VATICAN CITY -- Heeding the conciliatory tone of Pope Francis, Roman Catholic bishops today opened their arms to the gays in a stunning thawing of the Church's attitude toward the LGBT community.
Meeting at the Vatican as part of a two-week summit on family issues that was called by the pontiff, the bishops issued a preliminary document that, by the Church's conservative standards, is considered revolutionary.
The bishop said that gays had "gifts" to offer the Church and that there were "positive" aspects to a gay couple living together without being married in the Church.
Until now, the Church's attitude toward gays was one of condemnation. But now, the move is clearly moving toward tolerance and acceptance.
Don't expect the bishops nor the Pope to embrace gay marriage anytime soon. But with marriage-equality rights expanding globally, the Church may be looking for a compromise, and today's document indicates the bishops support gay partnerships as something of value.
"This is a stunning change in the way the Catholic church speaks of gay people," the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author, told the Associated Press. "The Synod is clearly listening to the complex, real-life experiences of Catholics around the world, and seeking to address them with mercy, as Jesus did."
John Thavis, a Vatican expert and author of the bestselling book "The Vatican Diaries" (2013), called the document "an earthquake" in the Church's attitude towards gays.
Faith in America, a gay-rights support group, was less enthusiastic than Thavis and called it a "pre-quake trembler." The group admitted that things are changing. "But that quake – a shift in the church teaching that homosexuality is sinful behavior – is inevitable," Faith in America said in a statement.
But the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) called today's news as a "seismic shift in Rome."
"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,” said Chad Griffin, president of the HRC.
The preliminary but potentially ground-breaking document released today by the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops asserted that LGBT people have “gifts and talents to offer the Christian community,” and, for the first time, referred to LGBT couples as “partners” instead of sinners, the HRC said.
Almost immediately, anti-gay hate groups and arch-conservative Catholic groups began to bash the document.
The document says that the Church does not view same-sex unions as on the “same footing as matrimony between a man and a woman.” But it goes on to assert the following: "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 HRC said.
Griffin said he hopes that the message coming out of the synod resonates well beyond the Vatican.
“It is clear that Pope Francis' message of mercy and inclusion is alive and well, and I hope the American Catholic bishops who have recently spent millions of parishioner dollars in political campaigns targeting their LGBT brothers and sisters are listening closely," Griffin said.
Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, HRC Foundation's director of Latino/a and Catholic Initiatives, is currently on a cross-country prayer journey designed to bring attention to the Rome synod. She said that the new document shows that despite resistance from U.S. bishops, “the Vatican has heard the voices of Catholics around the world who see their faith as something that can include LGBT people, and honor their lives and relationships."
"While this isn't by any means a full acceptance of LGBT equality within the church, it's a huge step toward making LGBT Catholics feel welcomed in their communities of faith, rather than approaching them with judgment,” she said.
Here in the U.S., Catholic institutions continue to punish LGBT employees. Since 2008, HRC said, there have been more than 40 reported cases of LGBT employees fired or let go by Catholic institutions because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
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Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN and GLBTNN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.