VATICAN CITY — Gay rights groups are cautiously cheering a shift in tone from the Catholic Church toward homosexuals, encouraged that Pope Francis' famous "Who am I to judge?" position has filtered down to bishops debating family issues at a Vatican meeting this week.
There is no discussion that church doctrine on homosexuality will change or that the Vatican will soon endorse gay marriage or even gay unions. It will not, as the Vatican's top canon lawyer made clear Thursday.
But for the first time, a Vatican meeting is discussing gay and lesbian issues and how to provide better spiritual care to Catholic homosexuals. Day after day, bishops have spoken of the need to change the church's language about gays from words of moral condemnation and judgment to words of welcome and respect.
"I think what we're seeing is a crack in the ice that we have been waiting for, for a very long time," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic gay rights group. "It's a sign of a first step."
Church teaching holds that gay acts are "intrinsically disordered," sinful and a "serious depravity," and that homosexual inclination is "objectively disordered." At the same time, it says homosexuals themselves must be treated with respect and compassion and not suffer discrimination.
"I know scores of people who have left the Catholic Church because of those words," DeBernardo said.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI penned some of the Vatican's key documents on gays when he headed the Vatican's orthodoxy office; a 1986 letter of his to bishops on providing pastoral care to gays insisted that any church program must clearly state "that homosexual activity is immoral." His 2003 document opposing recognition of same-sex unions made clear that "there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family."
The Vatican's top canon lawyer, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, said Thursday that the Catholic Church would "never" accept gay marriage or even bless a gay union.
"Look, you can talk about everything, you can say everything, but you also have to be honest and say that for us - and not just the Catholic Church but for human culture in general - marriage is between a man and woman," he told reporters.
"It's something else to say that everyone makes his or her choice, that we don't judge and that they might be great people even with this condition, but it's different to say that the union itself is blessed or a good thing."
Despite that unbending position, there's no doubting that a shift in tone has occurred.
Earlier this year, the head of the Nigerian bishops' conference, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, wrote to the Nigerian president praising his "courageous and wise decision" to sign the country's Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which criminalized homosexuality.
Kaigama told reporters this week that Nigeria's Catholic Church had supported the legislation merely as a defense of traditional marriage between man and woman.
While the Nigerian church didn't speak out against the criminalization of homosexuality, he insisted: "We were not supporting criminalizing of different sexual orientation. ... We would defend any person with homosexual orientation who has been harassed, who has been imprisoned or punished."
Michael Brinkschroeder, co-president of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups, which represents 42 organizations in 22 countries, welcomed Kaigama's clarification. "That is good news for people in Nigeria," he said.
Brinkschroeder said it was clear that the synod won't change doctrine, but that the "Francis effect" appeared to be trickling down to local bishops. Many had "lost their fear" and are freer now to engage in dialogue with gays in a way they couldn't under the last two popes, he said.
"With Benedict vanished from the scene, Francis has given signals for bishops to start pastoral work and dialogue," he said.
Francis famously said "Who am I to judge?" when asked in 2013 about rumors that a top priestly adviser had a gay lover.
DeBernardo, of New Ways Ministry, said the next step is for gays to be at the table offering their testimony to bishops. No openly gay Catholics have addressed the closed-door synod, but two Catholic heterosexual couples have spoken about experiences of devout Catholics welcoming gays or trying to provide pastoral care for them.
He said he was "euphoric" that some bishops had said language such as "intrinsically disordered" was wholly ineffective in bringing people closer to the church.
"I think the change in language starts a chain reaction: A change in language will bring a change in pastoral practice which will bring about a change in teaching," he said.
Not so fast, say conservative Catholics.
Hard-line Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Vatican's high court, insisted that gay sex was and will remain "intrinsically disordered" and that the church has to protect children from thinking otherwise.
He was responding to testimony from an Australian Catholic couple who told the synod about friends who welcomed their gay son and his partner to a Christmas party which their grandchildren would attend.
"That particular form of relationship should not be imposed upon family members, and especially upon impressionable children," Burke told the conservative LifeSiteNews. "And I urge parents or grandparents — whoever it may be — to be very, very prudent in this matter and not to scandalize their children or grandchildren."
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