Boston Clergyman Reacts To Vatican's Softening Tone

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Pope Francis opens the afternoon session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 6. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)
Pope Francis opens the afternoon session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 6. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

"Who am I to judge?"

Pope Francis rocked the Catholic Church last summer when he uttered that simple statement about the status of gay priests. Those five words have since become viewed as an encapsulation of the Pope's attitude towards homosexuality in general: that the Church should welcome gay people, not turn them away.

And this week, another sign of possibly shifting ground in the Catholic Church: a group of bishops convened in Rome by the Pope drafted a document that expresses a similarly welcoming view towards gays and lesbians. It also speaks inclusively about unmarried couples living together and people who've gotten divorced.

While reiterating that the Catholic Church does not condone gay unions or gay marriage, the document acknowledges “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation," says that gay people have “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community” and credits gay couples with providing each another “precious support in the life of the partners.”

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer speaks with a Boston clergyman about his reaction to the Vatican's recent change in tone.


Walter Cuenin, chaplain and coordinator of the Multifaith Chaplaincy at Brandeis University and former pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Newton.


On the document drafted by a group of bishops in Rome:
Walter Cuenin:
"[It's] very exciting, because even though I don't think they're changing church doctrine...there's clearly a whole new attitude about welcoming people. Some of the cardinals were talking about how gay couples are very important, they're committed to the church, they raise their children in the faith, and the same with divorced/remarried Catholics who are married, in a sense, illegally, if you want to put it that way — not recognized by the church, but that we need them at the table of the Lord."

On whether doctrinal teachings will change anytime soon:
"I don't see any doctrinal change happening, but that really doesn't matter in some ways. It's the pastoral approach, and I think what the bishops in Rome are saying is that we need to find ways to welcome these Catholics into the church. There is a lot of division, of course. If you go online, you can see, among the different cardinals, different opinions. In fact, I saw something today from the U.S. bishops. They were concerned that if we make it to easy for people to come back, divorced/remarried, will that sort of hurt the whole teaching of the church about the stability of marriage?"

On the challenge of changing the attitude of a global church:
"When you think of Africa, or even lots of South America — for example, the issue of gay people is seen quite differently in parts of Africa. I mean, they could be killed. So, how do you set up a pastoral policy for gay people if the country itself or the social fabric of that land is against it. The same with divorce and remarriage, because in parts of the world, even marriage itself is looked at differently. I noticed online that some of the bishops at the Vatican were saying, 'Well, why can't parents choose their own spouses for their children? Is that OK or not?' I mean, to us it would seem crazy, but in some cultures, it's the way they look at it. So, is it just different? Or is it right or wrong? And I think this is going to be a big challenge for the church, as we are finally really global. I mean, we used to be sort of European church transplanted, but of course now we have a pope from South America, and all the bishops come together, which they never could do years ago until the Vatican council, so you're getting different ideas, different approaches."

On his optimism about the church:
"Since Francis has been elected, it's given me a whole new hope. I mean, I was kind of discouraged under the last pope — not that you build your whole life around the pope — but seeing this whole new attitude and [Francis'] approach is just very, very inspiring to me."

On making a major effort to welcome people back to the church:
"You can't say, 'Come back to the church,' if we don't change our whole operation. I mean, come back to the same old, same old? So, I think there's still a lot more work to be done and I suspect that many priests will not be on board with this...But even talking about it changes things...Even to admit that we're dealing with this as part of our church, I think it makes a difference because that's how change happens. I mean, it doesn't happen overnight, of course. But just the beginning, to talk about the reality of same-sex marriage in the church is, I think, a big deal."


The Boston Globe: Catholic Bishops Soften Tone On Same-Sex Unions

  • "For the first time in a semi-official Vatican document, a summit of Catholic bishops from around the world convened by Pope Francis acknowledged Monday that relationships that don’t accord with Catholic teaching, including same-sex unions, can have positive moral value."

This article was originally published on October 14, 2014.

This segment aired on October 14, 2014.

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Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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