Pope Francis clearly wants to put his mark on the Catholic Church, but what exactly what is that mark? We may get a better sense this fall. The pontiff has just ordered an “extraordinary” session of bishops to gather at the Vatican then to discuss family and relationship issues that include marriage equality.
Whether or not this is a positive development is anyone’s guess.
Among his first acts as pontiff, Pope Francis ordered every diocese in the world to survey Catholics for their attitudes about any number of controversial issues, including marriage equality, contraception and divorce. The gathering of bishops will discuss the results of those surveys. In 2015, they will meet again to formulate policies based on their discussion.
It should be an interesting conversation. In Western Europe and the U.S., Catholics are generally accepting of marriage equality and regularly violate Church teachings on contraception, sex before marriage and divorce. By contrast, in the U.S. in particular, the hierarchy has taken a hard line on all of these issues, and marriage equality most of all.
That the pope is willing to talk about these issues is probably a shock to a lot of his troops. Philadelphia Bishop Charles Chaput raised eyebrows last year when he seemed to suggest that his boss was a weak sister when it came to gay issues. (Chaput says he was just voicing concerns he had heard from others.) But after decades of ever-tightening policies against LGBT people, Francis’s “who am I to judge?” comments have set off a series of tremors within the Church.
Still, a change of tone isn’t the same as a change of policy. Some observers feel that Pope Francis is trying to move the Church away from harshly punishing (or even shunning) sinners without changing its definition of who a sinner is. (Hint: look in a mirror.) He’s suggested that civil unions might not be a bad idea, if for no other reason than to offer legal protections to couples and their children. That would make Cardinal Dolan’s head explode, but it wouldn’t exactly qualify Francis to be the grand marshal in the Rome Pride Parade.
Maybe live and let live is the best that we can get out of the Vatican. It would unquestionably be an improvement. But would it be good enough? We’ll find out later this year.