2 min

The Vatican shuffle

Vatican synod on family takes two steps sideways, one step back

Pope Francis and his more progressive-minded bishops mused about, then retreated from, the idea of welcoming gay people to the Catholic flock, during this month’s synod on the family. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There’s no shame in admitting that your head is still spinning from the Vatican’s wild synod dance marathon.

If you were paying only a modicum of attention, the two-week confab on the family was no ordinary line dance.

For its opening act, we were treated to some provocative, mesmerizing twerking. “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” we heard. And yes, same-sex relationships exist in which “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners,” trumpeted a cajoling report halfway into the synod.

For all of five minutes, we almost sounded . . . human — as opposed to being objectively disordered or displaying “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”

Hallelujah, raved the Human Rights Campaign. There is “a light in the darkness.”

“Stunning change,” Jesuit scholar James Martin rhapsodized.

“Almost-revolutionary acceptance,” wrote the Associated Press.

But in between the synod’s gyrations, you saw the familiar two steps to the side, one step back caveats.

The church — again — reaffirmed that gay relationships “cannot be considered on the same footing” as straight married ones. And anyway, it reiterated, gay unions are morally fraught.

Then came the predictable conservative counterpunch, shoring up that unflinching doctrinal perspective: Francis was playing fast and loose with doctrine, he was not free to change the teaching about “the immorality of homosexual acts,” and such changes would cause a schism in the ranks à la the Anglican Church.

So the twerk gave way to the twist, and in the end we had to settle for a version of the running man: a hint of potential forward movement but essentially jogging energetically in place. The concluding report nixed the “welcoming” language, referred to our sexuality as a mere tendency and suggested that we be accepted with “respect and sensitivity.”

Gay-friendly Rome can’t be built in a day, the still-hopeful protest. But watching molasses go uphill is way more exciting than witnessing the verbal and written contortions of a church wrestling with dogma that a significant number of its faithful — never mind gay people — flout regularly, because it doesn’t even register on their day-to-day radar.

Really, what have we got?

A shift in rhetorical tone. Sure. At least they discussed the idea of welcoming gay people. And yes, even broaching that idea is opening up to public scrutiny the increasing rift between those who are trying to drag Rome kicking and screaming into the 21st century and the “hostile rigidity” — Francis’s words — of conservatives who won’t go gentle into that good night.

But while Pope Francis and his more progressive-minded bishops are still rhetorically and patronizingly musing whether the church is capable of guaranteeing gays “a fraternal space in our communities” or “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony,” they should know that the world continues to turn with or without them.

The ease with which Catholic employers in the United States have seen fit to fire gay employees or force them to resign because they married their partners or some facet of their sexuality became public has rankled the faithful, both gay and straight.

In 2013, students of a Washington State high school marched after the Archdiocese of Seattle fired their much-loved vice-principal Mark Zmuda because he married his male partner. Zmuda’s dismissal is not an isolated case. The New York Times’s Frank Bruni notes that in 2014, 17 people lost their Catholic jobs because of their sexuality.

The time for merely discussing incremental reform is rapidly running out. In the minds of many, it has long passed.