In a world where the nuclear family is one strand in a web of single mothers, grandparents raising children, gay unions or marriages with and without children, unmarried parents, the gamut of domestic ties has pulled serious interest from a Catholic Church theologically grounded in ‘natural law’ – principles drawn from nature, binding on social mores and undergirded by scripture.
A recent Vatican memorandum to the world’s bishops carried a questionnaire for dioceses and lay people in preparation for two synods, special gatherings of bishops in Rome, over the next two years.
The issue: “pastoral challenges to the family.”
Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a questionnaire like this would have never happened. Their obsession with a rules-based church held no room for vast social changes of the kind referenced in the new questionnaire.
In Western countries, where certain bishops became catalysts in the culture wars by protesting gay marriage, the prospect of a sweeping survey that asks the rank-and-file what they think may be disconcerting. As any bishop can tell you, gay sex is illicit because of examples given in Old Testament passages like Sodom and Gomorrah, and St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
But Francis is the first Jesuit pope. That training shows in this new initiative. Jesuits teach by the Socratic method: question leads to answer, answer sparks new question, and so the dialectic or wheel of learning turns.
Francis’s famous comment “who am I to judge?" when asked about a gay priest in the Vatican sent shock waves through many conservative precincts of the church. Yet the pope has issued no formal decree changing the church’s official stance on same-sex relationships.
He is, however, using questions to prod an ancient institution to engage what society has become. The unasked question that hovers over the Vatican questionnaire is stark yet simple: How do moral values change over time?
John Paul and Benedict stood squarely behind Paul VI’s 1968 Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) which condemned all forms of artificial contraception. An advisory commission to that pope voted 64-4 in favor of the birth control pill before Paul made his decision. After its release, Catholic protests in Europe and America led by liberal bishops and theologians became a global news event, something unheard of in modern church history. For the last ten years of his life, Paul VI did not issue another encyclical.
For decades, opinion polls have consistently shown that 85 percent of respondents in Western countries disagree with the birth control ban; most Catholics ignore it in their personal lives, producing far fewer children than the families in which many of them were raised.
The abuse crisis caused heavy damage for the credibility of the hierarchy; but the crippling effect on free speech, under John Paul and Benedict, also eroded moral authority. All bishops had to oppose women’s ordination and gay sex — as well as toeing the line on birth control. Meanwhile, a continuing literature on gay priests and media coverage suggested a vast clerical closet. A straight line is hard to find.
The most shackling unwritten law of the papacy is that a given pope must not reverse or contradict a recent predecessor. (Gregory XVI banned railroads in 1831 as “roads to hell.” The railroads advanced with Italian nationalism.) John Paul and Benedict punished scholars who took exception with the birth control letter, stripping them of licenses to teach theology.
By acknowledging that questions exist, Francis has opened the door, just a crack, to a discussion on why those 64 forgotten consultors wanted Paul VI to permit birth control pills.
From the Vatican questionnaire:
* “In those cases where the Church’s teaching is known, is it accepted fully or are there difficulties in putting it into practice? If so, what are they?”
* “Is [Humanae Vitae] accepted? What aspects pose the most difficulties in a large majority of couples’ accepting this teaching?”
* “What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of unions? In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?”
In asking about the legal status of civil unions and gay marriages in a given country, the questions suggest a genuine searching on an issue that riles ideologues on the right: the words “what can be done pastorally” run up against centuries of moral teaching that drew on natural law in condemning gays.
The future Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, did exactly that in a 1986 to the world’s bishops, calling homosexuality “a disorder” and “intrinsic moral evil.”
Francis is not saying Ratzinger was wrong. But the new Vatican questions treat his 1986 document as a dead letter.
A section of the questionnaire, entitled “The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages,” is an implicit admission that many gay people attend Mass and that those who want their children in parochial schools are a constituency, however small:
“How do parents in these situations approach the Church? What do they ask? Do they request the sacraments only or do they also want...the general teaching of religion?”
In other words, how does the church tell gay couples you can’t take communion? And if certain such couples have kids in the local school, how do religion teachers handle the nature of family in what they teach the children?
These may seem small questions in the great churn of daily life; but by putting out questions that members of the church have never been invited to answer, Francis is pushing the bishops toward a greater reckoning with reality. He is sure to get pushback. But as the drama unfolds, however slowly, it suggests a certain magnitude for this papacy in the shape of things to come.
Jason Berry, a religion blogger for GlobalPost, is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.