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Document from Catholic bishops supports pope's outreach on family issues

The next step on the bishops’ report is up to Pope Francis.
The next step on the bishops’ report is up to Pope Francis.
Published Oct. 25, 2015

VATICAN CITY — After a three-week global assembly on family issues that exposed their deep divisions, Roman Catholic bishops produced a consensus document Saturday that reinforced church doctrine but appeared to give Pope Francis enough support to advance his vision of a more merciful church.

The church doors opened just a crack for Catholics who divorced and remarried without receiving an annulment of their first marriages, and for those living together without being married. They remained firmly shut to same-sex marriage, even as the document said gay people should be treated with respect.

The document, which offers recommendations to the pope, was so carefully worded that it was immediately open to competing interpretations and allowed both the conservative and liberal flanks in the church to claim victory.

Conservatives rejoiced that the bishops held the line on church doctrine that a marriage is permanent and that homosexuality is unacceptable, although some worried that the document introduced confusion about whether divorced couples can be given the sacrament of Communion.

Church liberals exulted that Francis had gotten the church's hierarchy to take up issues that were long considered taboo, and that the report did not include anything that would block him outright from making change.

The next steps are now with Francis, who after three weeks of assembly meetings, backbiting and intrigue has a clearer picture of the forces arrayed for and against change. Francis made a strong plea for inclusiveness in his final address to the assembly, known as a synod, which brought together about 270 bishops from around the world.

The synod, Francis said, "was about laying bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church's teachings or good intention, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families."

The bishops called on Francis to issue his own document on the family. He is expected to do so, and may even choose to make it an encyclical — a major teaching document — but it could take months or even a year before he weighs in.

It was the most open-ended and closely watched gathering of bishops since the Second Vatican Council, a three-year effort that ended 50 years ago with a set of modernizing reforms that affected Catholics worldwide.

Six months into his papacy, Francis called this assembly of bishops to reconsider the church's approach to marriage and family at a time when the definition of family is changing rapidly. It was a sign of recognition that the church was losing traction, and members, by failing to connect with people who are divorced, separated, single, gay or transgender, or whose lives in other ways do not fit the Catholic ideal of the nuclear family.

But the bellwether issue for the synod was what to do about divorced and remarried Catholics, who cannot receive Communion or participate fully in church life if they had not had their previous marriages annulled. The church teaches that the sacrament of marriage is "indissoluble," and that remarried Catholics who have not received annulments are committing adultery and living in sin. They may receive Communion if they abstain from sex.

Francis early in his papacy signaled his direction by championing the work of a German cardinal and theologian, Walter Kasper, who proposed that the church create a "penitential path" to bring divorced Catholics back into full Communion with the church. But this idea quickly hit roadblocks, and the German-speaking cardinals at the synod proposed another route that was partially adopted by the bishops in their final document.

It offers divorced and remarried Catholics the possibility of returning to fuller participation in the church, on a case-by-case basis, after receiving spiritual counseling from priests in what is called the "internal forum." It says divorced and civilly remarried Catholics "must not feel excommunicated," and their children also must be integrated into the church.

The document said that opening to Catholics in less-than-perfect situations was not a "weakening of the faith," or of the "testimony on the indissolubility of marriage"; instead it was a sign of the church's charity.

It says nothing about whether divorced and remarried Catholics may or may not receive Communion — another reason that both liberals and conservatives were able to claim success at the synod.

On another highly charged issue — what the church should tell cohabiting couples — the bishops acknowledged that many couples lived together without getting married for a wide range of social, cultural and economic reasons. The synod report said that the church should address these couples in "a constructive manner" with the goal of leading them "towards the fullness of marriage and family."

The bishops drew a hard line, however, against any acceptance of same-sex marriage.

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