If my dear reader will permit, please allow me to back up on some of this conversation to provide some context from my seminary education. But before I do that, let me go on record right here - as a social conservative - as saying I find these developments refreshing and incredibly encouraging.
The context, though, which almost certainly will be missed by the media - especially the more liberal outlets - is the difference between the 'pastoral' ministry of the Church and the underlying 'theology' and doctrine of the Church. It is important to understand that these two things are not the same.
I suspect in the coming weeks we will discover that the Church - or the current 'Synod' of bishops (a 'synod' is a meeting place of roads and represents the coming together of Catholic bishops from around the world to discuss the direction of the Church on these issues) - will call for a re-orientation of the pastoral ministry of the Church, but not for a change in fundamental theology and doctrine.
Here is how that difference plays out in real life: The Church's moral tradition - the way right and wrong are reasoned to - is one grounded in nature. The Church's teaching, for example, on human sexuality does not come from an ancient holy man with a flowing white beard in a temple on some mountaintop scribbling random sayings on some parchment. It comes, rather, from simple observations of nature.
If I might take a little risk here, one cannot notice the anatomy of the man, then notice the anatomy of the woman, and then turn and claim not to know what goes where. The 'heterosexual complement of nature' is right in front of us. The Catholic Church - and social conservatives, both Catholics and Protestants more broadly - actually do not rely upon Scripture to teach us what is natural vs. unnatural - and therefore good vs. bad - when it comes to sexuality. We reason, rather, from the nature of things right in front of us.
I doubt this will change, nor should it.
But what will likely change - and what must change if our message is to continue to be 'good news' - is the orientation of the pastoral work of the Church away from making good arguments (even like the one above) in favor of being a good neighbor. The question pressing before the bishops right now is to both articulate the need for this pastoral re-orientation, and then to articulate exactly what it means in terms of how the Church will change.
The Difference Between Judgment and Condemnation
Media stories would have us believe the bishops are taking their cue from a statement Pope Francis made to reporters on a plane. Speaking of homosexuals in general, the Pope noted that if a person who is homosexually oriented has 'good will', "who am I to judge?" It is a little more complicated than that, but actually not by much.
'Judgment' as a biblical idiom usually means some form of punishment imposed by an authority for violating the law. I take the Pope as asking "who am I to impose a punishment?" But there is another much more common and ordinary use of the word 'judgment': the simple sense of judging what is natural and unnatural, right and wrong, good and bad. The problem arises when we confuse this with 'condemnation'.
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome in which he spoke of his own struggles with right and wrong. He noted that there were things he knew not to do, yet he ended up doing them anyway. And there were things he knew he ought to do, and he ended up not doing them. Then Paul followed on with one of the most significant sentences in all of the New Testament (Romans 12:1):
There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ...Pope Francis and the bishops are on the brink of calling the Church to a pastoral posture toward those in civil marriages, those who have re-married after a previous divorce, and homosexuals in general that welcomes them to Christian community. This is a pastoral choice - long overdue in this conservative's opinion - to put belonging before believing.
Belonging Before Believing
Conservatives, of course, are in an uproar over all of this. The objection will essentially be that being 'in Christ' (for the Catholic this would mean being baptized and admitted to the other Sacraments) has to precede the 'no condemnation' part of St. Paul's teaching. This is the 'believing before belonging' that those who are my age (born in 1967) or older likely take for granted as the norm.
The days of believing before belonging are gone, and have been for a while now. And it is no surprise that Pope Francis - a Jesuit priest - would be the one to lead the Church in realizing this. The Jesuit order of priests have been known historically for going to parts of the world previously unreached by the Church, taking the indigenous cultural forms of the people and re-interpreting the Gospel around them rather than trying to wholly replace those forms with Western forms. Father Mateo Ricci (1552-1610) and his mission to China is probably the best example of this.
This allows for a gradual recognition of what being 'in Christ' entails. It is to offer the 'no condemnation' part of St. Paul's teaching as an introduction to what it means to be 'in Christ' and an invitation to take whatever first step the person is able to take in that direction at the moment. In practical terms, this means those who were pastorally excluded from the Christian community because the Church judged their lifestyle to be sinful are now to be included as matter of pastoral ministry that the Church might re-introduce the Gospel.
It is not to abandon the judgment (using the term broadly as a recognition of right and wrong) of the Church as to what is normal and natural. It is not - as it seems many conservative commentators have taken it - to approve of a lifestyle which the Church has taught from the beginning is not aligned with the order of God's creation.
The theology and doctrine of the Church on these things has not changed, nor will it, nor should it. The pastoral orientation of the Church is changing dramatically - and very much for the good.