Pope Francis opened the Vatican’s month-long convention about “family issues” on Sunday with a homily that championed opposite-sex marriage as “God’s dream” while dismissing “popular opinion” and “passing fads” that could threaten it.
The address marked the beginning of the Synod on the Family at the Vatican, the second conference Francis has convened in as many years to discuss family-related issues such as priestly celibacy, divorce, and same-sex relationships, among other topics. Speaking before more than 300 Synod participants — including 270 high-ranking clerics — Francis praised the merits of a traditional family, which he defined as occurring exclusively between a man and a woman.
“This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self,” Francis said. “It is the same plan which Jesus presents in today’s Gospel: ‘From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh.’”
Francis explained he believed God’s intention was for man and woman “to love and to be loved, and to see their love bear fruit in children.” He did not mention same-sex relationships by name, but insisted that the Church “carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions.”
However, Francis did note that while Catholics are called to teach and defend “fundamental values,” they should also embrace “the man who falls or who errs.”
“The Church must search out these persons, welcome and accompany them, for a Church with closed doors betrays herself and her mission, and, instead of being a bridge, becomes a roadblock,” he said.
The comments highlight a cautious rhetorical strategy used throughout the papacy of Francis, who upholds Church teaching but works to create what he sees as a more welcoming Christian community.
His implication that marriage is exclusively heterosexual, for instance, is in line with Catholic Church’s historic opposition to LGBT relationships, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “objectively disordered.” This is likely why the pontiff has done nothing to stop the Church’s habit of firing employees who are openly LGBT — including Kryzstof Charamsa, a priest who was let go from his job at the Vatican on Saturday after he announced that he was gay and in a relationship.
Yet Francis has also made several welcoming overtures to the LGBT community. He reportedly advocated for civil unions for same-sex couples during Argentina’s debate over marriage equality, famously answered a question about gay priests by saying “who am I to judge?” in 2013, and embraced a gay couple as old friends while visiting Washington, D.C. last month.
This back-and-forth approach has confounded both conservative and progressive Catholics, especially as Francis implements subtle changes to how the Church handles other family-related issues. In September, he outlined a new system that makes it easier for Catholics to receive an annulment, which dissolves a marriage by declaring that it was never valid in the first place. He has also cautioned his fellow bishops against being too hard on divorced Catholics, who are often excluded from Communion, saying in August, “[they] are not excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way!”
“They always belong to the church,” he added.
This broader, more “pastoral” take to these issues has created a sense apprehension on all sides ahead of this year’s Synod. Right-wing Catholics such as Michael Dougherty are warning that the conference participants will inevitably “fall into apostasy” and “heresy” during negotiations over marriage, saying the Synod is “one to be dreaded.” Meanwhile, many progressives point to last year’s Synod on the Family as reason enough to temper expectations: In 2014, Synod participants released a surprisingly welcoming statement on LGBT issues halfway through deliberations, only to publish a far less conciliatory document at the end of the convention after conservatives voiced outrage. This year’s Synod is tasked with evaluating the text of that document, which addressed many issues other than marriage equality.
Anything the Synod produces, however, will only be provisional. As Francis explains in another brief address to conference participants on Monday, the body cannot alter or change Church teaching, although it can put forward recommendations for consideration at other church gatherings.
“I should mention that the Synod is neither a convention, nor a parlor, nor a parliament or senate, where people make deals and reach compromises,” he said. “The Synod is rather an Ecclesial expression.”