VATICAN CITY • Pope Francis yesterday opened a gathering of bishops intended to review Catholic teaching on the family against a backdrop of controversy over homosexuality.
The church's second synod on the family opened in a tense atmosphere, with Pope Francis having been dragged into the United States' debate over gay marriage and a high-ranking priest accusing the Vatican last Saturday of "institutionalised homophobia" in his "coming out" speech, making it appear as if the synod had been called solely to address the question of the Church's approach to gay and lesbian believers.
In fact, such issues will take up only a small part of discussions over the next three weeks. But there is little doubt that they will dominate headlines emanating from the Vatican theological talk-fest. The reasons for that are three-fold: sexuality is a lightning rod for a broader debate about reform of Church teaching; Pope Francis has given a clear steer that the Church should be more open to gays; and for the first time, a high-ranking Vatican official has declared his homosexuality to the world, saying the Church has been paranoid and hypocritical about the issue for decades.
The Vatican reacted furiously to Polish priest Krzysztof Charamsa's "very serious and irresponsible" declaration of his sexuality, saying he would be kicked out of his post as a theologian.
Accompanied by his boyfriend, Mr Charamsa told a news conference in Rome last Saturday that he had felt compelled to speak out. "I'm out of the closet and I'm very happy about that," the 43-year-old said. "I want to be an advocate for all sexual minorities and their families who have suffered in silence."
In an indication that Mr Charamsa had planned the move for some time, he presented a 10-point "liberation manifesto" against "institutionalised homophobia in the Church", which he said particularly oppressed the gay men who, according to him, make up the majority of priests.
He also revealed plans for a book about his 12 years at the heart of a Vatican bureaucracy only just recovering from a scandal under previous Pope Benedict XVI over the influence of a "gay lobby" among senior clergy."This decision of mine to come out was a very personal one taken in a Catholic Church that is homophobic and very difficult and harsh (towards gays)," he said.
According to Mr Charamsa, most Catholic priests have a homosexual orientation but are so consumed by self-hatred that they support the repression of their basic instincts and desire for love. "I ask the Pope to be strong and to remember us, homosexuals, lesbians, transsexuals and bisexuals as children of the Church and members of humanity," he said.
He timed his announcement to ensure maximum media impact on the eve of the opening of a synod that is the second and final round of a review of Catholic teaching on the family.
The Vatican hit back by saying "the decision to make such a pointed statement on the eve of the opening of the synod appears very serious and irresponsible, since it aims to subject the synod assembly to undue media pressure".
Even before the Polish priest's "coming out", Catholic attitudes to sexuality were dominating headlines. The Vatican last Friday confirmed Pope Francis had hugged an old gay friend and met his partner during his recent visit to the US.
The highly symbolic gesture came a day before he met prominent gay marriage opponent Kim Davis - another private encounter in the US that the Vatican said did not indicate support for her stance.
Last year's first round of the synod also caused controversy when reformers attempted to push through a statement that loving same-sex relationships had qualities the Church should recognise. After a backlash from conservatives who regard homosexuality as a kind of sickness, that groundbreaking phrase was excised from the final conclusions.
Official Catholic doctrine holds that homosexuality is an "intrinsic disorder", but progressive theologians have recently come to accept that sexuality is innate, a premise that makes it harder to maintain a stance of outright condemnation.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS