Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Listening Is Good. Hearing Is Better": Valuable Commentary on the Synod on the Family Document (1)

As I follow media and blog discussions of the relatio produced yesterday by the synod on the family to sum up its discussions thus far — follow to the extent that I'm able, as I try to clear my head  of fever and vapors — I find myself drawn, moth to flame, to commentary from the margins. While I'm underwhelmed (to use Chris Morley's good word) by much that's being said by commentators closer to the center of things in church and society . . . . It's interesting to me to observe how certain kinds of commentary speak to me with force and immediacy: a reminder of where I myself fit in the scheme of things (clearly on the margins and not anywhere near the center).

The Vatican document is available in English translation at the website of the Vatican press office and also at The Tablet's website. A word that looms large in it: listening. Another term being much bruited about: mercy. And, finally: welcoming.

As media everywhere were reporting yesterday, a section (¶ 50-52) of the relatio entitled "Welcoming Homosexual Persons" asks,

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony? (¶ 50).

And then the document asserts,

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. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority ((¶ 52).

Media commentators are calling these statements a "sea change" or an "earthquake" (the top headline at Huffington Post yesterday pointing to Philip Pullella's Reuters article about the synod document read "'Earthquake' Vatican Document: Accept Gays"). Some commentators are going so far as to say that the preceding statements represent a revolution in how Catholic pastoral leaders speak about folks who are gay.

Personally, I think that interpretation is far-fetched, though I'll grant that the positive statement about the value of committed gay relationships (albeit, those relationships exhibit "moral problems") may represent a praiseworthy departure from how Catholic pastoral leaders have spoken about us who are gay in recent years. But when Cardinal Ratzinger (later, Pope Benedict XVI) issued his infamous 1986 CDF document entitled "On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," he stated explicitly in that document that he was composing it to respond to a previous statement by the same CDF office entitled "Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics," which viewed the "homosexual condition" in an "overly benign way" (¶ 3). There have already been, in other words, significant statements from top pastoral leaders of the Catholic church that follow the approach taken by yesterday's relatio.

The U.S. Catholic bishops also published their pastoral statement appealing for pastoral compassion for people who are gay — "Always Our Children" — in 1997, though the USCCB has more or less tacitly disowned that document in the recent past. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself instructs Catholics to treat those who are gay with "respect, compassion, and sensitivity," and declares that "every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided" (¶ 2358).

It is hardly new, then, for the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church to speak of gay Catholics as bringing significant gifts to the church, gifts that should be welcomed by the church as a whole. And it's certainly not new for the pastoral leaders of the church to speak of the need to create welcoming spaces within the church for those who are gay — since how can the church present itself as in any sense rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ and not speak of welcoming everyone, and, in particular, those on the margins?

What many media commentators speaking of the synod's relatio as a revolutionary and unprecedented document appear to be overlooking (and what the relatio itself ignores) is that there has already been a strong foundation within Catholic magisterial documents for loving, just, and merciful treatment of gay persons, and for their full welcome and full inclusion within the Catholic church. Those magisterial documents were, however, more or less explicitly repudiated by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were intently concerned that the "overly benign" interpretation of the "homosexual condition" presented in these documents be countered.

And countered it was, in a way that shut down almost all positive discussion of gay people at the top levels of the Catholic church for the past several decades — that shut down such discussion with the full complicity of many of the same Catholic journalists who now want us to think we're undergoing a revolution in Catholic thinking about these matters. With the full complicity of many Catholic journalists who should have known better, who should have known that magisterial statements far more predisposed to listen positively to gay Catholics also exist, and that pastoral statements far more attuned to the need for mercy for and welcome or gay Catholics also exist . . . . 

The question the relatio and centrist media commentators should be asking, but are not, is when it became so revolutionary to speak of the church as a welcoming community?! And how that happened. And how the leaders of the Catholic church and their media cheerleaders ever imagined they could pull off the stunt of calling a church that refuses to welcome those on the margins a church rooted in "the" Catholic truth — since what kind of Catholic truth can ever be rooted in what is so clearly anti-gospel as refusing to welcome a targeted minority group?

Hence my unwillingness to listen carefully to these media commentators as they applaud the amazing volte face they want to convince us the top leaders of the Catholic church are now making . . . . In a separate follow-up posting, I'll share with you some of the commentary I've been reading that does strike me as worth reading, much of it from comment threads at Catholic media sites where readers' comments frequently strike me as more incisive (and honest) than the pontificating of the Catholic journalists connected to these sites.

The graphic: Thomas Woolner's drawing of a human ear, for Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man (London: John Murray, 1871), I:22, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Cecil.

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