Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Vatican to Debate Teachings on Divorce, Birth Control, Gay Unions

By Henry Chu

Note: This article was first published April 30, 2014 by the Los Angeles Times.

Contraception, cohabitation, divorce, remarriage and same-sex unions: They're issues that pain and puzzle Roman Catholics who want to be true to both their church and themselves. Now those issues are about to be put up for debate by their leader, a man who appears determined to push boundaries and effect change.

On Pope Francis' orders, the Vatican will convene an urgent meeting of senior clerics this fall to reexamine church teachings that touch the most intimate aspects of people's lives. Billed as an "extraordinary" assembly of bishops, the gathering could herald a new approach by the church to the sensitive topics.

The run-up to the synod has been extraordinary in itself, a departure from usual practice that some say is a mark of the pope's radical new leadership style, and a canny tactic to defuse dissent over potential reforms.

Within a few months of his election last year, Francis directed every diocese in the world to survey local attitudes on family and relationships and report back to the Vatican, a canvassing of a sort that few of the faithful can recall previously. The results are being tallied and synthesized behind the walls of the Vatican.

The exercise reflects Francis' desire for less centralized and more responsive decision-making, mirroring his own self-described evolution from a rigid, authoritarian leader as a young man into one who consults and empathizes. His training as a Jesuit has taught the pope to cast as wide a net for information as possible, analysts say.

Taking the public temperature also brings tactical advantages. Nobody at the Vatican will be surprised to learn that vast numbers of Catholics disobey its ban on premarital sex and birth control, or that some are in gay partnerships. Setting down those realities irrefutably on paper, however, could strengthen a bid by Francis to soften the church's official line and put pressure on bishops inclined to resist, including some in the United States and many in Asia and Africa, conservative areas where the church has been growing.

"It is telling the pope and the Vatican what they already know. But it's what the Vatican in the past has not wanted to hear," author and Vatican expert John Thavis said.

"It's strategic, but it's also a genuine effort to find out what the voice of the church really is on this," Thavis said. "It's very much Pope Francis who wants less of a top-down model — the bishops preaching the rules and doctrine down to the faithful — and more of a dialogue."

Hardly anyone expects the pope to propose sweeping changes to Catholic doctrine at the synod in October despite widespread criticism that the modern world has left the church behind. Indeed, Francis has unequivocally upheld heterosexual marriage and procreation as God's established, sanctified ideal.

But liberal reformers have been excited by the Vatican's shift in tone under Francis. His remark regarding gays, "Who am I to judge?" has gone viral, as has his warning to the church not to obsess over "small-minded rules" and contentious subjects such as abortion.

So, although Francis almost certainly will not call for ditching the church's policy of denying communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried, his emphasis on pastoral care and compassion could offer local priests a work-around, with greater flexibility to address individual circumstances. That would fit with the pope's vision of the church as a "field hospital" that triages people's spiritual wounds rather than aggravates them.

Likewise, Thavis said, Francis has hinted that same-sex unions, though not "marriage," could serve a practical purpose, if not a sacred one, by legally protecting the children of such relationships. This month, in an event that made headlines, the infant daughter of a lesbian couple was baptized in a cathedral in Francis' native Argentina, apparently with the Holy See's tacit assent.

"When he was cardinal in Buenos Aires, he really had a go at priests who wouldn't baptize the children of single mothers," said Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Tablet, a Catholic weekly in Britain. "He takes it back to a human place. It's more about the person than about sticking to the letter. He's willing to find a way through things."

But analysts warn that Francis' global popularity could fuel inflated expectations of the changes he is able, or wants, to deliver.

Although he's unquestionably the man at the top, disgruntled underlings can ignore or seek to thwart his injunctions. Conservative bishops in the U.S., most of them appointed by Francis' conservative predecessors, have grumbled about the direction Francis is taking and oppose relaxation of traditional strictures on marriage and family, said Massimo Faggioli of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

"The Catholic Church is not a military dictatorship where, if they don't obey, you can send the army. It's very difficult for a pope to force bishops to do what you want them to do," Faggioli said.

Some jockeying is already underway.

