A major meeting Pope Francis convened to help the Catholic Church improve its outreach to diverse modern families ended Saturday with a summary paper that removed earlier, revolutionary language that cited the value of same-sex and divorced families.
Critics of the pope were celebrating Saturday, with conservative Catholics cheering the reaffirmation that God prefers the traditional family.
The two-week meeting in Rome hadn’t been expected to result in changes to traditional doctrine, but the rare sight of cardinals from around the world debating matters such as whether same-sex couples can be called “partners” floored many Catholics. More liberal Catholics said Saturday that it was a victory for the church to even have such conversations, though many expressed disappointment with the paper.
“The language of compromise was eviscerated from Monday’s summary,” said Patrick Hornbeck, chair of theology at Fordham University, a Catholic institution. “The bishops who were more prophetic and progressive have found themselves drowned out by a chorus of hesitation and concern.”
Saturday’s summary reflected deep divisions in the world’s largest Christian church as it tries to reconnect with 21st-century families while sticking to its doctrine. Traditional bishops had spoken publicly and angrily in the past few days against the more open language in Monday’s draft document, saying it was a dangerous betrayal and potentially heretical. Some said the church could eventually be headed for division.
The Synod on the Family was meant to launch a year of discussion in the church and lead to another gathering in the fall of 2015, when possible changes to teaching and practice will be made.
In a 10-minute speech at the end of the closed meeting, Pope Francis sought to walk a middle line. He said the church can neither “throw stones” at sinners nor be too accommodating to “a worldly spirit.” He was given a five-minute standing ovation, according to the Vatican press office.
Some longtime Vatican-watchers saw reports of bitter politics inside the synod as a proxy for feelings about Francis. The pope approved the small group of top clergy — which included Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl — who on Monday released the mid-meeting summary paper, which said the church must “turn respectfully” to people in relationships it once labeled “disordered,” such as unmarried couples who live together or same-sex couples who are raising children.
The document at times used language that echoed a therapeutic, self-help style: People must “take care of themselves, to know their inner being, and to live in greater harmony with their emotions and sentiments.”
The backlash from conservatives was swift. “The message that has gone out is not true,” South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier told reporters Tuesday.
“I certainly hope that this document will be set aside completely and there will be an effort made to present the church’s true teaching and pastoral practice,” said American Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican’s high court.
All week, Vatican spokesmen seemed to walk back the Monday document by bits.
However, news came Friday that Francis was demoting Burke, one of his most prominent critics. And experts noted Saturday that the Vatican is a hierarchical institution.
“Francis isn’t like Obama needing votes. He can do whatever he wants,” Hornbeck said.
However, the pope’s specific doctrinal desires remained unknown, as they have been since his election last year. He has used ever-more inclusive language but has always affirmed the church’s orthodox teachings. Experts speculated all week about what kind of change might be possible in such a climate, focusing on matters like ending the church’s practice of firing Catholic schoolteachers or choir leaders who are married to someone of the same gender or who never sought an annulment before remarrying after a divorce.
New Ways Ministry, which advocates for gay equality in the church, said the Saturday summary “significantly backtracks on LGBT issues” compared with Monday’s document but isn’t the final word.
“What was good about this two-week-long meeting? The real value of this synod is that it has started the discussion among the hierarchy on LGBT issues which has been going on for decades among the lay people and theologians in the Church,” the group said in a statement.
Voice of the Family, a global coalition of traditional groups that formed to monitor the synod, said in a statement Saturday that the report “fails to resolve the confusion” the meeting caused.
The Vatican on Saturday released the vote tallies for each section of the report, and Voice of the Family noted that the most contentious sections — encouraging a more welcoming attitude toward families who don’t conform to orthodox norms — weren’t overwhelmingly defeated.
“The voting numbers reveal that most Synod Fathers remain open to proposals contrary to Catholic teaching,” the statement said. “There has been much talk about ‘welcoming’ and ‘accompanying’ people, but this is impossible without the clarity of the truth.”
The Rev. Anthony McLaughlin, who teaches church law at Catholic University and has led a Catholic marriage tribunal, said the meeting’s impact will be in a change of tone — from condemnation or apathy to mercy. “The church does not say these people are to be shunned or spurned, or are no longer part of it,” he said. “The church has been clear that everybody is a child of God.”
Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, emphasized that the synod discussed much more than gay issues. It began, he said, moving the church back to the basics of the faith, such as reaching out to the poor and marginalized.
“Obviously there are expressions of love that don’t perfectly fit into the way the church believes that humans should live and act,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s a totally different way of the church thinking.”
What Francis will do next is unclear. But the Rev. Fred Eason, the longtime head of the Indianapolis tribunal, said Catholics should keep in mind that this is only the beginning of the buildup for next year’s meeting.
“We’re not done with anything at the moment,” he said.“It levels the playing field as to who has influence,” Eason said. The pope’s “whole approach is that everyone has influence.”
Amy Brittain contributed to this report. Stefano Pitrelli contributed from Rome.