What Did the Vatican Really Say About Gay Marriage Yesterday? Catholics Disagree

Pope Francis in Italy
Pope Francis arrives to lead a mass in Sibari, southern Italy, June 21, 2014. Giampiero Sposito/Reuters

On Monday, the Vatican released what it calls a "relatio post disceptationem"—Latin for "report after debate." As the name suggests, the report summarizes ongoing discussions among top Catholic clergy, which are taking place as part of a two-week synod, or gathering of cardinals and bishops at Vatican City in Rome.

The broad area of discussion for this so-called "extraordinary" meeting—as opposed to "ordinary" synods, which are held at fixed intervals, the next being in 2015—is "the family," or more formally: "Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization."

A broad range of issues fall under that umbrella. Some are relatively uncontroversial among Catholics (polygamy and arranged marriages: still no-nos). Others are divisive, such as marriage after divorce. But few issues have divided Catholics and are as politicized, as that of gays and gay marriage. It was no surprise then that the most-talked-about part of Monday's report was a 220-word section titled "Welcoming Homosexual Persons."

The Catholic Church is one of many religious institutions that have been vocal in opposition to gay marriage, and the institution has drawn criticism from gay rights groups in the past for what they describe as uncharitable treatment. In the United States, the church has expended considerable effort and spent a significant amount money lobbying against ballot measures which would make same-sex marriages legal in some states—nearly $2 million according to Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights lobbying group. The predecessor of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, called gay marriage an "attack" on the traditional family, and said it "denies God" and "devalues human dignity."

In tone at least, Monday's report is a far cry from that sort of rhetoric. Absent is any mention of homosexuality as an "inherent moral evil," as Pope Benedict put it in 2005. Rather, the report said homosexuals "need to be welcomed and accompanied with patience and delicacy" and that "[homosexuals] have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community."

Not only does the document admit the existence of committed and loving gay and lesbian partnerships—something the church has been hesitant to do thus far—it also says that such partnerships might have redeeming qualities: "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," the report reads.

Is the Catholic Church really ready to welcome gay people with open arms? That depends whom you ask. As with almost any religious text, interpretations of today's report varied.

Catholic gay rights advocates saw the report as a softening in the church's stance toward homosexuality. "It's a sign of a first step," Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told People magazine Monday. "I think what we're seeing is a crack in the ice that we have been waiting for for a very long time."

"For the LGBT Catholics in the United States and around the world, this new document is a light in the darkness—a dramatic new tone from a church hierarchy that has long denied the very existence of committed and loving gay and lesbian partnerships," Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign told the Associated Press.

Conservative Catholics said advocates of gay marriage shouldn't get too excited just yet.

"We've got to understand what this document is and isn't," said Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and one of about 50 signatories to Commitment to Marriage, an open letter to the Vatican encouraging the synod to reject gay marriage. "People think this document is a very important statement, perhaps even a reversal of doctrine," he said. Rather, it is "a report of conversations that are ongoing about marriage and the family. The teaching of the church yesterday is the same as the teaching of the church today," he said.

"There is very little here that is new other than emphasis and tone," said Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown and another signatory to the letter. Farr described the New York Times article on the report as "breathless" and said the author "perceives in the report what it hopes the church will become."

Indeed, the report condemns gay partnerships as "imperfect" and emphasizes that "unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman."

Whether the report is indicative of a mere softening in tone or of a broader shift in church doctrine remains to be seen. Both liberal and conservative members of the church look forward to the synod's final report, which will be released after the current draft endures another week of intense scrutiny by groups of bishops.

But the final decision falls to Pope Francis. Will he direct the church away from the church's long-held views to one that recognizes, as the report suggest, "a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances?" The world's estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics—gay and straight—will soon find out.