Prelates in Germany, Switzerland, parts of the U.S. and a few other jurisdictions who favor a softer line have published their survey findings to bolster the case for change. The German bishops reported that many of their parishioners view the church's teaching on sexual morality as "unrealistic," its prohibition on artificial contraception as "incomprehensible" and its treatment of remarried divorcees as pitiless.

That the Germans also publicized their results in English "clearly meant they were trying to influence public opinion in a worldwide manner," said Robert Gahl, who teaches at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

The Vatican has reportedly requested church officials in Ireland, England, Wales and other places not to release their findings out of concern over stoking division.

The survey asked 39 lifestyle questions in each diocese — including whether unmarried couples living together was common, whether same-sex unions were legal, how many children were being raised in non-traditional families, and what programs effectively conveyed Catholic teaching on such matters.

Although the Vatican told bishops to distribute the questionnaire as widely as possible, apparently not all complied. In the U.S., the National Catholic Reporter found that many dioceses posted the survey online for parishioners to fill in, but others did not seem to notify laypeople at all.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese put a simplified version of the questionnaire on its website in English, Spanish and Korean and invited parishioners to participate. The results have been kept secret.

"There was no pretense of this being a scientific, neutral study," Gahl said. "It's like a massive global brainstorming."

While the published results from Western countries show large-scale rejection of Catholic dogma on sex and marriage, little is known of the response in Asia and Africa, where conservative views are more likely, analysts say. That could complicate reforms by Francis, who wants to broaden the input and influence of those growing regions.

Some critics also demand more participation by women in the discussion, so that crucial decisions on marriage, sex and family life are not made exclusively by a group of single, celibate, childless men.

The "extraordinary" synod in October is the first half of a two-phase process. Bishops will discuss the findings of the survey and air proposals to deal with them. They will then settle on new guidelines at an "ordinary" synod next year.

The two-step process should give prelates time to reflect and adjust to reforms proposed by Francis, author Thavis said.

But the pope would need to tread carefully, maintaining a tricky balancing act between ordinary Catholics who desperately want change and those among their leaders who spurn it.

"The pope is the pope, and I think we can expect that even more conservative bishops will listen to what he says," Thavis said. "In the end, it comes down to a policy that could be changed without causing people to leave the church or causing people to slam the door on the way out of the synod."

Related Off-site Links:
Pope Francis Convenes Vatican Synod on Family and Sex – Kevin Drum (Mother Jones, April 30, 2014)
Reconciling the Factions Within CatholicismCommonweal (April 30, 2014).

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Pope Francis Suggests Civil Unions For Gay Couples Might Be Acceptable

In an interview published Wednesday, March 5 in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis suggested that civil unions for gay couples might be acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church.

“Matrimony is between a man and a woman,” the pope told the paper's editor-in-chief, Ferrucio de Bortoli. But moves to “regulate diverse situations of cohabitation [are] driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care.”

“It is necessary to look at the diverse cases and evaluate them in their variety,” the pope said in response to being asked to what extent the church could understand laws recognizing civil unions.

Italian lawmakers are currently debating whether to legalize civil partnerships for gay couples.

A proposal to legalize civil partnerships for gay couples is supported by Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

In 2010, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio called on Argentina to legalize civil unions instead of allowing gay couples to marry.

Last year, the pope criticized church leaders for focusing on social issues, including its opposition to marriage equality.

Related Off-site Links:
Pope Francis and Gay Unions: The Complete Text – Terence Weldon (Queering the Church, March 5, 2014).
Pope Francis Says Church Must Examine Civil Unions – Michael O'Loughlin (The Advocate, March 5, 2014).
Francis Hints About Same-Sex Civil Unions – Lisa Fullam (Commonweal, March 5, 2014).
Catholics Still Lead Way on Gay Marriage – Jonathan Capehart (The Washington Post, February 11, 2014).
Catholics Urge Hierarchy to Evolve on Same-Sex Relationships – Michael O'Loughlin (The Advocate, February 13, 2014).
Homosexual Relationships: Another Look – Bill Hunt (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 8, 2012).

