Pope Francis will have to forgive my cynicism on move
Last December, when the most influential gay magazine in the world, The Advocate, featured Pope Francis on its cover, declaring the current head of the Catholic Church its 'Person of The Year', I was sceptical. It's not surprising, really, given the vociferous damning of gay people by the Vatican since 1978, through the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The former called homosexuality "intrinsically evil" and an "objective disorder". Benedict himself used the global spotlight to repeatedly object to gay marriage, going as far as to say it was a threat to the future of humanity itself, calling it "an offence against the truth of the human person".
Barely a wet week after he got the top job at the Vatican, Pope Francis responded to a reporter's question about gay priests, saying: "If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?" and suddenly gay pundits were singing his praises from the rooftops. It sounded to me like a bit of positive PR from a clever leader, trying to re-position the Church in a modern context while hardly jumping off the fence on one side or the other.
Saying "who am I to judge?" may have suggested humility, which has been a trademark of this papacy so far, but in the context of the hugely hurtful judgement of gay people by the Catholic Church over the past three-and-a-half decades, it didn't sound like Francis was speaking for the rest of the hierarchy.
The truth is he wasn't. The Vatican, like all other powerful organisations, is a place that runs on political fuel. The men Francis' predecessors appointed to the highest positions were largely hard-line conservatives, and a vast majority of them remain in power.
So the document presented this week to the Synod of Bishops, calling for the Church to welcome and accept gay people, and to respect gay unions, suggests that Pope Francis is engaged in some major political playing of his own.
The 12-page report was written by a committee handpicked by Francis, and it is the first signal that his "who am I to judge?" comment was much more than lip-service. He seeks to direct the Church away from condemnation and into a new, more open direction.
How this will trickle down to Irish pulpits remains to be seen. Ten years ago, as the Spanish government geared up to legislate for same-sex marriage, the Catholic authorities were adamantly opposed, with congregations being encouraged to resist the law, even if it meant losing their jobs.
The Irish Government's referendum on gay marriage next spring will be preceded by the introduction of the Children and Family Relationships Bill, which in its general scheme recognises the rights of the children of same-sex couples.
Meanwhile, the Vatican document recognises that across the world, lesbian and gay couples are parenting children and acknowledges that the "needs and rights" of their children should be given priority.
However, for all this recognition, it is hardly likely that Catholics will be hearing support for same-sex marriage in Sunday homilies during the lead-up to the referendum. Pope Francis started his term in July last year by issuing a joint encyclical with Benedict, in which they reiterated that marriage should be a "stable union of man and woman".
As Argentina's archbishop Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio opposed marriage equality's eventual passage there, saying in 2010 that it's a "destructive attack on God's plan", he privately argued that the church should come out for civil unions as the "lesser of two evils".
So, if there's a message for Irish congregations that will come from the latest comments, it's probably that Ireland should stick with the status quo by voting against same-sex marriage and keeping civil partnership on the statute books. As such, the end result of all this might be a very astute bit of manipulation.
I know I'm being cynical. But as a gay man who has been hurt by the church, it's hard not to be.
Brian Finnegan is an author and the editor of Gay Community News in Dublin