Lifestyle & Belief

The Catholic Church changed only its tone on gays, but that's still a big deal


A bishop takes a picture with a tablet during the Synod on the Family. The Roman Catholic assembly has softened its traditional Catholic stance against gays, suggesting "accepting and valuing their sexual orientation."


Max Rossi/Reuters

"Unprecedented" and "stunning" aren't words you usually hear to describe news from the Vatican. Then again, Catholic bishops don't often put out a statement that recognizes the "gifts and qualities" that gay people can offer the Church.

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The Catholic Church has traditionally condemned homosexuality, and the gathering of bishops — called a synod — did nothing to change long-standing Church doctrine on gay people. But their call to "welcome home gays and lesbians" was the first of its kind, marking a historic shift in tone for Catholicism's leaders.

The Synod on the Family, as this summit is called, released a report on Monday acknowledging that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community. Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a further space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home."

"I think it's amazing to see the Catholic leadership really struggle with tension inside the church," says Lester Feder, a reporter for BuzzFeed. "It's clear there are elements within the church that are looking to end the really strict division on this and try to find a way to incorporate gay and lesbians inside the church."

The report does not give approval to same sex marriage, nor will there be a change in church teachings, Feder says, but it's still "a huge change of tone in how the church relates to groups of people that have been estranged."  

The document also called on Catholics to welcome other groups who have traditionally been given a cold shoulder by the Church. That includes couples living together outside of marriage — "living in sin," as doctrine has it — and divorced Catholics who remarry without getting an annullment. Church doctrine currently forbids them from receiving communion, but there are suggestions that may change.

Pope Francis has repeatedly signalled his desire for the church to become to become more open and understanding since ascending to the office in 2013. The Argentine pontiff is the first pope to come from a country that recognizes same-sex marriages, Feder says. And he's shifted the conversation away from culture war issues and opened "a space for some kind of reconciliation with gay Catholics."  

"To see a pope actively trying to take down the tone of the debate is a major move," Feder says. "What that means in the long run, and whether it gets to anything that looks true acceptance of same sex relationships — I think we're still a long way from that. But this is an institution that has existed a thousand years, and change takes time."