ROME — Catholic bishops ended their contentious three-week summit on the family Saturday with a final report that paved the way for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to participate more fully in Church life, without explicitly endorsing their return to Communion.
But there was no ground given on the other source of rancor among the prelates: How welcoming the Church should be to gays and lesbians, particularly on the issue of same-sex marriage.
While repeating Church teaching that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect and not face discrimination, the bishops firmly ruled out equating gay marriage — now the law of the land in several countries, including the United States — with straight unions.
Nonetheless, overall the document adopted a conciliatory tone on many issues, had elements that appealed to both conservatives and liberals, and left the door open for Pope Francis to translate the recommendations into concrete action.
Divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, the bishops wrote, should be more integrated into the life of the Church and not made to feel that they have been excommunicated — not only for their sake, but for the sake of their children.
“They are baptized, they are brothers and sisters, and the Holy Spirit pours out gifts and charisms on them for the good of all,” the bishops wrote. “…taking care of these people is not a weakness in its own faith and its witness as to the indissolubility of marriage; indeed, the Church expresses its own charity through this care.”
Over the years, advocates of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion often have suggested that permission could be given through the “internal forum,” meaning a private exchange between the person and a priest or bishop.
A general reference to the internal forum in paragraph 86 of the document could be read as encouraging that view, likely explaining why it drew among the highest number of “no” votes of any section of the report.
As written, however, it’s not entirely clear that receiving Communion is the form of “fuller participation in the life of the Church” to which the paragraph refers.
While each of the 94 paragraphs received support from more than two-thirds of the 265 bishops voting Saturday afternoon, those dealing with homosexuality and divorced Catholics saw dozens of bishops voting no.
In a powerful closing talk to the gathering on Saturday evening, Francis referred to the intensity of the discussions and the occasionally fierce opinions expressed, and “at times, unfortunately, not entirely in well-meaning ways” — a remarkable rebuke to what he apparently saw as intemperate comments by some of the bishops.
The pontiff also seemed to refer to the charges of “rigging” and manipulation by hardliners over the months preceding the synod, and even during the proceedings, in an apparent effort to influence the synod or undermine its conclusions.
Instead, Francis said, the meeting showed that the Church “does not simply rubber stamp” foregone conclusions.
“It was about trying to open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints, so as to defend and spread the freedom of the children of God, and to transmit the beauty of Christian newness, at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible,” he said.
Released in Italian, the final report was the work of 10 clerics appointed by Francis who sorted through more than 1,350 short speeches given by bishops during the past three weeks and boiled them down to 94 sections.
On homosexuality, the document didn’t address directly how the Church should minister to gays and lesbians, although it did say the Church should find ways to reach out to their families.
It reiterated current Church teaching that says discrimination against gays and lesbians should be rejected, but it also held firm in its opposition to same-sex marriage, and even to other arrangements “that try to equate homosexual unions to marriage.”
Further, the report called efforts by international aid organizations to require developing nations to adopt pro-LGBT measures in exchange for funds “unacceptable.”
The document also slammed “gender ideology,” a concept that holds that one’s gender isn’t necessarily fixed, which the bishops said “denies the difference and reciprocity between a man and a woman.”
According to the bishops, this ideology, which has been denounced by Francis, “envisages a society without gender differences, and empties the anthropological foundation of the family.”
But one area where bishops sought to strike a more understanding tone was with unmarried couples who live together. Although the practice violates Church teaching, the bishops acknowledged it is increasingly common for Catholics around the world.
Unmarried couples that live together should strive toward “the fullness of marriage and the family,” the report stated.
But at the same time, bishops also said they understood why the choice appeals to so many.
Some live together for financial reasons while waiting for a more stable job and steady income, because “getting married is perceived as a luxury,” the bishops wrote; many eventually seek a church wedding.
In addition to issues of sexuality, the report also addressed several other topics related to family life, including poverty, migrants, refugees, those being persecuted for their faith, as well as the pastoral needs of the handicapped, the elderly, widows, and those in interfaith marriages.
In a section about women, the document condemns the “growing phenomena of violence of which women are victims within the family,” and re-articulates Church opposition to abortion, sterilization, surrogacy, and “the commercialization of gametes and embryos,” likely referring to in vitro fertilization.
But it also said that the Church itself could do more to help promote the role of women in
A greater appreciation for the responsibilities women hold in the Church, the report stated, could lead to greater empowerment generally.
In Church life, bishops pointed specifically to women’s “involvement in decision-making, their participation in the government of some institutions, and their involvement in the formation of ordained ministers.”
Whether the report leads to any changes in Church practice is now entirely up to Pope Francis. In his closing remarks, he reflected on what the synod accomplished, saying that the two-year process “was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family,” but about confronting them head on, “without burying our heads in the sand.”
He highlighted the “importance of the institution of the family and of marriage between a man and a woman, based on unity and indissolubility.”
However, he also chided those Catholics with “closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions” in order to “judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.”
The synod closes officially Sunday, when the pope celebrates Mass with synod bishops.
Material from the Religion News Service was used in this report.