ROME – Yesterday brought a ferment over an interim report from a summit of Catholic bishops acknowledging positive qualities in same-sex relationships, with admirers of the new tone hailing it as an historic opening, and traditionalist critics tossing around words such as “schism” and “heresy.”
In retrospect, had we been listening carefully to the pope yesterday morning, we might have seen it all coming.
In his usual impromptu homily at morning Mass yesterday, Pope Francis seemed to prepare the ground for the document, and the conflicting reactions it was destined to stir, by delivering a strong rebuke to rigid legalists of all stripes.
“The law,” the pontiff insisted, “is not an end in itself.”
Ancient masters of Jewish law, the pontiff said, rejected Jesus as a sinner and a lawbreaker primarily because “they were closed within their system.”
“They had perfectly systemized the law, it was a masterpiece,” he said. “Every Jew knew what they could do and what they could not do, how far they could go. It was all systemized. And they were safe there.”
Those legalists, the pope said, had forgotten that “they were a people on a journey.”
“When we set out on a journey, when we are on our path, we always encounter new things, things we did not know,” he said.
Moreover, Francis said, the masters of the law also forgot that “God is a God of surprises.”
“We should ask the Lord for a heart that loves the law, because the law belongs to God, but which also loves God’s surprises and the ability to understand that this holy law is not an end in itself,” Francis said.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to hear in those words an anticipation of the controversy unleashed when Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary, who’s serving as the general reporter for the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family, delivered a report summarizing the meeting’s opening round of discussion.
Although the report has no official standing, and the synod could still revise its conclusions before it draws to a close on Sunday, the document nonetheless captures where a majority of the assembled prelates appear to stand.
Among other points, Erdő said the church ought to provide homosexuals “a welcoming home.”
“Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions,” he said, “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.”
“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community,” the cardinal said. “Are we capable of welcoming these people?”
Erdő reported the bishops want a stance of “accepting and valuing” the sexual orientation of all people, albeit “without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.”
While Archbishop Bruno Forte of Italy, one of the key figures in the 2014 Synod of Bishops, described that acknowledgment as no more than “intellectual honesty and spiritual charity,” it played to decidedly mixed reviews both inside and outside the synod hall.
On the outside, various pro-life and pro-family commentators rued what many saw as a retreat by the Vatican from the wars of culture, with one activist group describing Erdő’s report as a “betrayal.”
Some bishops inside the hall weren’t much happier. A veteran Vatican cardinal, known to be on the conservative end of most arguments, described the synod as a “disaster” in informal comments to reporters as he exited last night.
Judging by his comments yesterday, it would appear that Francis may have anticipated the tempest and was steeling himself, as well as the whole Church, for what was to come.
“God is always new,” the pope said. “He never denies himself, never says that what He said was wrong, but He always surprises us.”
So too, it would seem, does this maverick pope and the new winds he’s unleashed.