VATICAN CITY — Catholic bishops scrapped their landmark welcome to gays Saturday, showing deep divisions at the end of a two-week meeting sought by Pope Francis to chart a more merciful approach to ministering to Catholic families.
The bishops approved a final report covering a host of issues related to Catholic family life, acknowledging there were “positive elements” in civil heterosexual unions outside the church and even in cases when men and women were living together outside marriage.
They also said the church must respect Catholics in their moral evaluation of “methods used to regulate births,” a seemingly significant deviation from church teaching barring any form of artificial contraception.
But the bishops failed to reach consensus on a watered-down section on ministering to homosexuals. The new section had stripped away the welcoming tone of acceptance contained in a draft document earlier in the week.
Rather than considering gays as individuals who had gifts to offer the church, the revised paragraph referred to homosexuality as one of the problems Catholic families face. It said “people with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and sensitivity,” but repeated church teaching that marriage is only between a man and a woman.
The revised paragraph failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
Two other paragraphs concerning the other hot-button issue at the synod of bishops – whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion – also failed to pass.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the failure of the paragraphs to pass meant that they have to be discussed further to arrive at a consensus at a meeting of bishops next October.
It could be that the 118-62 vote on the gay paragraph was a protest vote of sorts by progressive bishops who refused to back the watered-down wording and wanted to keep the issue alive. The original draft had said gays had gifts to offer the church and that their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided gay couples with “precious” support.
New Ways Ministry, a Catholic gay rights group, said it was “very disappointing” that the final report had backtracked from the welcoming words contained in the draft. Nevertheless, it said the synod’s process “and openness to discussion provides hope for further development down the road, particularly at next year’s synod, where the makeup of the participants will be larger and more diverse, including many more pastorally-oriented bishops.”
A coalition of small pro-life groups, Voice of the Family, said the outcome of the meeting had only contributed to “deepening the confusion that has already damaged families since the sexual revolution of the 1960s.”
The gay section of the draft report had been written by a Francis appointee, Monsignor Bruno Forte, a theologian known for pushing the pastoral envelope on ministering to people in “irregular” unions. The draft was supposed to have been a synopsis of the bishops’ interventions, but many conservatives complained that it reflected a minority and overly progressive view.
Francis insisted in the name of transparency that the full document – including the three paragraphs that failed to pass – be published along with the voting tally. The document will serve as the basis for future debate leading up to the October 2015 meeting of bishops which will produce a final report for Francis to help him write a teaching document of his own.
“Personally I would have been very worried and saddened if there hadn’t been these … animated discussions … or if everyone had been in agreement or silent in a false and acquiescent peace,” Francis told the synod hall after the vote.
Conservatives had harshly criticized the draft and proposed extensive revisions to restate church doctrine, which holds that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered,” but that gays themselves are to be respected, and that marriage is only between a man and a woman. In all, 460 amendments were submitted.
“We could see that there were different viewpoints,” said Cardinal Oswald Gracis of India, when asked about the most contentious sections of the report on homosexuals and divorced and remarried Catholics.
German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the leader of the progressive camp, said he was “realistic” about the outcome.
In an unexpected gesture after the voting, Francis approached a group of journalists waiting outside the synod hall to thank them for their work covering the meeting. Francis has rarely if ever approached a scrum of journalists, except during his airborne press conferences.
“Thanks to you and your colleagues for the work you have done,” he said. “Grazie tante (Thanks a lot).” Conservative bishops had harshly criticized journalists for reporting on the dramatic shift in tone in the draft document, even though the media reports merely reflected the document’s content.
Francis also addressed the bishops, criticizing their temptation to be overly wed to doctrine and “hostile rigidity,” and on the flip side a temptation to “destructive do-goodness.” His speech received a four-minute standing ovation, participants said.
Over the past week, the bishops split themselves up into working groups to draft amendments to the text. They were nearly unanimous in insisting that church doctrine on family life be more fully asserted and that faithful Catholic families should be held up as models and encouraged rather than focus on family problems and “irregular” unions.
Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa, who helped draft the revised final report, told Vatican Radio the final document showed a “common vision” that was lacking in the draft.
He said the key areas for concern were “presenting homosexual unions as if they were a very positive thing” and the suggestion that divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to receive Communion without an annulment.
He complained that the draft was presented as the opinion of the whole synod, when it was “one or two people.”
“And that made people very angry,” he said.
Annalisa Camilli contributed to this report.