On Monday, the Vatican released what it calls a “relatio post disceptationem”—Latin for “report after debate” that has caused a tsunami of discussion and has sent the press into a feeding frenzy of speculation over “changes” in the Church’s teaching about gay marriage. I myself received many questions from people about what was going on, even people asking, “Is it true that the pope said he’d allow gay marriage?” The answer is an emphatic, “Absolutely not!” The Pope did no such thing! Let’s look at the document that caused the controversy:
The document is not a bull or an encyclical; it is a report. It merely 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. George Weigel, who wrote the authoritative biography of St. John Paul II, had this to say about the document: “…it was an interim report on themes that had been raised in the previous ten days of debate and discussion at the synod. It had absolutely no legislative weight — synod documents are consultative, not legislative — and I am told by those who were there that various formulations in the report were seriously criticized in the synod debates. Moreover, the interim report will be chewed over in the ten synod language-based discussion groups — where, one suspects, further criticisms will be aired — before any final report is issued. To turn this kind of interim report into the virtual equivalent of a papal encyclical is ludicrous on its face.”
This document was merely the summary of discussions, kind of like minutes of a meeting, and is not authoritative in any way. As I read the document, I understood what the Holy Father was trying to say. It is a sad but true reality that there are many people – even in our churches on Sundays – that are not following all the teachings of the Church. This has been true since the time of Christ Himself. The moral teachings of the Church are absolute and neither can nor ever will change. For moral teachings to change would imply a change in the very nature of God, which is a metaphysical impossibility. But we are all sinners; none of us is a perfect follower of Christ. We are all sinners on the path to perfection. The Church is not a gathering of saints but of sinners trying to become saints. All of us are in need of conversion, and no one is beyond the call to salvation in Christ by adherence to all of the Church’s teachings. If sin precludes someone from coming to church and taking an active role in the life of the parish, then I cannot be a pastor, as I too commit sins and need to confess them. At the same time, there is a huge difference between embracing sinners and calling them to Christ and embracing their sins as acceptable behavior. What would Jesus do? Would he tell people, “Come back when you’re sinless and then I’ll accept you?” That’s what the Pharisees wanted Him to do. Instead, Jesus came to save sinners. He went after the lost, welcomed them, reassured them of His undying love for them, and then tried to bring them around to where He wanted them to be. He never told them it’s okay to continue to live in sin, as he told the woman caught in adultery, “I do not condemn you; go and sin no more”. What would Jesus have said to that woman if in fact she did continue to commit adultery? He would forgive her every time she repented, but He would constantly call her to leave her sin behind, reminding her that she’s only hurting herself by continuing to sin. He would never tell her, “Get away from me! Don’t come back until you’re sinless!”
I currently have in my parish (and have always had in every parish) people who are not validly married. I’m not happy that they’re invalidly married, but my job is not to judge them but to try to bring them into conformity with the mind of Christ and His call to them to holiness, and I have a much better chance of doing that by keeping them in the congregation and trying to bring them to where I want them to be rather than rejecting them and sending them away simply so I can present a “clean congregation” to the public. Many of these people do in fact have many talents and skills that have proved useful to the parish, and I am glad they are able to use their gifts to further the Gospel call to holiness, even for themselves. While they cannot receive Holy Communion and cannot hold certain positions that require one to be validly married, such as being Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, they still make a great contribution to our parish, and I’m hoping that their active involvement will increase their love for Christ and bring them to the point where they willingly choose to adjust their lifestyle so as to be consistent with Jesus’ call to holiness for them. It seems to me that this is what the Pope was saying, and I find that truly Christ-like and compassionate.
As for some of the comments made by a few bishops that seem a bit unorthodox or too lax, I’m sure that once the document reaches any level of authority any such comments will have been deleted. Open discussion among the bishops is vital for the true development of doctrine and discerning the call of the Holy Spirit. So let the debates continue – that’s what the synod is all about – but pray that the bishops will be led by the Holy Spirit in all their deliberations.