VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis said Friday that Catholics should look to their own consciences more than Vatican rules to negotiate the complexities of sex, marriage and family life, demanding the church shift its emphasis from doctrine to mercy in confronting some of the thorniest issues facing the faithful.
In a major church document entitled “The Joy of Love,” Francis made no explicit change in church doctrine and upheld church teaching on the lifelong bond of marriage between a man and a woman.
But in selectively citing his predecessors and emphasizing his own teachings in strategically placed footnotes, Francis made innovative openings in pastoral practice for Catholics who civilly remarry and signaled that he wants nothing short of a revolution in the way priests guide Catholics. He said the church must no longer sit in judgment and “throw stones” at those who fail to live up to the Gospel’s ideals of marriage and family life.
“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” he wrote. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.”
Gays will likely be disappointed by the documents’ failure to offer anything significant beyond existing church teaching that gays are not to be discriminated against and are to be welcomed into the church with respect and dignity. It resoundingly rejects gay marriage and repeats the church’s position that same-sex unions can in no way be equivalent to marriage between man and wife.
But women will find much to appreciate in the document. Francis condemns at length the “verbal, physical and sexual violence” many women endure in marriages, rejects “sexual submission” and the “reprehensible” practice of genital mutilation. And he says the belief that feminism is to blame for the crisis in families today is completely invalid.
On thorny issues such as contraception, Francis stressed that a couple’s individual conscience — not dogmatic rules imposed on them across the board — must guide their decisions and the church’s pastoral practice.
“We have been called to form consciences, not replace to them,” he said.
He insisted the church’s aim is to reintegrate and welcome all its members. He called for a new language to help Catholic families cope with today’s problems. And he said pastors must take into account mitigating factors — fear, ignorance, habits and duress — in counseling Catholics who simply aren’t perfect.
“It can no longer simply be said that all those in any irregular situations are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace,” he wrote. Even those in an “objective situation of sin” can be in a state of grace, and can even be more pleasing to God by trying to improve, he said.
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, told a Vatican press conference that while there was no explicit change in church doctrine about the family, the document contained an “organic development” in church teaching.
“It’s the classic case of an organic development of doctrine. There is innovation and continuity,” he said. “There are true novelties in this document, but no ruptures.”