LGBT groups cautiously cheer Catholic Church shift in tone toward gays

Pope Francis talks with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi as he arrives for an afternoon session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. Gregorio Borgia, AP

Pope Francis talks with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi as he arrives for an afternoon session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. Gregorio Borgia, AP

Pope Francis talks with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi as he arrives for an afternoon session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014.

VATICAN CITY — LGBT rights advocates are cautiously cheering a shift in tone from the Catholic Church toward gays, encouraged that Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” position has filtered down to bishops debating family issues at a Vatican meeting this week.

There is no discussion that church doctrine on homosexuality will change or that the Vatican will soon endorse gay marriage or even gay unions. It will not, as the Vatican’s top canon lawyer made clear Thursday.

But for the first time, a Vatican meeting is discussing gay and lesbian issues and how to provide better spiritual care to Catholic homosexuals. Day after day, bishops have spoken of the need to change the church’s language about gays from words of moral condemnation and judgment to words of welcome and respect.

“I think what we’re seeing is a crack in the ice that we have been waiting for, for a very long time,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic gay rights group. “It’s a sign of a first step.”

Church teaching holds that gay acts are “intrinsically disordered,” sinful and a “serious depravity,” and that homosexual inclination is “objectively disordered.” At the same time, it says homosexuals themselves must be treated with respect and compassion and not suffer discrimination.

“I know scores of people who have left the Catholic Church because of those words,” DeBernardo said.

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI penned some of the Vatican’s key documents on gays when he headed the Vatican’s orthodoxy office; a 1986 letter of his to bishops on providing pastoral care to gays insisted that any church program must clearly state “that homosexual activity is immoral.” His 2003 document opposing recognition of same-sex unions made clear that “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.”

The Vatican’s top canon lawyer, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, said Thursday that the Catholic Church would “never” accept gay marriage or even bless a gay union.

“Look, you can talk about everything, you can say everything, but you also have to be honest and say that for us – and not just the Catholic Church but for human culture in general – marriage is between a man and woman,” he told reporters.

“It’s something else to say that everyone makes his or her choice, that we don’t judge and that they might be great people even with this condition, but it’s different to say that the union itself is blessed or a good thing.”

Despite that unbending position, there’s no doubting that a shift in tone has occurred.

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