Before bishops meet, discordant voices on gays' place in Church

PHOTO: Reuters

In the days leading up to a synod of bishops at which the Church's approach to homosexuality will come under review, representatives of gay Catholics from nearly 40 countries have descended on Rome.

Seminars, meetings and conferences have echoed to the sound of sometimes sharply discordant voices seeking to influence the direction of the debate.

The official stance of the Church remains clear: homosexuality is an "intrinsic disorder" and individuals attracted to the same sex should live a life of abstinence.

But at all levels of its global structure, there are important differences of view on how variations in human sexuality should be dealt with, both in Catholic teaching and in the pastoral activities of priests across a world in which broader societal views of the question also vary greatly.

"Without wishing to offend anyone ... a man is nothing without a woman, and neither of them is anything without being open to life. Homosexuality is closed to life," conservative Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah told a seminar in the run-up to the synod.

A related perspective is offered by Father Paul Check, head of Courage, an organisation which describes its mission as helping people with homosexual desires to live a more Christian life.

"There is much more to their humanity and their Christianity than their feelings," he told AFP TV.

"I'm not diminishing these feelings, I say there is much more that makes you a human, a Christian. And part of engaging that is how I'm going to choose to respond to what's inside me." Then there is 23-year-old Frenchman Clement Borioli, who says has overcome his gay tendencies and now aspires to "an exclusive and affectionate" but chaste friendship with another man.

Yet while Pope Francis and most of his bishops all concur in their condemnation of the trend towards legalising gay marriage, there are important voices in the church supporting a more profound reflection on the evidence that sexuality is innate.

"For me, this inclination is a question mark: it does not reflect God's original design, and yet it is a reality, because you are born gay," German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the most influential reformist theologian in the upper echelons of the Church, wrote recently.

Kasper is widely thought to have the ear of the pope; the book in which he made that observation was subtitled "my journey with Francis." Mexican bishop Raul Vera Lopez was reprimanded in 2010 for telling priests in his diocese to offer a pastoral welcome to homosexuals.

A step forward

"What a scandal!" he said. "People think homosexuals are perverse, that they are sick. But the sickness is in our heads not in theirs," he said on the sidelines of a meeting here of umbrella group the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC).

Hailing from both developed countries like the United States, Spain and Germany as well as from Zambia and Chile, these "rainbow Catholics" have decided to live openly as homosexuals but do not demand much of the men inside the ornate halls that will host the synod.

In a reference to the pope's famous "who am I to judge" comment about gays, GNRC spokesman Andrea Rubera says the fact a discussion has been opened within the Church at all represents major progress.

"The fact that a Pope said the word 'gay' in itself was a historic event," said the 50-year-old from Rome, who is bringing up three children with his husband.

References to homosexuals and their children in official synod documents "amount to a recognition of a phenomenon that is a reality and that in itself is already a step forward," said Rubera.

The next step, he says, is to turn words into action by getting the Church to approve the universal adoption of a new pastoral approach which would see priests help families to be accepting of their homosexual children, encourage parishes to embrace the children of gay couples and recognise the value of loving, stable same-sex relationships.

The last point figured in a working document at last year's first round of synod discussions but caused so much hostile reaction it was excised from the final text.

For now, it is greater tolerance not pride that is on the Church's agenda.

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