This Pope is full of questions, especially about the church's treatment of gay men and women

For the first time in its history, the Church is starting to slightly relax its attitude to homosexuality

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Anybody interested in leadership should watch Pope Francis carefully. The first lesson he teaches is not to postpone confronting the toughest questions. He has been in office for only a year and a half, yet he has already called a synod of bishops (182-strong) to study the “family” – in other words, sexual relationships. For the Roman Catholic Church, as indeed for the Church of England, nothing could be more difficult. A report has been published this week.

Then in designing the synod, Pope Francis rejected the usual top-down method of decision-making. The synods convened by his predecessors – Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI – were stage-managed affairs in which the opinions of the bishops in attendance were never really sought. But the new Pope told the cardinals and bishops attending the synod that they were to say what was on their minds: “You have to say all that which in the Lord you feel you have to say”.

This is important because the bishops have come to the synod in Rome from very different situations. In some places, polygamy is the norm; in others the practice of “arranged marriages” persists. In yet others, Christianity is a minority religion so that “mixed” marriages are common.

At the same time Pope Francis makes himself available. The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, who was present as an observer, describes his relaxed style. “He is in and around the hall before sessions start; he mingles and meets people over coffee. I found myself walking down the stairs after yesterday evening just in front of him. He is Pope but he is of the people. His humility shines through.”

In his planning of the synod, the Pope also paid attention to the classical adage festina lente, “make haste slowly” – or, as we might say, more haste, less speed. Don’t rush to a decision. Let time play its role. Allow for what is called “God’s patience”. So the meeting that finished this week is described as preliminary. It only starts a process that is meant to continue until another synod of bishops scheduled for 2015.

More dramatic though has been the Pope’s decision to open the windows of the Vatican and let in fresh air by facilitating the participation of ordinary members of the Church. Thus before the synod had begun, Church members were asked to respond to a survey. The Pope wanted his bishops to have a clearer idea of why Rome’s teachings are increasingly being rejected or ignored. One question was, “How does your parish community welcome same-sex couples and gay persons? How are they included in the life of the parish? Are they given sufficient space to be full and active members of the Church?"

But that was not all. Every day during the synod, at the beginning of each session, lay people were asked to testify. As one observer remarked, hundreds of celibate men from the Roman Catholic Church have spent the last week hearing people who actually have sex actually talk about it.

One couple, for instance, spoke of marriage as “a sexual sacrament”. Even more arresting in the Vatican setting, Ron and Mavis Pirola, a middle-aged Australian couple, described how Catholic friends of theirs had agreed that their gay son could bring his partner to their Christmas family gathering. “They fully believed in the Church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family,” they told the Synod. After all, they told the bishops, he was their son.

Faced with this, an American spokesperson for a fundamentalist lobby within the Catholic Church commented: “The unqualified welcome of homosexual couples into family and parish environments in fact damages everybody, by serving to normalise the disorder of homosexuality.”

This sort of reaction was only to be expected. All religious bodies have to deal with fundamentalist members, the sort of zealots who opposed the Church of England’s recent decision to invite women priests to become bishops.

The preliminary report has at its centre the notion of respect. The fundamental idea is the centrality of the person independently of his or her sexual orientation. As the Pope has put it in rather poetic language: “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’, which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.”

As far as gay people are concerned, the preliminary report observes that they have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. It asks: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? “Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?” And it adds: “Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” In other words, love.

In the same way, adds the document, the situation of the divorced who have remarried demands discernment and an “accompaniment” full of respect, avoiding any language or behaviour that might make them feel discriminated against. The point about choice of language is important. Even this report, when referring to the separated and divorced, refers to them all as “damaged families”. “Damaged” is an unfortunate description.

Taking the preliminary report as a whole, the fundamentalist tendency was unhappy, as one would expect. These people are in permanent opposition to the modern world. So the head of the Polish bishops’ conference, Cardinal Stanislaw Gadecki, was not alone in calling the preliminary report “unacceptable” and a deviation from church teaching. However, by indicating that the preliminary report is not the final word, the Pope has given himself plenty of room for manoeuvre.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, was more diplomatic. “It is not a doctrinal or decisive document,” he said. “It is, as stated in its conclusion, ‘intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer on reflection’.”

The Pope will be happy with that. He has achieved movement and brought new voices into the debate. That is a good start.