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Minnesota Safe and Supportive Schools Bill is in Keeping with Catholic Values


By Mary Beth Stein

Note: The following was first published February 13, 2014 as a letter-to-the-editor in the Twin Cities' Pioneer Press.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference rejects the Safe and Supportive Schools bill, expressing concern that the bill is part of a larger agenda to normalize same-sex attraction. These suspicions reflect the attitude of some of the ordained Church leaders but not the heart and soul of Catholics in the pews. As was demonstrated in the high Catholic percentage who voted against the marriage amendment, we already accept same-sex attraction as normal. Everyone is created by God; who are we to judge? Rather than judge we are called to cherish.

The real issue at hand is protecting students. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are frequent targets of bullying. The concern for all Catholics, indeed all Minnesotans, is to protect these and other vulnerable students from harm. What could be more in keeping with Catholic values?


Background Information and Action Steps

The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act:

House File 826: The bill was passed in the House in May, 2013, and sent to the Senate.

Senate File 783: The bill was tabled in May, 2013, and is currently in Finance Committee. The MN legislature convenes February 20, 2014.

Legislators to Call: Finance Committee Chair Dick Cohen (651) 296-5931, asking him to pass the bill out of committee and send it to the Senate floor for a vote as soon as the legislative session begins.

Senator Scott Dibble, the author of the bill and member of the Senate Finance Committee, (651) 296-4191, supporting him in moving the bill onto the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk (651) 296-8881, asking him to facilitate the bill's passing on the Senate floor.

Recommended Resource:
Catholic Support for Anti-Bullying Legislation Without Exemption for Private Schools: A Position Paper – Daniel DeWan, Lisa Vanderlinden and Patty Thorsen for the Council of the Baptized (February 11, 2014).

Related Off-site Links:
Groups Organize Support for Safe Schools Bill – Andy Birkey (, February 12, 2014).
Bullying's a Problem. Could This Proposed Minnesota Law Be a Solution? – Christopher Magan (Pioneer Press, February 8, 2014).
Pioneer Press Fails to Identify Anti-LGBT Lobbyist in Bullying Report – Andy Birkey (, February 10, 2014).
GOP, Tea Parties Forge Ties with Anti-Gay Group to Stop Safe Schools Bill – Andy Birkey (The, January 27, 2014).
Meet the Team Behind the Minnesota Child Protection League – Andy Birkey (The, January 8, 2014).
In the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, "Regime Change is Not Enough"The Progressive Catholic Voice (November 10, 2013).
Catholic Hierarchy's Rhetoric Does Not Reflect Changes to Safe and Supportive Schools Act – Rep. Jim Davnie (MinnPost, April 26, 2013).
MN Catholic Bishops Oppose Anti-Bullying LegislationThe Progressive Catholic Voice (April 6, 2013).
The Minnesota Safe Schools for All Coalition

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Catholics and Same-Sex Relationships: A Pathway to Doctrinal Change?

By Terence Weldon

Note: This commentary was first published February 14, 2014 at Terence Weldon's blog site, Queering the Church.

For all but those who choose not to see, it’s become blindingly obvious that across the whole gamut of sexual ethics, formal Catholic doctrines must change, and that includes doctrines on same-sex affectional orientation and relationships.

It won’t happen at this year’s family synod, although the global consultation in preparation for it has highlighted the great gulf between Vatican doctrine and actual Catholic belief and practice. This could just lead to some recognition of the need for some changes, in line with Pope Francis’ hint (in “Evangelii Gaudium”) that these are issues that “need further reflection and study”. More probably, the synod could see some marked adjustments to pastoral practice, and changes in practice will lead, in time, to substantive change in doctrine. One way or another, sooner or later that change will come – and could come more quickly than people expect.

The question is, how will that change come about? It certainly won’t be a simple matter of the CDF saying, “Sorry, guys. We were wrong. Here’s the new deal”. It’s not true that Catholic teaching doesn’t change – it’s done so constantly over 2000 years, and will continue to do so. Even Pope Francis has referred to the necessity and inevitability of this evolution in Catholic teaching, but that’s the key. Catholic change is always gradual: evolution not revolution.

