Is the Catholic Church Ready to Make Changes on Homosexuality?

As bishops meet in Rome, two gay priests have been fired. And Church doctrine on gay marriage is unlikely to budge.

Polish priest Krzysztof Charamsa with his boyfriend in Rome on October 3 (Alessandra Tarantino / AP)

Within the last three days, two gay Catholic priests have been fired from their positions because of their relationships with adult men. Over the weekend, the Polish priest Krzysztof Charamsa came out in a very public way, announcing in newspaper interviews that he is “a happy and proud gay priest.” He was pictured in Rome with a man, identified as Eduard, whom he called his boyfriend. Charamsa had been an aide with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body charged with enforcing Roman Catholic doctrine around the world, and a professor of theology at two pontifical universities in Rome. He was promptly fired from those positions, although he has not yet been defrocked. In a statement to reporters, the Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi called Charamsa’s announcement “very serious and irresponsible.”

Then, on Monday, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that Marco Mercado, who oversaw the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, has been removed from his position because of “an inappropriate relationship with an adult man.” In this case, the priest was remorseful, not defiant. “I apologize if this scandal has caused any hardship to the faithful,” Mercado said in a statement, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Under any circumstances, these would be remarkable firings. But the timing is significant: This weekend, Roman Catholic bishops gathered in Rome to kick off their synod on so-called family issues, the continuation of a meeting that began last fall. Among the subjects possibly on the docket: the Church’s posture toward gay Catholics.

In his statement about Charamsa, Lombardi claimed “the decision to make such a pointed statement on the eve of the opening of the Synod … aims to subject the Synod assembly to undue media pressure.” Charamsa denied this, according to the AP, although he said he hopes his announcement will bring “a Christian voice” to the synod. In Rome, pro- and anti-gay groups have already been jostling for attention, trying to influence the tone at the gathering.

But within the Church, there’s fairly deep theological opposition to homosexuality—or, to be more exact, to having an active sexual relationship with a person of the same gender. Pope Francis is sometimes hailed as a “progressive” for dropping lines like “Who am I to judge?” in reference to a possibly gay priest, yet he has been vocal in his opposition to gay relationships and support of traditional marriage.

For example: “I ask myself if the so-called gender theory is not, at the same time, an expression of frustration and resignation which seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it,” Francis said in April 2015. “We risk taking a step backwards. The removal of difference in fact creates a problem, not a solution.”

“God entrusted the earth to the alliance between man and woman: Its failure deprives the earth of warmth and darkens the sky of hope.”

The “so-called gender theory”—this is an opaque and telling phrase. There’s a core philosophical question at stake in the Church’s conversations about homosexuality: Why are people gay? Presumably, Francis is referring to theories about gender that try to tease apart the connection between humans’ biological parts and their sexual desires and identities. He does not accept this way of thinking; his view, and the view of the Church, is that gender and sexuality are determined by God. The Church teaches, as Francis put it, that “God entrusted the earth to the alliance between man and woman: Its failure deprives the earth of warmth and darkens the sky of hope.”

Thus far in the synod, conservative bishops have been vocal and firm about issues like traditional marriage. Cardinal Péter Erdo, who is in charge of guiding the work of the synod, said in his opening address on Monday that “there is no basis for comparing or making analogies, even remotely, between homosexual unions and God’s plan for matrimony and the family.” Last fall, a group of progressive prelates pushed the synod to embrace a more accepting posture toward gay Catholics, releasing a controversial letter midway through the first assembly outlining how the Church must change. Erdo’s message seems to be pushback against this approach. And this time, it will matter who wins: Last fall’s meeting was just discussion, but this fall’s meeting may actually lead to doctrinal change.

It is very, very unlikely (read: impossible) that the Church will embrace gay marriage at this synod. The real action won’t be doctrinal, but pastoral. Will the Church issue a tone-shifting statement on the role of gay families in Church communities? Will it provide guidance for dealing with the children of gay couples? Will it make another statement, like it did in its mid-session letter last fall, saying that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community?” Over the next three weeks, the politics on these issues and more will play out in Rome.

In the cases of the two priests, the firings were likely just as much about sex as they were about homosexuality: Presumably, both men violated their vows of chastity to the Church. The key thing to watch is less what the Church does with these men than how it does it. Will it deal with them with mercy or, as in the case of Charamsa, with a swift and solid slap?