VATICAN CITY — A document issued by the Vatican on Thursday could signal a substantial shift in the Catholic Church's approach to the family, including the treatment of same-sex couples.
The church is showing no softening on its opposition to same-sex marriage, but it appears church leaders are open to considering ways to integrate same-sex couples into pastoral life despite the church's disapproval of same-sex unions. Most significantly, church leaders appear to be poised to instruct priests that they must baptize the children of same-sex couples when they seek the sacrament.
The document issued Thursday, called an Instrumentum Laboralis, is essentially a planning paper for an October meeting of bishops worldwide to consider teaching on the family, which will formally be known as a synod on "the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization." It does not lay out any new teachings directly, but rather is written as a synthesis of discussions with church leaders around the world that began with a 2013 global survey of bishops' conferences and Catholic organizations. Its tone hints strongly at where the church might go in formulating new policies, which will be developed at the meeting as well as a follow-up meeting in 2015.
The section entitled "Concerning Unions of Persons of the Same Sex" reiterates the established church position 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." However, it seems to speak approvingly of churches that "amply demonstrate that they are trying to find a balance between the Church's teaching on the family and a respectful, non-judgmental attitude towards people living in such unions." It suggests that outright rejection of same-sex couples is not necessary to respect church doctrine nor appropriate in caring for their spiritual needs.
"On the whole, the extreme reactions to these unions, whether compromising or uncompromising, do not seem to have facilitated the development of an effective pastoral programme which is consistent with the Magisterium and compassionate towards the persons concerned," the Instrumentum states.
The clearest sign of a new direction in the church's approach to same-sex couples may be a paragraph on ministering to these couples' children. While it says the pope and other church leaders remain opposed to allowing same-sex couples to become parents "because they see a risk to the integral good of the child," it also rejects the idea that priests should turn away same-sex parents who want their children to be baptized. It also says priests should be prepared to engage in their ongoing spiritual development.
"When people living in such [same-sex] unions request a child's baptism, almost all the responses emphasize that the child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children," the document states. "Should a reasonable doubt exist in the capability of persons in a same sex union to instruct the child in the Christian faith, proper support is to be secured in the same manner as for any other couple seeking the baptism of their children.... In these cases, the pastor is carefully to oversee the preparation for the possible baptism of the child, with particular attention given to the choice of the godfather and godmother."
These statements could have immediate political consequences, especially since the Italian parliament, which sits just across the river from Vatican City, is currently at work on a civil union proposal that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he wants to see passed this fall.
But the document may also be laying the groundwork for a shift in the way churches treat people who have divorced and formed new families, altering a policy that has caused controversy for centuries (including several armed conflicts). While it again does not say that churches should accept divorce, it goes on at length about how the disapproval of remarrying — especially in the form of denying communion to those who have remarried — is undermining the church's moral authority:
"Persons do not understand how their irregular situation can be a reason for their not being able to receive the sacraments. Instead, they believe that the Church is at fault in not permitting their irregular marriage situation. This way of thinking can lead to viewing withholding the sacraments as a punishment.... A good number of episcopal conferences recommend assisting people in canonically irregular marriages not to consider themselves as "separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life."... Moreover, responses and observations from some episcopal conferences emphasize that the Church needs to equip herself with pastoral means which provide the possibility of her more widely exercising mercy, clemency and indulgence towards new unions."
Here is the full section, "Concerning Unions of Persons of the Same Sex."
110. On unions of persons of the same sex, the responses of the bishops' conferences refer to Church teaching. "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. [...] Nonetheless, according to the teaching of the Church, men and women with homosexual tendencies 'must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided'" (CDF, Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, 4). The responses indicate that the recognition in civil law of unions between persons of the same sex largely depends on the socio-cultural, religious and political context. In this regard, the episcopal conferences describe three instances: the first exists when repressive and punitive measures are taken in reaction to the phenomenon of homosexuality in all its aspects, especially when the public manifestation of homosexuality is prohibited by civil law. Some responses indicate that, in this context, the Church provides different forms of spiritual care for single, homosexual people who seek the Church's assistance.
111. A second context is one where the phenomenon of homosexuality is fluid. Homosexual behavior is not punished, but simply tolerated until it becomes visible or public. In this context, legislation on civil unions between persons of the same sex does not usually exist. In political circles, especially in the West, however, the increasing tendency is to adopt laws providing for registered partnerships or so-called "marriage" between persons of the same sex. People argue non-discrimination to give support to this idea, an approach which is perceived by believers and a good part of the public, in central and eastern Europe, as an imposition by a political and foreign culture.
