VATICAN CITY (AP) — A fight for the soul of the Catholic Church has broken out, and the first battlefield is a document on family values that pits increasingly alarmed conservatives against more progressive bishops emboldened by Pope Francis’ vision of a church that is more merciful than moralistic.
On Oct. 14, conservative bishops distanced themselves from the document’s unprecedented opening toward gays and divorced Catholics, calling it an “unacceptable” deviation from church teaching that doesn’t reflect their views and vowing to make changes to the final version.
The report, released midway through a Vatican meeting on such hot-button family issues as marriage, divorce, being gay and birth control, signaled a radical shift in tone about welcoming gays, divorced Catholics and unmarried couples into the church.
Its message was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance and understanding rather than condemnation. Gays, it said, had gifts to offer the church and their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided gay couples with “precious” support. The church, it added, must welcome divorced people and recognize the “positive” aspects of civil marriages and even Catholics who live together without being married.
The leaders of the bishops’ meeting, or synod, that produced it stressed Oct. 14 that it was merely a working paper and was never intended to be a statement of church doctrine, but rather a reflection of bishops’ views that will be debated and amended before a final version is released on Saturday.
Still, its dramatic shift in tone thrilled progressives and gay rights groups, and dismayed conservatives already deeply uncomfortable with Francis’ aim to make the church a “field hospital” for wounded souls that focuses far less on the rules and regulations emphasized by his two predecessors.
The document was remarkable both in what it said and what it didn’t say: Absent were assertions of Catholic doctrine present in most church documents that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered” and that couples who cohabitate are “living in sin.” In their place were words of affirmation and welcome.