An Earthquake at the Vatican?

Change comes to the church.

The world's Roman Catholic bishops issued a report yesterday that contained little that was new in church teachings and is unlikely to affect church policies anytime soon. Yet it was variously described as heralding a "revolutionary change," "a new era" and a "pastoral earthquake."

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 also echoes the public statements of Pope Francis. And that suggests the greater significance of this document: Quite aside from its doctrinal effect, 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 a billion adherents. Francis has made it a priority, and he urged that the bishops at this assembly meet in a spirit of free inquiry. It shows. Throughout the report, the bishops acknowledge that modern family life is evolving in complex ways that require new thinking on their part. They deserve credit for responding to such changes openly -- for confronting the moral dilemmas they present 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's a theme that has shaped much of Catholic social and economic thought in the past century, and which Francis has endowed with renewed vigor and urgency. In the report, 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 intricate networks that define the information age -- social, financial, technological -- are in many ways a great boon to society, but they also risk marginalizing the individuals who compose them. Automation and artificial intelligence are likely to ease many of life's burdens, but they also risk alienating the workers who are left behind.

Responding morally to these changes means that, as the report puts it, "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."

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

--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net