Catholic bishops make ‘seismic shift’ on gays

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VATICAN CITY — Gay rights groups hailed a “seismic shift” by the Catholic Church toward gays on Monday after bishops said homosexuals had gifts to offer the church and that their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided homosexuals with “precious” support.

A two-week meeting of bishops on family issues arrived at its halfway point Monday with a document summarizing the closed-door debate so far. No decisions were announced, but the tone of the preliminary document was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance, rather than condemnation, with the aim of guiding Catholics toward the ideal of a lasting marriage.

The bishops said gays had “gifts and qualities” to offer and asked rhetorically if the church was ready to provide them a welcoming place, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.”

For a 2,000-year-old institution that believes gay sex is “intrinsically disordered,” even posing the question is significant.

“This is a stunning change in the way the Catholic Church speaks of gay people,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author. “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.”

The bishops repeated that gay marriage was off the table. But it acknowledged that gay partnerships had merit.

“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,” they said.

For heterosexuals, the bishops said they must grasp the “positive reality of civil weddings” and even cohabitation, with the aim of helping the couple commit eventually to a church wedding.

Chicago-based Catholic renewal and reform group Call to Action said it is encouraged by the bishops’ document.

“It’s a wonderful breath of fresh air to have a change in tone and a slight change in language,” said Ellen Euclide, the group’s director of programs. “It seems like they’re hearing some of the needs of lay families who are asking that their families be recognized and really just wanting a more pastoral church.

But more action is needed, she contended, noting, “We still haven’t seen any real change. Actions speak louder than words. We’re still hoping and waiting, but like the direction.

“There’s so many policies that are really exclusionary. There’s a lot of families, divorced families, single-parent families, LGBT families, who all sometimes don’t feel welcome because of the way the church talks about our families. We’re hoping we can create a church that really honors the diversity of families that are a part of our church.”

Bishops clearly took into account the views of the pope, whose “Who am I to judge?” comment about gays signaled a new tone of welcome for the church. Their report also reflected the views of ordinary Catholics who, in responses to Vatican questionnaires in the run-up to the synod, rejected church teaching on birth control and homosexuality as outdated and irrelevant.

Francine Knowles contributed to this report.

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