Catholic bishops appear ready to follow lead of progressive Pope, soften stances on marriage and gays

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
Pope Francis looks on as he leads the synod of bishops in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican October 6, 2014. | Reuters/Claudio Peri

ROME, Italy – At the midway point in a two-week "family issues" summit at the Vatican, bishops seem to welcome unmarried couples living together, people involved in same-sex relationships, divorce and artificial means of contraception.

This summit – the first on family issues since 1980 – appeared to follow sentiments expressed by Pope Francis in his "Who am I to judge?" quote from last year about a high-level "priestly advisor" said to be involved in a same-sex relationship.

The gathering of 200 bishops was a closed-door meeting, but a document and message summarizing the debate was released today.

"It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the church," Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo was reported by the Catholic News Service as having said to Pope Francis and the bishops.

Erdo guided the discussion and synthesized its results with an hour-long message summarizing the first week's discussion.

"Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community," the cardinal said, according to the Catholic News Service. "Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and evaluating their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"

About non-married, divorced and same-sex relationships, Erdo was quoted as saying, "In such unions it is possible to grasp authentic family values or at least the wish for them. All these situations have to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk toward the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel. They need to be welcomed and accompanied with patience and delicacy."

He cautioned against language or behavior that might make such couples feel discriminated.

"For a 2,000-year-old institution that believes gay sex is 'intrinsically disordered,' even posing the question is significant," wrote John Hall for the U.K.-based Daily Mail newspaper. "The bishops, however, repeated that gay marriage was off the table."

The bishops called for discussion on artificial methods of birth control, saying that while couples should be unconditionally open to having children, they should be able to decide on birth control for themselves. The theological concept for this is the "law of gradualness," which encourages the faithful to take one step at a time in the search for holiness, the Daily Mail article noted.

Erdo's speech was a pretext for continued discussion, which concludes Oct. 18.

The determinations of this gathering of bishops – called a "synod" – will set the agenda for a larger world synod, set for Oct. 4-25, 2015, also at the Vatican, which will make recommendations to the pope. The theme for that enclave is "The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Modern World."

The Roman Catholic Church counts 1.2 billion people globally as adherents.