October 13th, 2014
03:07 PM ET
Opinion by Francis DeBernardo, special to CNN
(CNN) - I could hardly believe what I was reading as I saw the news Monday morning that Catholic clergy meeting in Rome said gay and lesbian people should be welcomed into the church more warmly.
After decades of hearing messages from high church officials that lesbian and gay people were a threat to humanity and a danger to children, I had to rub my eyes a few times to make sure that I was reading this new, more positive language correctly.
Was this really coming from the Catholic Church?
Most significantly, the document calls on Catholic communities to be “accepting and valuing” of lesbian and gay people's sexual orientation, and to recognize that lesbian and gay people “have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.'”
Quite simply, this is a total reversal of earlier church statements that labelled such an orientation as "objectively disordered," and which viewed gay and lesbian people in faith communities as problems and suspect persons.
The new language recognizes for the first time the reality that I have witnessed in more than 20 years of ministry with lesbian and gay Catholics: “they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home.”
Although this statement does not approve same-gender marriages - which is not a surprise - it is very significant that gay and lesbian couples are praised for offering one another “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice [which] constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.”
This recognition of the holiness of gay and lesbian couples is an important development, and I think it can lead to further developments of full recognition in years to come.
What is also significant and hopeful about this document is what is not said.
There is no vicious condemnation of same-gender marriages, as previous hierarchical statements exhorted. We don't see the gloom and doom and apocalyptic horror that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and their followers have foretold due to the advent of same-gender marriages.
The only truly sour note in this document was the suggestion that international bodies should not “pressure” pastors to accept “gender ideology.”
The influence that many international bodies are trying to exert is that of protecting the civil and human rights of LGBT people, so that their identities are not criminalized, and so that they don't suffer penalties and violence.
It's very disappointing that the synod authors did not make this distinction, and that the human rights of LGBT are not explicitly mentioned as worthy of defending. Defending LGBT human rights is a pro-family measure, very much in keeping with the synod’s topic.
Although this document does not go as far as I and many others would like, I think it is important to remember that doctrinal change in the church starts with a change in language and tone, which leads to a change in pastoral attitudes and practices, which eventually leads to doctrine.
What is significant is that the terms of the discussion have now been changed, and that opens new possibilities for how Catholics, both those who are leaders and those in the pew, will think about lesbian and gay people and respond to their lives and concerns.
Perhaps the most welcome statement, in terms of general approaches to marriage, family, and sexuality, is the admonition: “The indispensable biblical-theological study is to be accompanied by dialogue, at all levels.”
This call to dialogue has been absent in church discussions of sexuality for way too long. It presents the hope that future changes that are even more welcoming and accepting of lesbian and gay people and their families can develop down the road.
Once church leaders engage in dialogue with lesbian and gay Catholics, I am confident that these leaders will see the deep faith, love, and witness to the gospel that is active in their lives and loves.
Overall, this document presents a new and very hopeful direction for church leaders to approach lesbian and gay people and their families.
I hope that local bishops and pastors will respond to these challenges with new ways of welcome and acceptance.
Francis DeBernardo is executive director of New Ways Ministry, a group that ministers to gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual Catholics. The views expressed in this column belong to DeBernardo.
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