Vatican Signals More Tolerance Toward Gays and Remarriage

Bishops attend a morning session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014.
Bishops attend a morning session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. –AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

VATICAN CITY — An important meeting of bishops at the Vatican used remarkably conciliatory language Monday toward gay and divorced Catholics, signaling a possible easing of the church’s rigid attitudes on homosexuality and the sanctity of marriage.

The gathering of bishops from around the world called on pastors to recognize, among other things, the “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation.’’

The meeting, or synod, was called by Pope Francis to discuss issues related to the family in contemporary society. A report was given Monday of the main considerations under debate in the first week of the two-week gathering.

The report appeared to reflect the more tolerant and inclusive direction Francis has sought to take the church since he was chosen to succeed the far more doctrinaire Benedict XVI exactly 18 months ago.

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A final document will be issued by the synod next week. Although the gathering is unlikely to change church doctrine, its conversation will set — and potentially change — both the tone and the practice of the faith in parishes around the world.

Signaling the direction they are heading, the bishops called for a more merciful approach towards the faithful who stray from the Catholic ideal, citing the need for “courageous pastoral choices’’ to reflect the current plurality of relationships outside the traditional family model.

They urged pastors, for instance, to be more welcoming to gays, who have “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.’’ And it called on pastors to treat divorced Catholics who have remarried civilly with respect, “avoiding any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against.’’

The document, however, left open to further debate the contentious question of whether they might receive communion, merely expounding the contrasting positions on the extremely sensitive issue.

“The Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcoming,’’ the bishops said.

The document remains “a work in progress,’’ according to the synod’s special secretary, Monsignor Bruno Forte, who cautioned during a press conference that it was subject to modification in upcoming days as working groups more closely scrutinize and debate individual points.

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Also to come is a year’s worth of debate over the questions and perspectives raised by the document among local churches leading to a second synod next October at which the pope will draw his conclusions.

Even so, the sense remained that with this synod, the church was engaged in a significant effort to make its message relevant in contemporary society, and the challenges faced by the family — the report cites factors like job precariousness, economic insecurity, war and migration — even as it defended traditional doctrine on the “indissoluble union between man and woman’’ and gay marriage, which “cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.’’

The document is the first complete synthesis of the multitude of discussions that have taken place at the closed-door meeting, with media access restricted to daily briefings that evoked the sense — but not the details — of the debate, which Vatican officials have described as both “passionate and lively.’’

Issues as diverse as polygamy in some African countries, arranged marriages, and the education of children of mixed faith religions or born outside of marriages, came up in sessions.

“Faced by these situations, the Church is called on to be ‘the house of the Father, with doors always wide open,’’ where “there is place for everyone, with all their problems,’’’ the bishops said, citing Evangelii Gaudium, a 2013 apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis.

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