Catholic bishops called Saturday for a more welcoming church for cohabiting couples, gays 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 on providing better pastoral care for Catholic families.
It emphasizes the role of discernment and individual conscience in dealing with difficult family situations, in a win for liberal bishops.
Conservatives had resisted offering any wiggle room in determining, for example, whether civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion since church teaching forbids it. While the document doesn’t chart any specific path to receiving the sacraments as originally sought by the liberals, the document opens the door to case-by-case exceptions to church teaching by citing the role of discernment and conscience.
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. That will give Francis the manoeuvring he needs if he wants to push the issue further in a future document of his own.
In a final speech to the synod, Francis took some clear swipes at the conservatives who hold up church doctrine above all else, and use it to cast judgment on others who don’t measure up.
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.
The document is 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. It strongly rejects gay marriage, 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.
“If this synod were the church, I would say that it’s the end of judging people, the end of a church that passes judgment on all the situations,” said Belgian Bishop Lucas Van Looy. “It’s a church that welcomes, a church that accompanies, a church that listens, a church that also speaks with clarity.”