What did the Vatican really say about same-sex unions?

Perhaps more interesting is what it didn't say. Though confounding and idiotic, It's not as bad as it seems.

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I was raised Catholic, but am not observant or in any way in the faith, and I’ve been enormously critical of the church over the years for trying to influence public policy that promotes restricting the rights of women, LGBTQ people and others. I even got arrested protesting Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — yes, who went on to become Pope Benedict — in New York back in the late 1980s, as I interrupted his speech and called him “the devil.”

So, I’m the last person to offer any kind of apologia for a Vatican decree.

Of course, I understand the disappointment and anger among observant LGBTQ Catholics and Catholics who support LGBTQ equality after reports of the Vatican’s decree this week stating the church can’t “bless” same-sex unions and still affirms that gay sex is a “sin.”

But the Vatican’s statement actually reveals how much progress LGBTQ people have made and how the Catholic church, which can take centuries to change on any one issue — it took until 1992 for the church to admit Galileo was right — has retreated on queer rights in just a few short decades. Most interesting is what’s not in the statement — and what precipitated the statement — than what it actually put forth.

First, it’s important to distinguish that the Vatican, which is a nation state led by a monarch in addition to being the seat of a global religious faith, operates in both the political world and theological realm. Politically, the church and the pope try to influence public policy in other nations. They lobby governments and they have a seat at the United Nations. Pope Benedict continually attacked the Spanish government for legalizing same-sex marriage in 2005, for example, and even traveled to Spain to try to stop it. He and the Vatican condemned other governments in other countries over and over again for legalizing same sex marriage during his papacy.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, has focused the Vatican’s global political priorities on climate change, immigrants’ rights and economic inequality. On gay identity he famously said in 2013, “Who am I to judge?” And in a documentary that received much attention last October, he endorsed civil unions — and let’s stress the word civil — for gay couples.

“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They are children of God and have a right to a family," the pope said in in the documentary Francesco, which premiered at the Rome Film Festival. "What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered."

As usual when Francis makes such a comment, the Vatican pushed back after the pope’s comments received enormous attention — the Catholic archbishop in Mexico City, within a country that is the second largest Catholic country in the world, immediately praised Francis, joining his support of civil unions — and said there was no change in “church doctrine.”

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And that’s what the new statement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pretty much stated this week: there is no change in church theology.

[S]ince blessings on persons are in relationship with the sacraments, the blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit. This is because they would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing[ invoked on the man and woman united in the sacrament of Matrimony, while in fact “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”

This is of course homophobic, and still considers homosexuality a sin. And that seems baffling to people in light of Francis’s past statements. But, unlike in the days of Pope Benedict and before, the church is actually now separating its political position on homosexuality (which Francis can decide on his own) from its theological position, which is a whole other can of worms.

Changing church doctrine can’t be done by Francis alone, and the orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is notoriously anti-LGBTQ. Back in the day when Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, headed it under Pope John Paul, he released a decree saying people with “homosexual inclination” have a “strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”

But, while none of those past decrees are overturned, this new statement doesn’t have such vile language and it twice takes a position against “all unjust discrimination" against gay people. Regarding same-sex unions, it even recognizes the “presence in such relationships of positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated” (even as it states the church “cannot justify these relationships.”)

It sound absolutely ridiculous to be trying to strike a balance, when this statement nonetheless still condemns people for who they are. And if you’re a believing Catholic it’s surely distressing. It also would have an amazingly powerful and positive impact if the Catholic church’s doctrine blessed gay unions, affecting queer people and their families around the world, particularly in Africa and elsewhere where the church is growing and many governments are brutally anti-LGBTQ.

So I’m not in any way downplaying the terrible impact church beliefs and decrees have on millions. But to have the church out of the political realm, not fighting against same-sex civil marriage or laws protecting people against discrimination — at least not from the Vatican and the pope— is a good thing.

And the current statement itself was drawn up only as a response to church prelates in Germany and elsewhere in Europe who were already blessing same-sex unions or were pressuring the church to do so. Otherwise, the church might not have even put out this statement. Already, some church leaders are saying they will defy the Vatican.

The fact that we’re at a point where the Vatican isn’t fighting the legalization of same-sex marriage on the political landscape, and, because of forces within the church pushing for change, is gingerly underscoring its theological beliefs, does show that they’re on their heels — even if it might take another century.

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