The news that the Vatican was shifting tone towards being more welcoming of homosexuals rocked the religious world and was called an “earthquake.” But now it seems that conservative backlash has forced a change in the wording of the document from “welcoming” to “providing for” homosexuals. The original English form of the 2014 synod’s relatio or “Report After Debate” brought fierce criticism from some bishops and even cardinals who were in the synod. That may be the primary reason for the change in wording, but despite the Vatican’s official change, the message on homosexuals has not changed. Overall, the tone remains positive towards a largely rejected group of people and still represents a shift in attitude spurred by Pope Francis himself.
The relatio created waves which are still being felt. Part of the issues with the original translation stem from the multilingual nature of the synod itself. With attendees from numerous nations speaking, French, English, Italian, and a variety of others, the nuances of translation matter. Getting the wording completely right may be impossible. That is why there is a drafting committee to oversee any documents released from the synod, including the relatio. Initially, this committee consisted of three people, but it has since been expanded to five. Nevertheless, translation difficulties are not wholly responsible for what is happening now.
Pope Francis started a drastic shift in official attitudes towards homosexuals with his now iconic phrase, “Who am I to judge?” In some ways, the synod relatio is an extension of that, but as a document composed of many different views from all the synod attendees, it is more measured than Francis’ standalone opinion. This is due to the nature of the relatio itself, which is a report of the debate within the synod and hits the highlights of the discussion in progress. Because of the collaborative nature of the document, not everyone involved in its creation will be pleased.
One of those who are not pleased is Cardinal Wilfred Napier from South Africa who has been outspoken about his qualms with the document. The conservative cardinal said that the relatio was “not a true message” and expressed the opinion that any changes after the initial release would be damage control. He may be reacting to the news reports that represented the new message as some kind of official stance change, which it is not. Despite his objections, however, Napier would not have the document completely retracted, though at least one American cardinal would.
While the news reports are correct in saying that the relatio is a dramatic change in tone from the Vatican, the wording of the message does not represent a change in doctrinal teaching on homosexuals. Official church doctrine still holds that homosexual persons are “intrinsically disordered” and no change to that policy is expected. What is different about Pope Francis and the current opinion of the Vatican is that there is no overtone of political rejection. Some conservative church leaders have expressed a political opposition to the LGBT community in the form of campaigning against gay marriage, gay adoption, and, at least in parts of Africa, the criminalization of homosexual acts. Such religious activists have counted on the support of the Vatican as a spiritual justification for their stance, but the explicit call to welcome and provide a place for homosexuals by this relatio changes that relationship.
Some may view the wording change as a conciliatory gesture towards those now disaffected activists. “Providing for” homosexuals may be a less palatable pastoral stance than “welcoming,” but essentially the message remains unchanged. The overt animosity that has existed between religious persons in the church and homosexuals cannot continue. Thus, the relatio still represents a pastoral challenge to the church to care for homosexuals seeking its grace, even if their sexual activities are not approved of.
The real challenge of this 2014 synod at the Vatican is not gay marriage or the doctrine on homosexuality. Those stances are set in doctrinal stone and no change is expected either now or in the future. But as the objections of the cardinals involved in the synod show, the real issue is consensus. Napier noted that the relatio was a construction out of discussion and worried that some people’s individual opinions may have been given more emphasis than they deserved. From that view, no consensus exists over the problem of homosexuals and their place in the church. Still, the Vatican has not moved away from its more positive pastoral message and the wording changes are minor. While some people seeing the Vatican pull back in the face of backlash, the overall effect is a confirmation of pastoral duty, not a withdrawal of its message.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury