Willie Walsh, the retiring Bishop of Killaloe, has some unremarkable but encouraging words on homosexual relationships. Unremarkable, that is, for anybody outside of the Catholic episcopate. Encouraging, given that he is of it. Speaking informally at a civic reception to mark his retirement, he was asked for his views on the Irish Civil Partnership legislation, which was signed into law earlier this week. While making clear his unwavering belief in the traditional support for "family" and marriage, he made two important statements which should give encouragement to all gay and lesbian Catholics.
Referring directly to the civil partnership law, he said he had always been "hesitant" about asking the state to support a particular teaching of the Church. This is a clear distancing from his fellow Irish bishops, who were forthright in their attempts to do just that, with strenuous attempts to derail the bill.(It is not a coincidence that these remarks were made on his retirement. Could he have been as candid before announcing his departure? ) He also said he "respects" people of homosexual orientation, and was "saddened" by the hurt the church had done to us.
“I’ve always been hesitant about asking civil authorities to support a particular teaching of our church. I do place great emphasis on marriage, I have worked in that area all my life and I place great emphasis on marriage and family life.”
“While I do worry about the apparent breakdown of family life, I equally respect the laws of this country. I have always done so and always will do so.
I respect people who are of homosexual orientation and I would be always conscious of the fact that very often we in the church have hurt them and hurt them deeply and I am saddened by that and saddened by the lack of respect for any human being.
He added: “It is deeply, deeply important and we would be endangering that at our peril. I know and respect many people who are gay. We should always treat them with the deep respect to which every human being is entitled.
The emphasis on "respect" is orthodox teaching - but not heard or seen in practice nearly as often as opposition to equality legislation, or to protection from discrimination, so it is good to hear it articulated, as it is to read his cautious distancing from opposition to Civil Partnership law.
-Irish Times, July 13.
Still, the words themselves are indeed cautious. What makes them interesting to me, is that this is now the fourth bishop in recent months to suggest or imply a more nuanced stance on gay relationships - and as far as I can tell, not one has been rebuked or repudiated by the Vatican or a single other bishop. First, we had Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna in late April, who has certainly not been repudiated - I've been watching closely. Then there were Bishops Januario Torgal Ferreira of Portugal, and Francis Quinn, of California. (Note that three of these four are now either retired, or on the point of retirement. How many younger bishops feel the same way, but are more guarded in their words - for now? I suspect it will not take too much for more men too feel that the climate has changed, and so able to speak more freely.)
It is also worth recalling that the last unequivocal denunciation of homosexuality, the "Homosexualitatis Problema" was issued over twenty years ago. Since then, ten countries have approved gay marriage, including four Catholic countries and Canada, which is damn near majority Catholic. Meanwhile, there have been numerous reports of hostile words by Pope Benedict, including a reported attack on gay marriage in Portugal, just before the legislation was signed. But close attention to his actual words has generally shown they were not quite what the press was reporting. Even the Portuguese address, while probably implying a criticism of gay marriage, did not actually use the words.
Are we in the eye of a storm, do you suppose, waiting apprehensively while the Vatican prepares an updated Hallowe'en letter to cope with the new onslaught on "traditional" marriage and family - or is it conceivable that the worst of the storm really has passed, that the Vatican theologians are in fact quietly preparing a discreet, tactical retreat from the excesses of the JP II papacy on sexual ethics, while they attempt to digest and come toe terms with the implications for theology, as James Alison has suggested (Discovery of "Gay" = Good News for the Church"), of what medical science, biology and anthropology have already made plain: homosexuality is not in any sense "unnatural", and is not diseased? It is also not "disordered" in any sense except that it is not "ordered" towards procreation -but then, nor is celibacy.