Vatican retranslates synod document, muddles openness to gays

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Questions over the tone presented by the global meeting of Catholic bishops toward gay people dominated conversations surrounding the event Thursday, after the Vatican seemingly tried to water down its message of openness and welcoming to homosexuals.

Unexpectedly updating the English-language translation of a landmark document released by the group Monday, the Vatican on Thursday changed a section of the document from "welcoming homosexual persons" to "providing for homosexual persons."

But the Italian version of the document from the meeting, known as a synod, remains the same and does not reflect the changes in the English translation.

Responding to questions from reporters about the change at a briefing Thursday, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi emphasized that the official language of the synod is Italian and "we have said always that the text to refer to is the Italian."

Pressed about who had asked for the change and why the English version no longer matches the Italian, Lombardi said the Vatican press office released the revision at the request of the Vatican's office for the Synod of Bishops and would not provide further details.

Monday's document, which calls for the church to listen more and to apply mercy much more widely, was released as a summary of the synod's discussions so far and is known officially as a relatio post disceptationem.

The document was created after the some 190 prelates attending the Oct. 5-19 synod met last week in general assemblies. The prelates then met in small groups, divided by language, this week to come up with revisions to the document. Those revisions were submitted Thursday morning and are to be used in drafting a final document for the synod for submission to Pope Francis by Sunday.

The only passages that seem to be changed in Thursday's revision of the English language translation of Monday's document come in the 50th paragraph of the document, which deals with the church's attitude and tone toward homosexuals.

While the subheading on the Italian version of those paragraphs remains "Accogliere le persone omosessuali" -- literally, "to welcome homosexual persons" -- the English version now reads, "Providing for homosexual persons."

Likewise, one of the sentences in the paragraphs in that section of the new English version has been changed to remove several words while the Italian version has not.

The Italian version asks the question: "Siamo in grado di accogliere queste persone, garantendo loro uno spazio di fraternità nelle nostre comunità?" -- roughly: "Are we capable of welcoming these persons, guaranteeing them a space of fraternity in our community?"

The new English version reads, with the ellipses in the original: "Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing [...] them [...] a place of fellowship in our communities?"

While Lombardi would not provide further details regarding the changes to the synod document, they seem to reflect a sense of fear among prelates about what appears to be a decidedly new tone toward gay people from the synod.

Although Monday's document re-emphasizes church teaching against same-sex marriage, it also asks blunt questions about how the wider church treats gay people and if it is offering space for them in the community.

Asked about that change during the Vatican press briefing Thursday -- specifically if it meant the church no longer holds that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered" -- Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said, "The basic principle is that we first look at the person and not the sexual orientation."

"Every human person has a dignity beyond any other question," said Schönborn, who is representing the Austrian bishops at the synod. "This does not mean and certainly will not mean that the church can say the respect for every human person means the respect for every human behavior."

He said he thinks "the church will ... always maintain that the fundamental gift of God's creation is difference and relation between man and woman," the cardinal also said he knows a same-sex couple in Austria that "are marvelous human persons."

One of the partners in the couple, he said, became severely ill, and the other partner cared for them. The care, Schönborn said, "was exemplary. Full stop."*

Some prelates have publicly criticized Monday's working document, with South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier saying on Tuesday that its message of openness had put the prelates in "a position that is virtually irredeemable."

But Lombardi on Thursday also a made a short statement on behalf of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who had been quoted in the Italian daily La Repubblica as saying that Monday's working document from the synod was "undignified" and "shameful."

Müller said that report "is not true" and that he did not make those remarks, Lombardi said.

The Vatican spokesman also announced Thursday that new members had been appointed to the group drafting a final version of Monday's synod document. The synod, Lombardi said, has added two members to that group: Napier and Australian Archbishop Denis Hart.

Schönborn spoke Thursday at the briefing alongside Italian professors and married couple Francesco Miano and Pina De Simone, who are participating in the synod as experts.

Touching on a tone Schönborn mentioned, Miano said one key value of the October synod is in its desire to accompany married people.

"The strength of the synod is the strength of accompanying," he said.

Schönborn said the strength of the teachings of the church is not from them being imposed on people but in them being proposed as a "walk together, or a way of life."

"We cannot forget the doctrine," the cardinal said. "But the other part ... is also the need to accompany [people] in the many situations that which the pope speaks of a field hospital."

"The pope said to accompany people where they live," he continued later. "There's an ideal we want to reach, but we do it with time, with patience."

Approximately 190 prelates are at the synod and are able to vote in the discussions. Some 60 others, mainly non-prelates, have been selected in other roles and are able to contribute to discussions but not to vote.

The Vatican made summaries of the suggested revisions to Monday's document made by the synod's small groups public Thursday, written in the group's various languages.

Lombardi stressed at the briefing that the summaries from the small groups are "working documents" and that you "can't interpret them as definitive judgments of the synod, but inside the path of the synod that continues."

On the subject of homosexuality, one of the English language groups suggests that the church "must continue to promote the revealed nature of marriage as always between one man and one woman united in life-long, life-giving, and faithful communion."

The synod's final document is expected to be released to the public and to be used as the blueprint of sorts for the next synod, to be held in 2015.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

*This quotation has been corrected from the original version of the story.

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