Pope Francis released a long-awaited apostolic exhortation on family life on April 8, where he called for more integration for divorced Catholics but closed the door on gay marriage. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Pope Francis on Friday offered his most complete airing yet of the social issues affecting family life, encouraging his clergy to embrace sinners as well as saints and extending an olive branch of mercy to divorced and remarried Catholics long barred from the highest sacrament of the church: Holy Communion.

Francis rejected outright the notion of same-sex marriage. But he laid out the church’s warmest welcome in modern times to divorced and remarried couples, saying they should not be judged, discriminated against or excluded from church life. And he encouraged their priests to be merciful in considering whether such Catholics can receive Communion.

After two years of anticipation, Francis’s pronouncements on family life came in a pragmatic, at times romantic document that encouraged a variety of things, including sex education and morning kisses. In a paper clearly aimed at guiding couples on their journeys through life, he sidestepped the church’s typical rejection of artificial birth control. He often sounded less like a pontiff than a marriage counselor (men, he said, should do some housework).

But he stopped short of changing church laws, while strongly hinting that he wanted to.

Pope Francis walks past flowers during a weekly general audience at St Peter's square on March 30, 2016 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABITIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images (Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

The 256-page document, known as an apostolic exhortation and titled Amoris Laetitia, or “The Joy of Love,” delved into the hot-button issues that deeply divided his senior clergy during two major theological slugfests in Vatican City. As the pope appears to have feared, no issue garnered more attention than his reflections on divorced and remarried couples — who, under church law, are living in adultery and technically unable to receive Communion.

In practice, however, many do, and throughout his document, Francis seemed to be urging his clergy to start dealing with the world they live in and not the one they want. Yet his carefully phrased wording sketched out a Solomonesque solution that seemed to generally abide by church laws while suggesting a new approach for wooing such couples back to Mass.

There would be no blanket change in law, the pope said. But in some cases, he suggested, a priest could work closely with these couples on a path to redemption that may ultimately include a return to the Eucharist.

According to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who helped present the document in Vatican City, Francis buried his suggestion, perhaps knowing that it would overwhelm the rest of his teachings. The pope mentioned that people living in an “objective situation of sin” can “also grow in the life of grace.” Then, in his footnote for priests, he noted, “I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’ ”

His words still were ambiguous enough to spark division and debate over their meaning, and they appeared to fall short of pleasing either liberals or conservatives. At the same time, they seemed to show that a man who has been lauded as a revolutionary pope also knows his limits — that he can change the tone of his office without serious rifts but that the substance is another matter.

Acknowledging that some liberals had hoped for a blanket rule change on divorced and remarried Catholics, Schönborn said at a news conference that “many people expected such rules, but they will be disappointed and persuaded that this is the necessary choice made by our pope.”

Representatives of the Catholic Church in the United States declined Friday to say what effect, if any, Francis’s words would have on divorced and remarried Catholics.

“The teaching is not changing,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “He’s not giving new regulations or new rules, but he is giving a mind-set in which we see people first.”

The effect, however, could indeed be felt at the parish level, where liberal priests in particular may feel emboldened to act on the pope’s words. But some argued that Francis was not directly pushing for a significant change.

Monsignor Frederick C. Easton, who led the Indianapolis Archdiocese’s tribunal for 31 years, said the pope’s document was not offering a path to the Eucharist but rather was encouraging such couples, along with their priests, to find every possible way to include them in church life.

“This is a communications problem we have,” he said. “He’s giving us a new way of approaching moral decision-making. It’s not a wooden approach.”

For an institution used to top-down management, the latitude appeared somewhat vexing.

“There is difficult work envisioned here,” said Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, a senior Italian cleric in the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops. “We are not used to such a work. Everything was imposed from above before, and now we have to apply discernment. We have to apply it to each and every case.”

The document addressed myriad other issues. Francis quoted Jorge Luis Borges and Jesus Christ. He included an entire chapter on love.

More than anything, it amounted to an exaltation of traditional marriage while recognizing that life, in the pope’s own words, is not always “perfect.” Yet rather than judging, he commanded, the church should be a pillar of support.

Single women get pregnant, and they need the support of those around them, he wrote. Children sometimes need punishment — and, he notably added, sex education. Gay people deserve protection from “unjust discrimination.” And while he clearly upheld his church’s teaching that marriage is between only a man and a woman, he noted that unconventional unions do form. And they are not, he wrote, without their “constructive elements.”

Perhaps most important, he exhorted the church — specifically its clergy — to use “discernment” and not paint with a broad brush. Do not, he warned, wield “moral laws” like a weapon.

“This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings,” he scolded, comparing such moralizing to “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority.”

In contrast to Francis’s informal quips on the road, the document is written in sometimes-indirect papal language. It is highly nuanced in parts, a fact the pope himself seemed to note by stating: “I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.”

But he was crystal clear on one point: his rejection of same-sex marriage, a fact that sowed disappointment in a community that once welcomed his declarations not to “judge.”

“In this document, Pope Francis has continued the characterization of LGBT people as unable to fully reflect the fullness of God’s plan for humanity,” Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the nonprofit group Dignity­USA, said in a statement. “We had hoped for much more, and many, many people are profoundly disappointed today.”

Others, though, argued that the pope went too far in appeasing liberals, offering his flock loose discipline. Rose Sweet, a U.S.-based Catholic marriage counselor and writer, suggested that the pope was treating sinners like coddled children.

“We’re dealing with very immature, uninformed people who want Papa Francisco to give them what they want,” she said. “And they don’t want it too hard, and they will love him for it. And they’ll say, ‘You’re like Jesus; you’re so merciful.’ But here’s the thing: What real mercy is, it’s not letting people off the hook.”

The apostolic exhortation is not as high in the hierarchy of papal documents as, for example, the environmental encyclical Francis released last year. But it nevertheless carries the weight of his office and is seen as a powerful instrument of church teachings.

Thomas Groome, a theology professor at Boston College and a former priest, said he thought the most striking thing about the document was that it never spoke of artificial birth control.

“The Catholic Church never said the world is round but just stopped saying it was flat. The Catholic way isn’t to say, ‘Sorry folks, we were wrong on birth control,’ but just to stop saying it.”

Faiola reported from Berlin, and Boorstein from Washington. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome, Julie Zauzmer in Washington and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.

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