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Interpreting the Vatican’s language shift on homosexuality, divorce

A gathering of bishops convened by Pope Francis broke new ground on some taboos of the Catholic faith. While there was no change in doctrine on cohabitation, divorce and homosexuality, the Church signaled a shift away from condemning people who don’t live by their teachings. Judy Woodruff sits down with The Boston Globe’s John Allen to discuss the Vatican’s change in tone.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: possible signals that the Roman Catholic Church may be softening its attitudes on gays and divorced Catholics. That's what some observers are taking from a report out today marking the midway point of a two-week meeting of bishops at the Vatican.

    Joining us from Rome to fill us in on all this is John Allen. He covers the Vatican and the Catholic Church for The Boston Globe and its Web site, Crux. He also serves as senior Vatican analyst for CNN.

    John Allen, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    I was just reading, some gay rights groups are calling this a seismic change in a positive direction. How do you see it?

  • JOHN ALLEN, The Boston Globe:

    Well, Judy, I think it's important to be clear about what this is and what it is not.

    What it is not is a change in Catholic teaching on marriage. The bishops at this gathering, which is called a synod, have made it abundantly clear there is not going to be any change in Catholic doctrine, which is that marriage is a relationship between a man and woman that is permanent and it's open to life.

    Now, that said, the bishops have also made clear that they want a more positive way of engaging people who don't live that teaching, whether we're talking about gays and lesbians, whether we're talking about people who are cohabitating outside a marriage, whether it's people who have divorced and remarried or whatever.

    They don't want the first thing they hear from the Catholic Church to be a note of condemnation. They want it to be a note of friendship and then, after that, we will see where the conversation goes. So, fundamentally, this is a change in tone, rather than a change in content. But given the fact that gays and lesbians in particular have become quite accustomed to hearing messages of condemnation and disapproval from the Catholic Church, I guess, you know, you could call that a seismic change in tonality, if not a dramatic change in content.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, with new language, at least at this point in this bishops meeting, the synod, on gay right — on gays, on people who are divorced in the church, and on people living together, cohabitating, what are the practical effects of any language, anything that could come out of this meeting?

  • JOHN ALLEN:

    Well, Judy, I think the reality is that all around the world, you will find Catholics at the grassroots who would accept church teaching on marriage, but who would also know plenty of people who don't live that teaching.

    And I think many of them have long felt a kind of struggle between on the one hand how do you uphold what the church teaches and on the other hand recognize that these are often incredibly decent, good people, and you don't want to snub them or not be able to be in friendships with them?

    And I think what the synod is doing — and of course all of this is to some extent inspired by the new tone set by Pope Francis — what they're trying to do is give warrant to those Catholics in the trenches to say, it's perfectly OK to have friendship with — friendships with these folks, it is perfectly OK to reach out to them, because that is what the church itself wants to try to do.

    So I think rather than really introducing a dramatic new teaching, this is, instead, I think, in a sense, authorizing people at the grassroots to feel good about the fact that you can be both a faithful Catholic and you can be friends with gays and lesbians, you can be friends with people who are living together outside of marriage, you can be friends with people who are divorced and remarried.

    Doesn't mean you have to approve in fullness the lifestyle choices there, but it also means you can recognize the positive values that those people embody and try to embrace that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, it's certainly gotten our attention.

    John Allen, we thank you.

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