VATICAN CITY — Conservative Catholic bishops distanced themselves Tuesday from a document showing an unprecedented opening toward gays and divorced people, saying it doesn’t reflect their views and vowing to make changes to the final version.
The provisional document produced at the halfway point of a two-week meeting on family life said gays had gifts to offer the church and that their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided gay couples with “precious” support.
It said the church must welcome divorced people and recognize the “positive” aspects of civil marriages and even Catholics who live together without being married.
Amid an outcry from conservatives over the document, organizers of the synod insisted Tuesday that the report was merely a working paper that would be amended and that its value had been overstated by the media.
The document was remarkable both in what it said and what it didn’t say: Gone 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 acceptance and welcome.
Several known conservatives who participated in the synod immediately came out against the report. The head of the Polish bishops’ conference, Cardinal Stanislaw Gadecki, called it “unacceptable” and a deviation from church teaching.
South African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier said the report didn’t reflect the opinion of the synod in its entirety, and said he was sure the final report “will show the vision of the synod as a whole and not the vision of a particular group.”
Hard-line American Cardinal Raymond Burke, the head of the Vatican’s supreme court, accused the Vatican press operation of releasing “manipulated” information about the synod debate that didn’t reflect the “consistent number of bishops” who opposed such a tone.
To some extent, the conservatives had a point. The Vatican’s briefings about the goings-on of the closed-door synod had made scant reference to gays, and yet the provisional report gave significant ink to the issue.
Monsignor Bruno Forte, appointed by the pope as the synod’s special secretary, wrote the section on gays. Forte is an Italian theologian whose writings have pushed the envelope on keeping true to church doctrine while showing mercy to people in “irregular” unions.
The Vatican on Tuesday acknowledged the sharp divisions over the report, hinting at the ideological battle underway over the soul of the final document.
A Vatican summary of the closed-door debate that followed the report’s release said bishops had “appreciated” the report but that some had recommended a host of amendments to balance out the final version.
These bishops suggested that the final report highlight faithful, Catholic families to avoid “a near-exclusive focus on imperfect family situations,” the Vatican summary of the debate said.
On gays, they said “prudence” was required “so that the impression of a positive evaluation of such a tendency on the part of the church is not created. The same care was advised with regard to cohabitation.”
The bishops noted that the word “sin” barely appeared in the document at all and that the final document must better explain the “law of gradualness” – a theological concept that encourages the faithful to take one step at a time in the search for holiness.
Bishops are concerned that an emphasis on graduality can lead to confusion about whether Catholics really must follow church law to the letter on hot-button issues like contraception.
Finally, the Vatican’s summary noted that some bishops firmly believe there is no room for change on the divisive issue of whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment can receive Communion.
Church teaching holds that without an annulment, these Catholics are living in sin and thus are ineligible to receive the sacraments.
Pope Francis has called for a more merciful approach and some favor a case-by-case approach, in which the couple undertakes a path of penance and could ultimately receive the sacraments. But conservatives have insisted there is no getting around Jesus’ words that marriage is indissoluble.
In the summary released Tuesday, the Vatican reported that “it was said that it is difficult to accept exceptions unless in reality they become a common rule.”
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