Sea Change At Vatican?

It’s too early to tell if the documents coming out of a Vatican-sponsored synod of cardinals charged with an open discussion of issues relating to the family represent the beginning of something very big, or one of those false dawns Catholic progressives (and their non-Catholic allies) exaggerate. But if nothing else, it appears Pope Francis has succeeded in changing the tone of how the church speaks of people who do not accept its teachings on sexuality, contraception and divorce. Here’s how TPM’s Nicole Winfield summarized the reaction so far:

Bishops clearly took into account the views of Pope Francis, 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to Vatican questionnaires in the run-up to the synod, rejected church teaching on birth control and homosexuality as outdated and irrelevant.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 is 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.”

Catholic “traditionalists” are certainly alarmed:

Conservative groups rejected the report as a “betrayal” and even heresy.

“What will Catholics parents now have to tell their children about contraception, cohabiting with partners or living homosexual lifestyles?” asked Maria Madise, coordinator of the Voice of the Family, which counts pro-life and conservative groups as members.

“Will those parents now have to tell their children that the Vatican teaches that there are positive and constructive aspects to these mortal sins? This approach destroys grace in souls.”

The battle of “traditionalists” against their fellow-Catholics in this country is an old story. And recently they’ve have the renewed support of the U.S. hierarchy. But whether or not the new direction set by Francis culminates in any major doctrinal revisions, the withdrawal of Vatican support for internal and external culture wars is significant. At TNR, National Catholic Reporter editor Tom Roberts suggests it really is a new day:

The approach is clearly disorienting…to those who believe that the church must be a place where teaching and practice are absolute and immutable, where the dividing line must be clear between those who are in and those who are out.

Such open debate and contentious questions were not well received during the papacies of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Francis has not only allowed it but, in effect, demanded it. His opening charge to the bishops was to speak boldly and listen with humility. He wanted the full debate, and he’s getting it.

UPDATE: Missed an obvious opportunity to title this post: “Holy See Change. ” Too bad.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.