After a three-week marathon of Vatican talks on family issues, Roman Catholic bishops voted on a summary document which decided against overhauling the church’s teaching on gay Catholics but paved the way for greater openness towards divorcees.
“Surely it was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family,” the pontiff said, “but rather about seeing these difficulties and uncertainties in the light of the Faith, carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand.”
A push for more welcoming language was evident, but the final text was by no means a triumph for progressives. Although bishops agreed that people should be treated with respect “independently of their own sexual tendency”, the reference to gay Catholics was viewed in terms of “accompanying the families in which people with homosexual tendencies live”, rather than accepting same-sex relationships.
The bishops also criticised international bodies they said were pushing poor countries to introduce same-sex marriage laws with the promise of aid.
There was, however, a greater openness towards Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the church, who under Vatican teachings are excluded from receiving communion. Bishops agreed divorcees must be “more integrated in Christian communities”.
The bishops also paved the way for clergy to decide whether to allow divorcees to participate fully in church life: “It is to be hoped that in the dioceses paths of discernment and involvement of these people will be promoted.”
The statements on remarried Catholics, however, lacked specificity, reflecting the difficulty of reaching consensus among the bishops, who voted paragraph-by-paragraph on a text that on Friday received 1,355 suggested changes. Despite opposing opinions, many of the 270 participating bishops said there was a greater sense of open dialogue at this synod, coming a year after bishops had first met to discuss family issues.
Regional splits were raised, with African bishops prompted to defend themselves against accusations that they were trying to block progress being peddled by a more “western” view of the world. But geographical borders did not necessarily determine conformity to a certain point of view, with an open division being aired in the media between some US participants at the synod.
Such splits may have played a role in Pope Francis calling for a “healthy decentralisation” of the church and the need for a “conversation of the papacy”.
The suggestion that bishops could be given greater powers to decide on family issues at a regional level has worried some Catholics, who believe it could lead to a watering down of church doctrine.
While bishops have made their collective case, it is up to the pope to decide the next move. Beyond the synod vote, he will face tough opposition in any attempt to change the letter of church teachings, but the upcoming jubilee year of mercy could serve as an opportunity to table new plans for Catholic family life.