112. The responses describe a third context, one where States have introduced legislation recognizing civil unions or so-called "marriages" between homosexual persons. In some countries, the situation reflects a real redefining of marriage, where the couple is viewed only in legal terms, with such references as "equal rights" and "non-discrimination" without any thought to a constructive dialogue in the matter based on the deeper anthropological issues involved and the centrality of the integral well-being of the human person, especially the integral well-being of the children in these unions. When legal equality is given to heterosexual and homosexual marriage, the State often allows the adoption of children (biological children of either partner or children born through artificial fertilization). Such is the case, particularly in English-speaking countries and central Europe.
An Evaluation of the Particular Churches
113. Every bishops' conference voiced opposition to "redefining" marriage between a man and a woman through the introduction of legislation permitting a union between two people of the same sex. The episcopal conferences amply demonstrate that they are trying to find a balance between the Church's teaching on the family and a respectful, non-judgmental attitude towards people living in such unions. On the whole, the extreme reactions to these unions, whether compromising or uncompromising, do not seem to have facilitated the development of an effective pastoral programme which is consistent with the Magisterium and compassionate towards the persons concerned.
114. A factor which clearly has an impact on the Church's pastoral care and one which complicates the search for a balanced attitude in this situation is the promotion of a gender ideology. In some places, this ideology tends to exert its influence even at the elementary level, spreading a mentality which, intending to eliminate homophobia, proposes, in fact, to undermine sexual identity.
115. Episcopal conferences supply a variety of information on unions between persons of the same sex. In countries where legislation exists on civil unions, many of the faithful express themselves in favour of a respectful and non-judgmental attitude towards these people and a ministry which seeks to accept them. This does not mean, however, that the faithful give equal status to heterosexual marriage and civil unions between persons of the same sex. Some responses and observations voice a concern that the Church's acceptance of people in such unions could be construed as recognition of their union.
Some Pastoral Guidelines
116. When considering the possibility of a ministry to these people, a distinction must be made between those who have made a personal, and often painful, choice and live that choice discreetly so as not to give scandal to others, and those whose behaviour promotes and actively — often aggressively — calls attention to it. Many conferences emphasize that, due to the fact that these unions are a relatively recent phenomenon, no pastoral programs exist in their regard. Others admit a certain unease at the challenge of accepting these people with a merciful spirit and, at the same time, holding to the moral teaching of the Church, all the while attempting to provide appropriate pastoral care which takes every aspect of the person into consideration. Some responses recommend not using phrases such as "gay," "lesbian" or "homosexual" to define a person's identity.
117. Many responses and observations call for theological study in dialogue with the human sciences to develop a multi-faceted look at the phenomenon of homosexuality. Others recommend collaborating with specific entities, e.g., the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy for Life, in thoroughly examining the anthropological and theological aspects of human sexuality and the sexual difference between man and woman in order to address the issue of gender ideology.
118. The great challenge will be to develop a ministry which can maintain the proper balance between accepting persons in a spirit of compassion and gradually guiding them to authentic human and Christian maturity. In this regard, some conferences refer to certain organizations as successful models for such a ministry.
119. Sex education in families and educational institutions is an increasingly urgent challenge, especially in countries where the State tends to propose in schools a one-sided view and a gender ideology. Formation programmes ought to be established in schools or parish communities which offer young people an adequate idea of Christian and emotional maturity to allow them to face even the phenomenon of homosexuality. At the same time, the observations show that there is still no consensus in the Church on the specific way of receiving persons in these unions. The first step would be a slow process of gathering information and distinguishing criteria of discernment for not only ministers and pastoral workers but also groups and ecclesial movements.
The Transmission of the Faith to Children in Same Sex Unions
120. The responses are clearly opposed to legislation which would allow the adoption of children by persons in a same-sex union, because they see a risk to the integral good of the child, who has the right to have a mother and father, as pointed out recently by Pope Francis (cf. Address to Members of the International Catholic Child Bureau (BICE), 11 April 2014 ). However, when people living in such unions request a child's baptism, almost all the responses emphasize that the child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children. Many responses indicate that it would be helpful to receive more concrete pastoral directives in these situations. Clearly, the Church has the duty to ascertain the actual elements involved in transmitting the faith to the child. Should a reasonable doubt exist in the capability of persons in a same sex union to instruct the child in the Christian faith, proper support is to be secured in the same manner as for any other couple seeking the baptism of their children. In this regard, other people in their family and social surroundings could also provide assistance. In these cases, the pastor is carefully to oversee the preparation for the possible baptism of the child, with particular attention given to the choice of the godfather and godmother.