table. But it acknowledged that gay partnerships had merit.
“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,” they said.