Professor Charles J Reid of University of St Thomas, Minnesota, has reflected at Huffington Post on one possible way in which this doctrinal evolution could develop. He is writing specifically about a path all the way to same-sex marriage, but before we get there, we’ll need to see just the acceptance of simple relationships, possibly as civil unions. It’s already notable, without formal change in doctrine, that the resistance to full marriage equality has led some senior bishops to accept the value of civil unions, and that amidst all the heated rhetoric about the supposed “evils” of gay marriage, there’s been remarkably little said about the inherently “disordered” nature of the relationships themselves. That’s progress. The gradual Catholic evolution towards formal doctrinal change has already begun.

In developing his argument, Reid begins by noting that Catholic moral theology rests on the foundations of “Christian anthropology”. This seeks an accurate understanding of the human person, in order to develop rules and norms of behaviour which are not contrary to human nature, and which promote “a genuine understanding of human flourishing”.

The prevailing anthropology, he notes, is based on John Paul II’s “theology of the body”, which emphasises the complementarity of male and female, and the importance of sexual reproduction. On those grounds, the theology of the body, and any Christian anthropology that rests on it, cannot support same-sex marriage. Reid does not attempt to counter this conclusion (which certainly could be done), but takes another tack, instead.

He turns then to an alternative set of premises, beginning with human reason and human psychology – entirely respectable starting points in Catholic thinking about sex and marriage.

For Thomas Aquinas, whose conclusions about sex and marriage became so influential in later Catholic thinking on the subjects, the careful application of human reason was of great importance. More recently, the application of human psychology to questions of marriage, has been influential in the development of approaches to annulment,

Applying these two principles, and taking into account information from recent findings from psychology, leads to the inevitable conclusion that same-sex attraction is simply one part of the “natural variability of human sexuality”.

What it means to be human, in other words, not only embraces male and female, but it may also, in some cases, include same-sex attraction. If Catholics take this line of reasoning seriously, then it becomes impossible to speak of same-sex attraction as “objectively disordered.”

This much is reasonably well known, and must surely lead to some recognition of same-sex relationships. But in discussing marriage, Reid moves on to territory that is less familiar, at least to me.

But what of marriage? Here, one might turn to St. Augustine’s Treatise on the Goods of Marriage. In the opening sentence of this work, St. Augustine defines marriage as “friendship” – amicitia. The human person, St. Augustine asserts, is a “social being” made that way by our “human nature” (humana natura).

The three “great goods” of marriage according to Augustine, are procreation, unity and fidelity. The surprise is that among these, Augustine does not, as popularly supposed, place procreation at the apex.

For Augustine, the true significance of marriage was not procreation, but the enduring friendship of two human beings who are innately social creatures.

So, already we have some grounds for an evolution in Catholic doctrine that widens the meaning of marriage to include same-sex unions, but there remains a further problem, going back beyond Aquinas, all the way to Augustine. That is the Augustinian proposition that all sexual intercourse must be open to procreation – at least, theoretically so. That is “the core of the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception”.

Reid does not explore any further just how that difficulty might be resolved, noting that to do so, would require a rethink of the very foundations of all its sexual ethics, which he describes as “a very large undertaking indeed”.

However, that very large undertaking has, in effect, already begun. The global consultation on Catholic belief, undertaken in preparation for the Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family, has already convincingly demonstrated that in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg, there is near universal rejection of this Augustinian assumption. The bishops’ reports from the remaining countries of Europe and also of North America are likely to show the same thing. Meanwhile, the Univision survey of twelve countries on five continents corroborate the European bishops’ reports, and show that even in Africa, the most conservative countries (in terms of Catholic belief), support for the traditional doctrine on contraception is no more than about 50%. Augustine’s principle may have underpinned Catholic sexual doctrine for a millenium and a half, but that does not mean it must stand forever. We already know that the majority report of the papal commission on birth control that preceded Humanae Vitae found that contraception did not need to be absolutely precluded, and found some way around Augustine. It’s not too difficult to imagine that majority report being dusted off, and reconsidered.

