Bishops call for humbler approach to gays, broken families

Written by Peter Smith on .

Call it a preliminary document at a preliminary synod -- and it is -- but it sets a tone that will be difficult to reverse. One longtime Vatican correspondent calls it a "pastoral earthquake."

It's the most dramatic example yet of Roman Catholic bishops doing what Pope Francis has been doing individually for the past year and a half: Making dramatically conciliatory statements in the pastoral approach to people whom the church has long deemed as living in sin.

Good things can happen in same-sex relationships, for example. And people living together outside of marriage, or at least a church marriage, often show genuine love for each other and their children and share "authentic family values" even while not living up to church ideals.

Moreover, the church should "accompany" people dealing with real life, not just teaching an abstract ideal.

In other words, don't be thrown by the modest title of this document, called "Relatio post disceptationem." It's a summary of the first week of discussions of a select group of bishops and some lay people at an "Extraordinary (not regularly scheduled) Synod" on family matters. After a week of discussions about the widespread dissent from church teachings among Catholics, or at least the disparities between their lives and church teachings, the document calls for pastoral care first, judgment later.


1. No, the bishops aren't proposing changing doctrine.

2. This is only the first of two synods on the family, with an "ordinary" one next year.

3. Nothing changes until the pope signs off on it.

4. The document pays particular tribute to perhaps the most unpopular of modern encyclicals, "Humanae Vitae," decrying artificial birth control and citing the impact of a declining birth rate in some societies.

But it's clear in far more than just the famous "Who am I to judge" quote that Francis favors a more pastoral approach, and the bishops are following suit, saying the church needs to walk with people in their concrete circumstances.


Even look at some of the section headings: "Positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation." "Welcoming homosexual persons."

Some quotes: 

"Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm."


"Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: 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. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

"... Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual 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. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority."


"Jesus looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God."



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Skurla, Wuerl on the family synod

Written by Peter Smith on .

It's surely a coincidence that the Vatican's synod on the family began just a day before the U.S. Supreme Court all but signaled that same-sex marriage would be the legal norm in America.


As I noted in my story Sunday, the synod comes as Catholic tradition on the family is already a tough sell even among Catholics.


Archbishop William Skurla of the Byzantine Eparchy of Pittsburgh acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church's traditional view on marriage is practically a minority viewpoint now. And that, he told Vatican Radio, isn't the only challenge. These days, families that stay together, pay together. People whose marriages are broken are often financially broke as well.


Vatican Radio reported on Archbishop Skurla's comments in an interview. He's one of the select group of delegates there.


“it is more difficult to speak to the world, because always we have to explain our position as almost a minority understanding of the place of the family in society today.”

Another challenge he cited is that which results a lack of permanence, with families frequently moving from place to place. “It creates an atmosphere where there is not the same kind of support that we had, say, thirty, or forty, or fifty years ago from the family in the community that people are trying to raise their children in.”

The archbishop also highlighted a third challenge which pertains to stability caused by the economic status of the family. “A change during the last twenty years,” he said, “is that the more stable families are actually the more successful [financially] families,” while those that “have to struggle economically have more difficulty in staying together.”

Also a delegate is Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., native and former bishop of Pittsburgh.


Cardinal Wuerl told Vatican Radio not to "expect sound bite solutions” to today's family challenges:


“The secular world, the secular vision doesn’t have a lot of space for a relationship with God, or a transcendent reality beyond us … that world has created a individualism and a self-referential world that doesn’t leave a lot of space for a healthy marriage and a family life that is going to follow on from that”.



And to Catholic News Service he said of the debate over communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics:

"The reception of Communion is not a doctrinal position. It's a pastoral application of the doctrine.... Just to repeat the practice of the past without any effort to see whether there is some awareness, openness, influence of the Spirit that might be helping us in total continuity with our past practice to find a new direction today."





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Harrisburg bishop: No boy-girl contact sports

Written by Peter Smith on .

Bishop Ronald Gainer -- appointed late last year to head the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg -- is prohibiting girls from boys' contact sports teams at Catholic schools and in Catholic youth leagues, citing "safety & modesty" concerns.

The policy is at this link, and excerpts follow. But it's worth pointing out that if this approach seems traditionalist and even archaic -- something that would be pigeonholed into the conservative thought of the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and contrary to the modern ethos that enthrones equality above virtually all other concerns -- remember that Bishop Gainer was appointed to Harrisburg by Pope Francis. For all the conversation recently about Pope Francis' appointment of different kinds of bishops than his predecessors (see Chicago), this is just a reminder that Francis is more complex than that. Bishop Gainer, an Eastern Pennsylvania native, was originally a John Paul appointee as bishop of Lexington, Ky., who made it perfectly clear that the pro-life, anti-abortion agenda was "THE paramount issue of are time" for Catholics as both believers and voters. Now that he's in the state capital here, it shouldn't be a surprise that he'd implement rules with a traditionalist understanding of gender roles.

"Gospel-based values are taught and learned in these athletic programs by developing respect for self and for others through competitions and other forms of human interaction in which dignity, integrity, fairness and moral strength are emphasized. Christian witness to authentic Gospel values is given by all who are involved in these programs in the form of adherence to appropriate norms of conduct, decorum and moral discipline.

"Preparation for Christian adulthood likewise involves the development and encouragement of appropriate, dignified and respectful forms of contact between male and female students. The Diocese therefore believes that it is incompatible with its religious mission and with its efforts to teach Gospel values to condone competitions between young men and women in sports that involve substantial and potentially immodest physical contact.

"Consequently, the Diocese has adopted this policy prohibiting co-ed participation in thefollowing sports: wrestling, tackle football and tackle rugby. In any sport in which co-ed participation is permitted, the appropriate ecclesiastical authority designated by the diocesan bishop may issue and enforce rules of conduct that reflect morally appropriate norms of contact between participants."






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Many pastors don't talk about mental illness

Written by Peter Smith on .

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The first responder to a mental health crisis is either a police officer or a pastor, says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research in Nashville.

Of the two, the police are better trained, he said.

Two-thirds of Protestant pastors surveyed said they talk about mental illness, if at all, once a year or less, according to a survey of 1,000 such pastors around the country. The survey was released Monday by LifeWay and co-sponsored by the group Focus on the Family and a private donor.

If one in four parishioners suffered from, say, cancer, the pastor would probably be talking about it more often, Mr. Stetzer said, and "they should do the same for mental illness."

Only a quarter of churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness, and an even lower percentage of such families surveyed knew if their church has one. And roughly a quarter of people who experienced mental illness either switched churches or dropped out due to negative responses, although half stayed with their church and found it supportive.

On the positive side, Mr. Stetzer said, pastors were comfortable referring people to professional mental health services as needed, and most favored the use of medication when needed. 

He said that counters a popular perception of religious leaders seeing mental illness as a solely spiritual problem without a medical component. (That perception has a basis in reality, particularly in a 2008 Baylor University survey finding nearly a third of people who were themselves medically diagnosed with mental illness, or a loved one was, reported being told it was directly due to personal sin, demons or lack of faith.)

"There’s a huge conversation about over-medication and we get that, but clearly there’s a comfort level" with medication, he said.

About one-quarter of pastors themselves say they've had experience with mental illness, including 12 percent who were themselves diagnosed. But they're reluctant to talk about it, according to the survey.

Attention has focused on mental illness from a variety of sources, but the evangelical Protestant community was especially rocked in recent years by the suicides of the adult children of megachurch pastor Rick Warren and of the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, Frank Page. Both have spoken publicly and candidly about it.



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