In attempting to craft his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis was faced with impossibly conflicting demands: intense pressure from the reformists to introduce changes to pastoral practice (if not actual doctrine) on some hot-button topics, competing with equally intense pressure from the conservative side to reaffirm both doctrine and the rules on pastoral practice. We should also remember, that any direct change in doctrine was never in fact on the cards: that was not the purpose of the family synods, and is not the nature of an apostolic exhortation, which traditionally, is purely pastoral.
This is why it is very much a compromise, and reading the full text is very much an ambidextrous exercise: any fair assessment of the Exhortation must repeatedly assert, “On the one hand….. , on the other hand”. For every disappointment, especially for LGBT Catholics, there is a more optimistic qualification. For every sign of hope, there is a matching disappointment.
- There is a firm restatement of the traditional requirement that “homosexuals” must be treated with respect, and that there must be no violence or aggression. On the other, there is no attempt to apply this to the well-known co-operation of some African bishops in the active persecution of LGBT people.
- There is a notable absence of the offensive terms “intrinsically evil” and “objectively disordered”., which have caused so much hurt to lesbian and gay Catholics. On the other, there is no attempt to reject those terms once and for all.
- There is a repetition of the bizarre term “gender ideology” (albeit in a softened form compared with its earlier use in the Synod’s report), but there is also some recognition for the first time that gender and biological sex do not always perfectly co-incide.
- The text begins with the familiar celebration of the family as comprising one man, one woman, and children – but much of the later discussion is a celebration of love and the unitive value of sex, coupled with a condemnation of the traditional obsession with procreation.
- There is also the familiar insistence that same-sex unions cannot be equated with marriage, but NO criticism of same-sex unions themselves. In fact, there are some statements that indirectly appear to accept the value of same-sex unions.
In avoiding directly satisfying either of the two competing factions, he in fact, cleverly dodged the bullet. Instead of either amending or reaffirming existing rules (for both doctrine and pastoral care), he simply downgraded their importance. Moreover, he did this not by ignoring established tradition, but by calling on it, citing extensively from impeccable Catholic authorities such as St Thomas Aquinas, and his immediate predecessors as pope, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
For LGBT Catholics, this is of fundamental importance. For far too long, we’ve been told in key Vatican documents the grossly offensive and harmful language of “intrinsically evil” and “objectively disordered”. We’ve been accustomed to fierce criticism from some quarters for contravening the Catechism. For living publicly in what is described as objectively sinful lifestyles, but what we ourselves see simply as lives of integrity and honesty in loving, self-giving partnerships, too many have been dismissed from Church employment or from pastoral ministry. Others, unable to reconcile the apparent conflict between what they know deep down to be their personal truth and Catholic teaching, have made a range of unhealthy choices. Some have resorted to suicide, others have left home. Some have made the mistake of contracting inappropriate heterosexual marriage, others have simply left the Church. Many more simply attempt to live their lives in an uneasy tension between what they know in their hearts and what they are told in church
Francis has turned all of this on its head. Widely celebrated for his first ever pronouncement on gay Catholics, “Who am I to judge?” he has now drawn on numerous strands of established and widely accepted doctrine, to reverse the question. He now asks of those who self-righteously criticize us and others in “irregular” situations, “Who are you to judge?” He goes further. In addition to questioning the right to judge others, he has changed the criteria for judgement. Where it is necessary to pass judgement (for example, on one’s own actions, or by a pastor on assessing one’s suitability for communion or parish ministry), the test is no longer is this person living in conformity with the rules, but are they living in accordance with their own well-formed conscience?.
To conclude, we leave Quest members with a single thought, and a challenge.
Everything that Pope Francis has said to change the criteria for moral judgements, and in challenging the competence of others to pass judgement in the first place, our people have been saying, for years. Buried in the lengthy text, are many other details of established but neglected doctrine that too, our people have been saying for years.
The challenge now, is to continue saying these things, louder and more insistently than ever, but for the first time, with authoritative papal backing. Predictably, neither the Bishops’ Synod Assemblies of 2014 and 2015 have changed any element of church doctrine – but the groundwork for change has perhaps been laid. A report on LGBT reaction at Bondings notes that this is the beginning of a process, not the end. As the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics stated in their response, “If the door (to change) is still not unlocked, maybe the key is under the mat?”
(A separate post on the wide range of reactions from others, will follow shortly)