By Stephen Seufert 10-27-2015

On Oct. 24, Pope Francis officially brought the Synod on the Family to a close during a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Far from settling issues related to the family, Pope Francis called for mercy and inclusion among his fellow bishops, declaring, “A faith that does not know how to grow roots into the lives of people stays barren. And instead of an oasis, it creates more deserts.”

From divorced to civilly remarried Catholics, the synod left several issues unresolved — no issue perhaps more so than the status of LGBT families.

Though no major shift in Catholic teaching is imminently expected, exploring past comments and actions by Pope Francis on the LGBT issue may give Catholics a clearer idea on where their church could be headed.

And His Holiness’ words and actions may also serve as a template on how to heal deep wounds and mistrust between civil and religious society on the question of LGBT families.

While archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2010, it was rumored that Pope Francis, then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, privately favored civil unions for same-sex couples but was against legalizing same-sex marriage in Argentina. The reason given for this stance was that Pope Francis didn’t believe Argentina was ready for same-sex marriage.

In March of 2014, Pope Francis asked the Catholic Church to look into the possibility of legally recognizing civil unions for same-sex couples. While the Vatican clarified this was not meant as an endorsement of civil unions, it was an invitation to consider accepting some countries’ legal arrangements for civil unions — prompting Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York to say he would be “uncomfortable” if such a position was embraced.

During last year’s synod, Pope Francis encouraged bishops to speak their mind boldly, saying, “Let no one say, ‘This you cannot say.’”

This statement opened up the possibility for a softer tone on LGBT Catholics. In fact, a synod draft document, which was approved by a slim majority of bishops but not included in the final synod documents, included the statements:

“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a further space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home … Are our communities capable of proving that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

While in Washington, D.C., in September, Pope Francis met with Yayo Grassi, an openly gay man in a relationship with Iwan Bagus, reportedly a day before the pontiff meet with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis. The meeting with Grassi was made public after Kim Davis’s representatives embellished the meeting Davis had with Pope Francis.

Vatican spokesperson Rev. Lombardi stated, "The only real audience granted by the Pope at the nunciature was with one of his former students and his family."

That student was Grassi.

In a speech to bishops at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary at the Chapel of St. Martin of Tours in Philadelphia in September, Pope Francis spoke of “unprecedented changes” that have “social, cultural – and, sadly, also legal — effects on family bonds.”

Pope Francis understood that “Christians are not “immune” to the “changes of their times.”

He went on to say,

“Until recently, we lived in a social context where the similarities between the civil institution of marriage and the Christian sacrament were considerable and shared. The two were interrelated and mutually supportive. This is no longer the case.”

Yet in his speech, Pope Francis said of being fearful of such changes, blaming young people, or yearning for a return to the past, “I do not think that this is the way.”

At the conclusion of the most recent synod, Pope Francis encouraged bishops assembled to continue their journey. During this ongoing journey, Pope Francis warned against “hostile inflexibility” and to allow one’s self to “be surprised by God.”

Will seeking an understanding into the differences between civil and sacramental marriage help to diffuse church tension? Can religious and civil liberties peacefully coexist?

The words and actions of Pope Francis certainly indicate a desire to explore such a path. The question then becomes: will others follow him on this journey?

Stephen Seufert is state director of Keystone Catholics, an online social justice advocacy organization in Pennsylvania.

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