An Earthquake at the Vatican?

A bishops’ report won’t change doctrine, but its tone is revolutionary
Illustration by Bloomberg View; Photograph by Getty Images

The world’s Roman Catholic bishops issued a report on Oct. 13 that contained little that was new in church teachings and is unlikely to affect policies soon. Yet it was variously described as a “pastoral earthquake” and heralding a “revolutionary change.”

What explains the stunned response? Partly, it’s a matter of tone: The report, from an assembly discussing the church’s teachings on family life, is suffused in the language of acceptance and mercy. In its approach to issues such as divorce, homosexuality, and contraception, it echoes the public statements of Pope Francis. And that suggests the greater significance of the document: Quite aside from its effect on doctrine, Francis’s papacy is showing how a tradition-minded institution can confront the relentless flux of the modern world.

One way is through an openness to change and dialogue. This is no small thing for a 2,000-year-old faith with 1 billion adherents. Francis has made openness a priority, and he urged the bishops at the assembly to meet in a spirit of free inquiry. Throughout the report, the bishops acknowledge that modern family life is evolving in complex ways that require new thinking. They deserve credit for responding to such changes openly—and with a candor that hasn’t always come naturally at the Vatican.

Another way to respond to the turmoil of modernity is by focusing insistently on the dignity of individuals. That theme has shaped much of Catholic social and economic thought in the past century, and Francis has endowed it with renewed vigor and urgency. The concept finds expression in the bishops’ unusually vivid support for gays and the divorced.

This emphasis on individual dignity has ramifications beyond family life. The social, financial, and technological networks that define the Information Age are a great boon to society, but they also risk marginalizing individuals. Automation and artificial intelligence are likely to ease many of life’s burdens, but they also risk alienating the workers left behind.

Responding morally to these changes means that, as the report says, “it is necessary to accept people in their concrete being”—in other words, to meet people where they are. That’s a challenge for politicians as much as for religious leaders, and how they talk is as important as what they say. The bishops clearly realize this: The report avoids the reproving phrases that some at the Vatican have used to describe gays, and it calls instead for “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation.”

Such shifts in language have often signaled that changes are coming to the church. What they portend this time isn’t clear, and the fierce response of some bishops to the report suggests they’re taking Francis’s call for frank debate seriously. Yet the pope’s overriding message—that the church should be open to change while being attuned to the individual dislocation and suffering it can often bring—appears to be having its intended effect. His message has relevance well beyond the Vatican.

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