Pope-Francis-waves-to-cro-011-360x216Is there such a thing as a kinder, gentler homophobia? It seems we’re about to find out. After decades of saying that gayness was “a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent,” the Catholic Church seems poised to make a major change in its attitude toward homosexuality. In short, the Vatican may actually think we’re human.

In an interim report released by the bishops attending the extraordinary synod in Rome, the Church has started to sing from a new hymnal when it comes to LGBT people. The report says that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community” and asked, “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”

Even as a rhetorical question, that’s a remarkable statement. Who would have imagined that the Church wanted to welcome us, let alone say we have something to offer? That’s not the kind of rhetoric that Pope Francis’ immediate predecessor would ever have used.

Even more astonishing, the bishops tentatively acknowledge that maybe same-sex relationships aren’t quite the nonstop flight to hell that they’ve previously suggested.

“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 bishops wrote.

Vatican observers said that the language was a dramatic turnaround for the Vatican and clearly reflects Pope Francis’ commitment to dialing down the Church’s condemnation of homosexuality.

“In pastoral terms, the document … represents an earthquake, the ‘big one’ that hit after months of smaller tremors,” wrote John Thavis, a journalist who has covered the Vatican for 30 years.

Needless to say, the conservative Catholics who delighted in the Vatican’s hardline are stunned and see Francis as a traitor.

“What will Catholics parents now have to tell their children about contraception, cohabiting with partners or living homosexual lifestyles?” asked Maria Madise, coordinator of the Voice of the Family, a conservative Catholic group. “This approach destroys grace in souls.”

Just as important, the document drives a wedge between the Church and right-wing evangelicals in the U.S. The Catholic hierarchy had formed an alliance with conservative Christians to fight all things lavender.

“Should we patiently love and offer the gospel to those who are refusing to repent of immorality, whether cohabitation of anything else?” said Russell Moore, who heads public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention. “Yes. Should we baptize and admit those into membership those who refuse to walk away from such things? No.”

Before you get too excited, just remember: the Church still sees a gay relationship as a sin, and the bishops made it abundantly clear that they are adamantly opposed to marriage equality. (Also, it would be nice if they abandoned their reliance on “homosexual” for something more 21st century.) But just stopping the endless, vehement condemnation would be a nice step forward. And Francis is clearly laying out the path that he expects the Church to follow as long as he’s pope.

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