VATICAN CITY — In a marked shift in tone likely to be discussed in parishes around the world, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican released a preliminary document on Monday calling for the church to welcome and accept gay people, unmarried couples and those who have divorced, as well as the children of these less traditional families.
The bishops’ report, issued midway through a landmark two-week meeting, does not change church doctrine or teaching, and will now be subjected to fierce debate and revision at the assembly.
But it is the first signal that the institutional church may follow the direction Francis has set in the first 18 months of his papacy, away from condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness and mercy.
Previous synods have produced little, but some participants in this one have likened it to the historic Second Vatican Council convened just over 50 years ago, which produced monumental changes in church liturgy, relations with other faiths and the conception of the roles of priests and laypeople.
The 12-page report, written by a committee picked by Francis, says that without abandoning church teaching on the sacrament of marriage, pastors should recognize that there are “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation.” That is a striking departure from traditional Catholic preaching that such couples are “living in sin.”
The report also says that gay people have “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” and that some gay couples provide each other “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” and “precious support in the life of the partners.”
The document was read aloud to the nearly 200 bishops, priests and lay people gathered at the synod, as the assembly is called. The reading was followed by responses and objections from 41 bishops in the synod hall, a portent of disputes to come.
The synod has pitted those bishops who are in accord with Francis’s vision against those who insist that the church is at risk of betraying its definitive doctrines on marriage and homosexuality.
Archbishop Bruno Forte, the synod’s special secretary, said in a news conference afterward that while the church does not condone gay unions or gay marriage, it must “respect the dignity of every person.”
“The fundamental idea is the centrality of the person independently of sexual orientation,” he said.
The report will now be discussed and modified in the next week by working groups of bishops who will scrutinize each section, and then a final report will be issued after the synod to be disseminated and discussed worldwide over the next year. There will be a second synod in Rome next October, but in the end, after all the consultation and debate, it is Pope Francis who will ultimately set the course.
Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle of Manila told the news conference that some of the bishops felt the “spirit” of Vatican II in this synod. He said the report was a marker against which the bishops could “see what needs to be deepened, what needs to be clarified, and what other things should be raised, which we have not yet raised.
“So the drama continues.”
One of the most contentious issues before the synod is whether to give the sacrament of communion to Catholics who divorced and remarried without having their first marriage annulled by the church, which is often a lengthy and expensive process. The church teaches that marriage is indissoluble.
The document acknowledged that the bishops were split on the question of communion, and left it open to further debate. But it called for the church to treat divorced Catholics and those who have remarried with respect, “avoiding any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against.”
Some conservative bishops who oppose any change have been outspoken. Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an American now serving in the Vatican, said in an interview that will be published Tuesday in the Italian daily newspaper Il Foglio that “worrying tendencies” were emerging from the synod because they “are supporting the possibility of adopting a practice that deviates from the truth of the faith.”
Many conservatives have complained that because the media has been excluded from the synod sessions, the synod discussions are being spun by the Vatican spokesmen charged with summarizing the proceedings in daily news conferences.
“A large number of bishops do not accept the ideas of openness, but few know that,” Cardinal Burke told Il Foglio.
The “progressives” at the synod, who want change in the church, “are in positions of strength, put there by Pope Francis,” said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert with the Italian newsmagazine L’espresso, in an interview on Monday. “The pope is not impartial.”
News of the preliminary document was played down in the Italian news media, and some Vatican officials cautioned that it was not conclusive. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said in an interview with The New York Times: “It should not be overvalued as a document of reference. It’s merely a working paper.”
Yet the document was greeted with instant enthusiasm by gay rights groups and advocates of church reform who have been hoping the synod would produce substantive change.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for gay Catholics, said, “These recognitions are total reversals of earlier church statements which labeled such an orientation as ‘objectively disordered’ and which viewed gay and lesbian people in faith communities as problems and suspect persons.”
In the United States, many parishes quietly welcome gay couples, in the church’s own “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. But there have been reports of gay couples denied communion; gay parishioners evicted from choirs and parish councils; gay teachers and professors dismissed from schools; and gay children refused admittance to parochial schools.
Some analysts said that the synod’s document would influence pastors, even as it was debated over the next year.
The Rev. James Martin, editor at large of America, the Jesuit magazine, said that “even though this is an interim document, it represents a revolution in the way the church speaks about our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
However, the document reflects what appears to be a definite consensus among most bishops against same-sex marriage.
The document also criticizes pressure by the United Nations and some Western nations to compel countries in Africa and elsewhere to rescind laws that restrict the rights of gay people, in exchange for financial aid. It says it is unacceptable “that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.”
But this was a rare departure into politics. Over all, the preliminary document sets a pastoral tone that echoes Francis’ words. It says the church must address “real world problems,” care for “wounded families” and understand that irregular situations like divorce are often imposed, not chosen.