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Catholic Church makes 'stunning' overture toward gays

Gay rights groups are hailing a "seismic shift" by the Catholic Church toward gays and lesbians after bishops said homosexuals had gifts to offer the church and that their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided them "precious" support.

Bishops' group pushes for 'accepting and valuing' LGBT faithful and their 'gifts and qualities'

Bishops' group pushes for 'accepting and valuing' LGBT faithful and their 'gifts and qualities' 2:30

Gay rights groups hailed a "seismic shift" by the Catholic Church toward gays and lesbians on Monday after bishops said homosexuals had gifts to offer the church and that their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided them "precious" support.

In a preliminary report halfway 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 live together, 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.

The bishops were clearly taking into account the views of the pope, whose "Who am I to judge?" comment about LGBT people signalled 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to Vatican questionnaires in the run-up to the synod, rejected church teaching on birth control and homosexuality as outdated and irrelevant.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."

'Stunning change'

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 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 their report 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.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic gay rights group, said that though the report repeats doctrine about gay marriage, "the move toward accepting and valuing the gifts of gay and lesbian people is a major step forward."

For heterosexuals, the bishops said the church must grasp the "positive reality of civil weddings" and even cohabitation, with the aim of helping the couple commit eventually to a church wedding.

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