THE BLOG
10/16/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

This Changes Everything

The Vatican report issued Monday, October 13, is a preliminary document, intended to mark the halfway point of a synod convened to discuss the family. Documents like that aren't supposed to excite passions. They're supposed to be sleepy, soporific, committee-crafted documents meant to reveal little. They are not usually earthquakes that rattle the foundations of the Church.

This document, however, is different. It is, as John Thavis wrote, an earthquake. It is worth extended study, and since it is meant to be a template for further discussions, it will undoubtedly be carefully scrutinized in the months ahead. I shall certainly return to it in my future writing. For I truly believe that nothing since the close of the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago has the potential of this document to change "business as usual" in the Catholic Church.

I'd like to indicate four areas where I think this document breaks new ground:

(1) The report opens by powerfully asserting a dynamic understanding of the human person and the human condition. That is the meaning of the declaration in paragraph five that "anthropological and cultural change today influences all aspects of life." The word "anthropological" is particularly important. That is a term of art reserved in Catholic moral writing for what is understood about human nature. By speaking of "anthropological change," the report suggests that our awareness of the human person is capable of growth and change as history and the sciences reveal new vistas for discovery.

This may seem self-evident but in fact it marks a crucial shift in Catholic thought about the human person. Pope John Paul II"s concept of the person, as articulated especially in his writings on the theology of the body, was remarkably static. It assumed the existence of a single, biologically-determined human nature, good for all times and places and proposed a one-size-fits-all set of moral laws to be applied across time in every case.

The synod report moves away from this fixed and unalterable concept of the person. And this will change how we reason about human sexuality. If we adopt the static view of John Paul II it becomes impossible to incorporate into moral analysis the latest scientific insights on, say, the nature of same-sex attraction. A dynamic understanding of the person, on the other hand, which keeps the door open to future learning, may be open to revisiting and revising teaching that has become outdated -- not because the underlying values have changed but because our awareness of what it means to be human has shifted.

(2) The document seeks to give primary place to the person and his or her journey towards faith in God. Faith is a process according to this document, and it is a process guided and shepherded by an awareness of Jesus. And Jesus is seen as welcoming: "Jesus looked upon the women and men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy."

The report demands that the Church meet people in the same way Jesus encountered them: in all the messiness of their scattered lives. Jesus, after all, promised the gift of living water to a Samaritan woman who had been married five times and was even then cohabiting with a man outside of marriage (John 4: 4-26).

This insight is then brought to bear on the question of reconciling the divorced and remarried with the Church. To appreciate the new path this document has embarked upon, John Paul II's pontificate again serves as a point of comparison. Take, for instance, his speech to the Roman Rota in the year 1994. These annual speeches are deliberately intended as instructions issued by the Pope to the Vatican Supreme Court charged with hearing petitions for marriage annulments. Judges, John Paul II gravely warned, must avoid "the temptation to lighten the heavy demands of observing the law in the name of a mistaken idea of compassion and mercy." What mattered to John Paul II, above all, was the defense of the abstract principle of the marital bond.

The synod report, in other words, shifts the premise of the debate on the subject of the divorced and remarried. Where John Paul II and Benedict XVI were concerned above all else with abstractions -- rules, principles, policies -- Pope Francis is concerned with the concrete reality of individual human beings trying to do their best in their faith journeys. People who have been divorced, who have remarried, who are now living in successful second marriages, should be "listened to with respect and love." Many of them may even have been divorced "unjustly."

(4) The synod report breaks fresh ground again in the way it discusses frankly the "reality... of cohabitation." To be sure, the report stresses the singular importance of what it calls an "institutionally-recognized relationship." Marriage should be the culmination that couples should strive to attain.

But the document also acknowledges, in a way never done before, that cohabitation might be a fruitful step in the direction of spiritual growth. It might, the document states, be "seen as a germ," a seed that might grow in the direction of a permanent, life-long marital union. How would Jesus respond to people living together outside of marriage? He would, the document insists, act like "the light of a beacon in a port." He would not condemn or drive such people away, he would attract them with the example of his life. We should imitate Jesus when we consider those who are in cohabitation relationships.

(4) And, of course, I must comment on the synod's treatment of gays. This part of the document represents a stunning reversal of the hostility we've seen in many quarters of the Catholic Church. Omitted from this document is even a hint of the Catholic Catechism's denunciation of same-sex attraction as an intrinsic disorder. In its place, we find: "Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community; are we capable of welcoming these people... ?" "Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home." Will they be attracted or repulsed by what they find?

What is most surprising about the document's discussion of gays is found in paragraph 52, where it states, regarding same-sex 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."

"Mutual aid" and "sacrifice" -- these are words that Catholic moral teaching reserves to marriage. Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical Casti Connubii (1930), described marriage as promoting the "mutual aid" of the spouses. Marriage, John Paul II was fond of repeating, must imitate the "sacrificial love" of Jesus, who died for the sins of humanity.

This document, in other words, changes the terms of the debate. And on the subject of same-sex attraction, debate is precisely what the document is inviting. Thus paragraph 51 states that "the question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth."

The synod's report, in other words, is an invitation to reform the likes of which we have not seen for half a century. I hope to be a full participant in this debate, and certainly I encourage others to join the discussion.