STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Anyone who has followed the last few popes may have trouble believing this next news story at all. An assembly of Roman Catholic bishops has made what is being described as a dramatic shift in tone. They're calling for the church to welcome gay people, unmarried couples and those who have divorced. We're going to talk about this with Joshua McElwee who is Vatican bureau chief for The National Catholic Reporter. Welcome back to the program.
JOSHUA MCELWEE: Thank you. Glad to be here.
INSKEEP: So what was it that the bishops said exactly?
MCELWEE: The bishops are meeting here in Rome. It's a worldwide meeting of bishops known as a Synod for two weeks. And yesterday they've released a document summarizing their first week of discussion, and it certainly is a dramatic and decided shift in tone for the church. The bishops said that they want to reach out to modern society and to the church at large, to walk with people in different situations, to accompany them and to apply church doctrine alongside mercy.
Addressing homosexual unions, they said quite stunningly they didn't ask questions of those people, but they ask questions of the church. Is the church being welcoming of these people? And is it asking them into fraternal communion? And on the same side, addressing couples who are living together before marriage, does the church understand that there are certain economic factors around the world that make that beneficial? And instead of condemning those people, they want to walk with them and maybe help them find church teaching in their own time.
INSKEEP: Let's figure out what that means on a practical level, and maybe first you should explain the attitude the Catholic Church has had toward gay people or people who are living together but unmarried. Is it fair to say they've been kept at arm's length up to now?
MCELWEE: Yeah. I think same-sex couples in the United States would say that the church has not embraced them fully or has not made them feel welcome. But what the Vatican said yesterday in a press briefing from Archbishop Bruno Forte, who's the bishop leading the discussions here in Rome at this Synod - he was asked about this issue and asked about the change in tone. His first response was that the church has always said that every human person regardless of sexual orientation is a person of God and that human dignity then should be respected, but what seems to be changing here is that's what they're saying first. Although they're saying this is still wrong according to church teachings, they're not saying that first. And they're not condemning these people, but asking how the church can welcome them and walk with them. That seems to be a very different shift in tone.
INSKEEP: OK. So they're saying it's still against church teaching. Does that mean the church has not actually changed its doctrine or its policy; it's simply trying to talk differently?
MCELWEE: Yeah. What's important about this document is it's a summary of discussions, so it's not a formal statement of doctrine. It's not a formal changing of church law, but what it is saying is in one instance, the document talks about a theological notion called gradualism, which is the idea that instead of being very rigorous in church law and saying you failed to do this, therefore you're in trouble, it's saying people grow in their spiritual lives, people grow in their walk to find the holy and people grow in their attempt to follow church teaching. So in that growth, sometimes instead of condemning or applying church doctrine, the church should walk with these people, teach them and help them find what is holy.
INSKEEP: Educate me here a little bit. Certain people are permitted to take communion in the Catholic Church and certain people are not permitted to take communion in the Catholic Church. Could a gay couple now walk into church and take communion?
MCELWEE: The church obviously holds that marriage is between a man and a woman. And so at this point, church teaching says very clearly that same-sex unions are contrary to church doctrine, but at the same time, taking communion is both a personal choice and a choice of the community. But it's quite clear that church teaching doesn't have much leeway in that regard.
INSKEEP: Why is this happening now, this change in church tone?
MCELWEE: Pope Francis, when he opened this Synod of bishops a week ago, he asked the bishops to talk frankly to one another, to not let anything go off the table, to not say, I can't say anything and to listen to one another with openness and boldness. And this is different than in the past. In the past, the bishops have not spoken so openly. It was kind of understood that when a bishop speaks, he has to adhere very closely to the current church doctrine and to what the current pope was saying. It's quite clear that Pope Francis has changed this and that he wants everyone to speak openly, and he wants the discussions to happen so that there can be some search for truth among these people in a new way.
INSKEEP: Joshua McElwee, Vatican bureau chief of The National Catholic Reporter. Thanks very much.
MCELWEE: Thank you.
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