VATICAN CITY (AP) — Catholic bishops called Oct. 24 for a more welcoming church for cohabitating couples and Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried, endorsing Pope Francis’ call for a more merciful and less judgmental church.
Bishops from around the world adopted a final document at the end of a divisive, three-week synod that exposed the split in the church between conservatives and progressives over how to better minister to Catholic families today.
In a win for the progressive camp, the document emphasized the role of discernment and individual conscience in dealing with difficult family situations, especially the vexing issue of whether civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion.
Conservatives had resisted offering any wiggle room on the issue, since church teaching holds that such Catholics are committing adultery and are therefore barred from receiving the sacraments. While the document doesn’t chart any specific path to receiving Communion as originally sought by the liberals, it opens the door to case-by-case exceptions.
“We are so happy that we could give this to the pope,” said German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who spearheaded the progressive camp on the issue. He called the document a “historic step.”
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author, said discernment and the examination of one’s conscience in spiritual direction have always been part of the church’s tradition. “But its encouragement by the synod is notable, and should be seen as a welcoming gesture,” he said.
Martin explained that discernment – a key concept in Francis’ Jesuit spirituality – “relies on the idea that God can deal directly with us, through our inner lives. It is another encouragement to remind people, especially remarried Catholics, that an informed conscience is, as the church has always taught, the final moral arbiter.”
The three paragraphs dealing with the issue barely reached the two-thirds majority needed to pass, but conservatives couldn’t muster enough votes to shoot them down. The most controversial paragraph 85 – which says a case-by-case approach is necessary when dealing with remarriage since not everyone bears the same responsibility for the preceding divorce _ only cleared by a single vote.
But the document’s passage overall will give Francis the room to maneuver that he needs if he wants to push the issue further in a future document of his own. Marx said he hoped that Francis would issue it during his upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, which starts Dec. 8.
In a final speech to the synod, Francis took some clear swipes at the conservatives who hold up church doctrine above all else, saying the church’s primary duty isn’t to condemn or judge but to proclaim God’s mercy and save souls.
Francis said the synod had “laid bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church’s teachings and good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.”
“The synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulas but the free availability of God’s love and forgiveness,” he said.
But in a bit of levity, Francis also included an acrostic in the footnotes of his speech – perhaps a papal first – spelling out “Famiglia” (family in Italian) with poetic descriptions for each letter.
In a clear sign that the conservatives had failed to shut the door on the Communion issue, an umbrella group of 26 conservative pro-life organizations said in a statement late Saturday that there was now a “crisis of trust” in the church over the vote.
“Only the pope can restore trust between Catholic laypeople and church authorities in Rome,” the group said in a statement.
The document was the culmination of a two-year process launched by Francis to put in practice his call for a church that is more a “field hospital for wounded souls” than an exclusive club for the perfect.
The bishops took his direction, finding “positive elements” in couples who live together even though they are not married. Rather than condemning these couples for living in sin, the document says pastors should look at their commitment constructively and encourage them to transform their union in a sacramental marriage.
On gays, the synod document repeats church teaching that gays should be respected and loved and, in a novelty, says families with gay members require particular pastoral care. However, the document strongly rejects gay marriage and “gender theory,” but omits references to church teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.”
Only the 275 synod “fathers” were allowed to vote – none of the handful of women invited to participate – even though one of the “fathers” with voting rights wasn’t even a priest, much less a bishop.
Brother Herve Janson of the Little Brothers of Jesus told reporters he considered refusing to accept the invitation to participate, given that his status in the church is the same as a sister who heads a religious order of nuns.
“I was very upset, because while before the distinction (between voting and non-voting members) was between the clergy and laity, now it has become between man and woman,” he said.
It wasn’t clear if Francis intended to raise the issue of broader participation in the synod by letting Janson vote, or if his role was a one-time anomaly.
Francis took some of the most divisive wind out of the debate before the synod began by passing a new law making it easier for divorced couples to obtain an annulment, a church declaration that their marriage was invalid. That was aimed at answering a complaint by generations of Catholics who have been denied the sacraments because they divorced and remarried outside the church without an annulment.
The synod was about far more than just contentious issues, however, including how the church should provide better marriage preparation to couples and how to encourage families torn by migration, poverty and war to persevere in their faith.