Related Off-site Links:
Do Progressive Catholics Care About Doctrine? – Bob Shine (Bondings 2.0, February 15, 2014).
Homosexual Relationships: Another Look – Bill Hunt (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 8, 2012).
The Many Manifestations of God's Loving Embrace – Michael Bayly (The Wild Reed, August 16, 2007).

Friday, February 14, 2014

Catholics Urge Church Hierarchy to Evolve on Same-Sex Relationships

By Michael O'Loughlin

Note: This article was first published February 13, 2014 by The Advocate.

The Roman Catholic bishop of St. Petersburg, Fla., says people in his diocese "felt that the Church needed to be prepared to better respond to the reality of same-sex marriage."

In a blog post last week, Bishop Robert Lynch reported on findings of a survey he commissioned in response to a request from Pope Francis to hear from the laity on issues relating to the family before an important global meeting of bishops in October. The Vatican specifically asked bishops to consult the laity on how well the church cares for families headed by same-sex couples and the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics.

Lynch wrote that respondents to the survey, most of whom were over 50 and attend church weekly, said that "the Church needed to be kinder and gentler to those who identify themselves as gay and lesbian, be less judgmental and more welcoming."

Further, they "clearly stated was the opinion that an adopted child of same-sex parents should be treated in the Church exactly the same as a child born of a traditional marriage between a man and a woman."

Lynch wrote that he has "will not tolerate any discrimination or anything which smacks of the punitive to children of same-sex couples" and that "all representatives of the Church’s many ministries can be kinder, gentler, more welcoming and less judgmental of those who find our praxis and preaching on marriage and family life to be at odds with their experiences."

Earlier this month, Catholic bishops in Germany reported similar findings.

"The Church's statements on premarital sexual relations, homosexuality, on those divorced and remarried, and on birth control, by contrast, are virtually never accepted, or are expressly rejected in the vast majority of cases," said a report issued February 3 by the German bishopss conference.

German Catholics "regard the legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships and their equal treatment vis-a-vis marriage as a commandment of justice."

Germany is home to one of the wealthiest and most influential Catholic churches.

A Washington Post poll of Catholics from 12 countries published earlier this week shows overwhelming support for same-sex marriage among Catholics in the U.S. but near-unanimous opposition from Catholics in Africa.

Last fall the Vatican sent a document to national conferences of Catholic bishops, asking them to consult the laity on a range of issues related to the family, according to the National Catholic Reporter. Questions about divorce, contraception, and same-sex marriage, all of which the church opposes, were included. "Does a ministry exist to attend" to same-sex couples? it asked.

It went on to consider children of same-sex parents: "In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?"

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not commission a national survey, leaving the discovery process up to individual bishops. The request did was made in October and results were due in December, leaving some bishops scrambling on ways to collect the information.

In England and Wales, Catholic bishops launched a website to collect information. Some bishops in the U.S. relied on already collected data, choosing not to consult the faithful in their dioceses. Few have followed Lynch in publishing data.

According to NCR, this was "the first time the church's central hierarchy has asked for such input from grass-roots Catholics since at least the establishment of the synod system following the Second Vatican Council."

The synod on families will meet twice, in October 2014 and October 2015.

Image: Michael J. Bayly.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Save the Date!

Our Families: Rooted in Love,
Enriched by Diversity

A Retreat for Catholic Parents of LGBT Children

• Active or disaffected Catholic?

• Parent of one who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?

• Willing to share your story and hear the journey of others?

• Ready to be strengthened in faith, hope and love?

Then join us on . . .

Sunday, February 23, 2014
11:30am-5:00pm (lunch included)

Prospect Park United Methodist Church
22 Malcolm Ave SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414

Optional (but encouraged!): Mass at 5:00pm (regularly scheduled Dignity Mass) and Potluck Supper at 6:00pm (supplied and served by partner sponsors)

Free will offering accepted at retreat

For more information and to register, please contact Myrna Ohman at 320-223-1008 or

This retreat is sponsored by Equally Blessed coalition members Fortunate Families, Dignity/Twin Cities and Call to Action Minnesota.