From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has sure-handedly directed the Roman Catholic Church away from a rigid intolerance of homosexuality toward a merciful and accepting tolerance. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" he said last year. This week, he is leading a synod, or conference, of bishops on the subject of the family that is building on that premise. The bishops are listening to church members talk about the modern realities of divorce, remarriage and extramarital sex, but the headline issue is homosexuality. And the conclusion in a midway report is promising.
"Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?" the report asks. "Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"
The wording of the questions suggests the onus is on the Church to make room for the LGBT community, not the other way around. At the same time, it reconfirms the Vatican's unwillingness to compromise on its catechism, which has long viewed homosexuality (and masturbation and lust) as "intrinsically disordered." This is where many people get justifiably frustrated, as they long for the Church to just get on with it and remove from its doctrine a view contrary to modern notions of human rights.
That's almost certainly not going to happen. There are powerful conservative forces in the Church standing in the way of revolutionary change. These are the same forces that are opposed to allowing divorced people to take communion, or to accepting that "family" can exist outside the codified world of Roman Catholic marriage – subjects also under discussion at the conference.
In spite of that intransigence, Pope Francis continues to signal that his church will look for the good in all people, rather than judge them solely on the basis of their adherence to doctrine. He can't change the Church overnight, and he wouldn't if he could. But he is forcing it to ask important questions in a transparent way, and by doing so is making followers ask the same questions. Who are we to judge?