The thing to realize is that nobody’s doctrine has changed. The Romans are not essentially more Orthodox, and the Orthodox are not more gay. But Pope Francis already indicated, in a statement about divorce, that the Catholic Church could learn a thing or two about pastoral care from the Orthodox. Namely, Roman Catholicism needs a little oikonomia.
Oikonomia, or “economy,” is about how the rules get applied in everyday life. Like Catholics, we have canon law, but just because the canons say something does not mean that we always must do them. Sometimes a priest or bishop will suspend the law for the sake of the individual soul. The Orthodox Church has long recognized that sinful humans will fall short of the ideal expected of them, and so the church must reach a hand down, to meet people where they are, in order to help bring them up to where they need to be.
So, when it comes to divorce, Orthodox and Catholics believe basically the same thing. Marriage is a sacrament. Jesus said in the Bible, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9 NKJV). For us (Orthodox), our ideal is that a person would marry only once. A person who is widowed is encouraged to pursue a life of celibacy. Then again, celibacy is hard. That is why the Orthodox Church will perform a second or third marriage (never a fourth). “For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9). But this principle does not just apply to those who have lost a spouse. It applies to the divorced as well. For the Roman Catholics, to perform a second marriage on a divorced person would be to condone adultery. That is why, in general, Catholics who divorce and remarry are excommunicated. For the Orthodox, it would be a sin not to extend a helping hand to someone who is trying to stay on the straight and narrow. So we will marry divorced persons. The ceremony is different. It is a bit more penitential. But it is valid. Marriage is a sacrament, and sacraments are healing for those who seek them. Basically, when it comes to sin and repentance, we try to err on the side of mercy.
The document released by Synod 14 deals with a broad range of family issues, including divorced and non-traditional families. What it has to say about gays and lesbians is pretty brief.
Providing for homosexual persons
50. Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community … Are our communities capable of…accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
51. The question of homosexuality requires serious reflection on how to devise realistic approaches to affective growth, human development and maturation in the Gospel, while integrating the sexual aspect, all of which constitute an important educative challenge. …
52. Without denying the moral problems associated with homosexual unions, there are instances where mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice is a valuable support in the life of these persons. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to […] children who live with same-sex couples and stresses that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.
I should note that, according to the National Catholic Reporter, English-speaking cardinals have altered the above translation to minimize the softer tone taken in the official Italian version. That same report also sums up the point of the entire document. According to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (Austria), “The basic principle is that we first look at the person and not the sexual orientation.” That, right there, is oikonomia.
Point 50 is just raising the question of whether and how Roman Catholics can welcome gays and lesbians without compromising their doctrines. The part about “valuing their sexual orientation” should not be taken as a hint that Catholic priests are about to start donning rainbow vestments, but it owes to the recognition that to love someone is to love everything that she is. Period. There are no conditions.
Point 51 reminds me of a story Fr. Joseph Huneycutt tells in One Flew Over the Onion Dome. A man meets with a priest to talk about Orthodox Christianity, and the priest says, “The first thing we need to do is talk about God, the church, and the sacraments,” at which point the man interrupts the priest with, “Father, I’m gay!” The priest pauses and says, “Okay. But the first thing we need to do is talk about God, the church, and the sacraments.” I am telling that story from memory, so I may have some of the details wrong, but I think I captured the gist of it. Priests do not deal with sexual orientations. They deal with people.
Point 52 reaffirms what the Catholic Church teaches about the ideal of marriage being between a male and a female. But it also recognizes that Christians are not Manichaeans. We do not divide the world between the holy and the sinful, the light and the dark. In this life, the two are always a bit mixed up. Wherever there is love, there is God at work. This statement also acknowledges what people who have gay friends already know: same-sex couples do find their partners to be a source of love and emotional support. If you disagree, you need more gay friends.
Reactionary types still will not like what they see coming out of the Catholic Church. They will say that Pope Francis is taking the church down a slippery slope, but slippery slope arguments are for panicky people who do not want to think too hard. Everybody on both sides of this issue needs to calm down a bit. Pope Francis has done nothing more than address the very real pastoral challenges the Roman Catholic Church must deal with in today’s world, and it is drawing upon the Orthodox principle of oikonomia to do it. We Orthodox should do the same.