Stunning news came from Rome today where the bishops gathered for Pope Francis's Synod on the Family issued a report suggesting that the Church should create a more inclusive space for gay Catholics to participate in the life of the Church.
In the document, the bishops said without reservation that gay Catholics have "gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community." From that, they ask: "are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?"
This is a stunning language change from the Catholic Church on the question of homosexuality. Since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in 1975 that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" Rome has been clear on where it stands on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex unions. As recently as January 2013, Pope Benedict — while affirming the dignity of the LGBT community — suggested that gay marriage threatens the world's "justice and peace."
The Church's shift on LGBT issues began shortly after Pope Francis's election in March 2013. In July of last year, Francis famously said, "[i]f someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
But today's document produced by the bishops shows that Pope Francis's personal vision is slowly becoming the vision of the universal Church.
This shift is rooted in the pastoral principle of gradualism, which Vatican expert John Thavis describes as "the idea that Catholics move toward full acceptance of church teachings in steps, and the church needs to accompany them with patience and understanding."
Here's how the bishops put it:
It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.
The bishops are clearly getting the memo: leading with mercy is clearly the way forward for the Catholic Church. In his first Sunday homily as the Bishop of Rome, Francis said that Jesus's strongest message in the Gospel is mercy. It too is the most effective means of Christian encounter in a world that — while still longing for a relationship with God — has increasingly become disillusioned with organized religion.
Make no mistake: a Church that leads with the mercy of God is a Church with a future. Experiencing the mercy of God can compel us to at least consider the impossibly good news that God has saved us in Jesus and that no matter who we are, what we've done, or how badly we've failed, God never grows tired of loving us.
Shortly after the experiencing the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, Peter declared, "in truth, I see that God shows no partiality." Two millennia later, the Church that Jesus entrusted to Peter is beginning to see anew that same reality: with God's love in Jesus, no one is excluded and no one is left behind.