Activists have hailed a change in the Vatican's stance on the LGBT community, despite an apparent attempt by the Church to downplay a paper which has generated a huge media buzz over a potential end to its long-held opposition to same-sex relations.
A preliminary position paper released on Monday stated that "homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community."
In a section titled "Welcoming homosexual persons," it added: "Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home." The report, written by 200 bishops, priests and laypeople after a week of closed-door discussions, goes on to say that this issue presents as "an important educative challenge," though it also reaffirmed the Church's stance against same-sex civil unions and gay marriage.
Monday's report also emphasized the "positive reality" of civil weddings and cohabitation, asked for divorced and remarried Catholics to be treated with respect, and stressed the need for "appropriate teaching regarding natural methods" of birth control.
Jessica Stern, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, told VICE News she was "surprised, stunned and thrilled," at what she sees as definite progress towards an inclusive Catholic Church.
"People are not Catholic or gay, they're Catholic and gay, and it's important that their houses of worship recognise them."
She added: "Of course we are anticipating backlash, and first steps are rarely enough, but you have to be mindful of history."
Stern also stressed the impact such a move could have in countries like the Philippines, where she says the Catholic Church has acted as an adversary to anti-discrimination laws.
In a press conference on Tuesday, seen by some as an attempt to backtrack from Monday's report, Vatican press secretary Father Federico Lombardi said that it was "not properly understood," and restated that this is a "working document." Cardinal Fernando Filoni added: "There was some surprise in reading the reaction of the media, as if the pope had decided something," and added: "We would like that the journalists help readers to understand the dynamism and richness of the debate."
When asked for his reaction to the press conference, James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America magazine, told VICE News that "some people will always be uncomfortable with change," and that "discomfort, misunderstanding, and even homophobia" could explain this reaction, but he added that most Catholics he knew had LGBT friends or family and wanted them to feel welcome within the church.
Speaking to VICE News, Robert Mickens, a former trainee priest who has worked for Vatican Radio and weekly British Catholic magazine The Tablet, called these "astonishing statements" which were "extraordinary and unprecedented." He added that while some bishops were obviously unhappy with the report, others were finally getting the chance to speak their mind. "I think the influence of the Pope [Francis] has been that he's encouraged people to be honest and frank and this is a complete novelty."
Mickens also claimed that at previous synods visiting bishops would given a list of topics they couldn't talk about, including "cohabitation before marriage, homosexuality, etc. So there was always a feeling that bishops came to Rome for these meetings and could say some things and not others."
In a 1986 document written while he was serving as adviser to Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict referred to homosexual relations as "intrinsically disordered" and "depraved."
In contrast, Pope Francis is widely perceived as more liberal. He is the first pontiff to have used the word "gay" in public, and last year told journalists: "If a person seeks God and has goodwill, then who am I to judge?"
Not everyone has welcomed the report. John Smeaton, co-founder of activist group Voice of the Family, said that: "Those who are controlling the Synod have betrayed Catholic parents worldwide. We believe that the Synod's mid-way report is one of the worst official documents drafted in Church history."
Writing from Rome, Maria Madise, Voice of the Family's coordinator said: "What will Catholics parents now have to tell their children about contraception, cohabiting with partners, or living homosexual lifestyles? Will those parents now have to tell their children that the Vatican teaches that there are positive and constructive aspects to these mortal sins? This approach destroys grace in souls."
A full, revised report is due on Friday. Senior officials will then reconvene in Rome in October 2015 to finalise their recommendations for possible changes in Church discipline. The Pope will then be free to accept or reject them.
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