In a document released on Monday, the Vatican took the first steps toward reforming its approach to long-taboo topics within the Catholic Church: homosexuality, divorce, and premarital sex. For seven days, top Church leaders have been gathered in Rome at a synod of bishops, the third gathering of its kind in history. Although Vatican spokesmen have hinted at contentious debate over commonly used theological euphemisms such as "living in sin" or "intrinsically disordered" (i.e., having premarital sex or being gay), this is the first public declaration of the Vatican's intention to shift its position on sex and marriage.
And at least in terms of rhetoric, it's quite a shift. The Church has never permitted same-sex marriage. Especially as gay unions have become legal in the United States and elsewhere, many couples have faced tension with their Church communities, like the gay couple in Montana who were told they could no longer take communion after they were legally married in Seattle.
Now, the Vatican is signaling the possibility of a softer approach to the gay community. "Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community," the synod's newly released report says. "Are our communities capable of providing [a welcoming home], accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"
This doesn't mean the Church will start holding same-sex-marriage ceremonies; the report also refers to "the moral problems connected to homosexual unions" and affirms the sanctity of marriage between men and women. But the call to create a "welcoming home" for gay people is a big change from the Church's position just 10 years ago, when a Church committee called homosexuality "a troubling moral and social phenomenon" in an official declaration and Pope John Paul II called gay marriage a "narrow and unnatural vision of man."
The report signals a similarly surprising shift on divorce. "The situation of the divorced who have remarried demands a careful discernment and an accompaniment full of respect, avoiding any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against," the bishops write. "What needs to be respected above all is the suffering of those who have endured separation and divorce unjustly." Again: not a total revision of how the Church thinks about divorce, nor an explicit call to revise Church doctrine, but a rhetorical shift from just a decade ago, when John Paul II pleaded to Church officials in a speech, "One cannot give into the divorce mentality."
The reasoning given for these shifts is perhaps the most interesting part. In the year and a half since he was elected pope, Francis has largely focused on economic issues. Last winter, his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, roundly condemned the excesses of modern capitalism; mere tweets from @Pontifex on economic inequality have regularly sparked debate and waves of progressive admiration for the pontiff. This way of thinking showed up once again in the synod's report, which acknowledged that people often live together without getting married for financial reasons:
Simple cohabitation is often a choice inspired by a general attitude, which is opposed to institutions and definitive undertakings, but also while waiting for a secure existence (a steady job and income). In other countries common-law marriages are very numerous, not because of a rejection of Christian values as regards the family and matrimony, but, above all, because getting married is a luxury, so that material poverty encourages people to live in common-law marriages.
Just as "getting married is a luxury," staying married can also be an economic impossibility, particularly for women, the bishops write:
The number of divorces is growing and it is not rare to encounter cases in which decisions are taken solely on the basis of economic factors. The condition of women still needs to be defended and promoted, as situations of violence within the family are not rare.
Although there won't be any specific doctrinal changes made until the synod gathers again in Rome next fall, the report hints at doctrinal changes to come, particularly in terms of simplifying the process for annulment of marriages. But even in the near future, the most important changes might be more subtle, pastoral shifts: The Church wants to be a more welcoming place for people whose relationships don't fit into the template of man and wife, till death do they part.