Vatican City (AFP)
Pope Francis on Friday opted for no change in the Catholic approach to homosexuality but signalled a more open stance on cohabiting and divorced believers under new Church guidelines on family life.
In his 260-page “apostolic exhortation”, a long-awaited document which is likely to disappoint advocates of more radical change, Francis strongly reiterates the Church’s opposition to the legal recognition of gay relationships.
But he signals a significant departure from the Church’s long-established and often severe condemnation of those “living in sin”, emphasising the many barriers, including poverty, that exist to couples marrying before a priest.
He urges local parishes to do more to embrace divorced believers who have remarried in civil ceremonies, implicitly indicating that, in certain cases, the Church’s ban on them receiving communion could be lifted.
An “exhortation” that generally reflects Francis’s desire to create a less judgemental, condemnatory Church contains an acknowledgement that the institution he heads needs “a healthy dose of self-criticism.”
And it is not all complex theological issues.
One section urges parents to ensure their children remember to say please, thank you and sorry.
Another recommends breaking the humdrum of married life with an occasional party.
And brides-to-be are given some practical advice: don’t spend so much time planning the big day that you arrive exhausted at the altar.
– Welcomed and guided –
Francis notes that bishops who reviewed Catholic teaching on same sex couples at synods in 2014 and 2015 had observed that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
While the exhortation also expresses opposition to “every sign of unjust discrimination” based on sexual orientation, it includes no positive language about gay relationships.
While not unexpected, that will come as a disappointment for gay Catholics who had been encouraged to hope for real change by Francis’s famous “Who am I to judge?” remark about homosexuality early in his papacy and a more positive document presented to the first synod, which was shot down by conservatives.
In the absence of any new language on gay believers, official Church teaching defaults to the controversial formula that same-sex relationships are “intrinsically disordered.”
The area in which the missive arguably signals the biggest change to the Church’s 1.2 billion followers around the world is in its recognition of the value of the relationships of many cohabiting couples.
“The choice of a civil marriage or, in many cases, of simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations,” the text states.
“In such cases, respect also can be shown for those signs of love which in some way reflect God’s own love.”
The text also notes that some couples do not marry because of the expense involved: “Material poverty drives people into de facto unions,” it states.
In light of such circumstances, “these couples need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly.”
– Divorced not excommunicated –
On believers who have divorced and remarried, the texts says it is important they are made to feel part of the Church and encouraged to participate in parish life.
“They are not excommunicated and they should not be treated as such,” it states.
Commentators were divided on how to interpret this.
Although the text stresses that the situations of divorced and remarried believers “require careful discernment” it does not explicitly authorise communion for the divorced and remarried.
“Francis makes no new law that would be applicable in all cases; he does not establish any kind of ‘pathway’ back to the sacraments,” Catholic commentator Austen Ivereigh wrote for the Crux website.
Others emphasised a passage which stated that since responsibility for divorces was not always shared equally, “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”
Conservatives in the Church are fiercely opposed to divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion as they see such a step as a threat to the principle that marriages are indissoluble.
Reformers however argue for a more understanding approach to cases where, for example, one partner has been abandoned or where a woman has left a violent partner to protect their children.
Francis has already moved to make it easier for Catholics to have their marriages annulled, which may help some people in such cases.