The Vatican released a 256-page document from the pope on Friday. The document, called “The Joy of Love,” discusses family life for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Pope Francis is urging local clergy to accept divorced Catholics and those who re-marry in civil ceremonies on a case-by-case basis. He said that the church’s teachings on marriage should not be the final word.
The document said, “a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to applymoral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to be thrown at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings.”
Gay Catholics, however, said the pope had failed them. The document welcomed gays in the Roman Catholic church but repeated its opposition to same-sex marriage.
"He has ignored submissions and appeals by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics," said Peter Tatchell, a British gay rights advocate. "Gentler words do not assuage Vatican opposition to gay equality."
Last October, the Pope met with 270 Catholic bishops to discuss family issues and church teachings on homosexuality, marriage and divorce. The new document was a sign of Francis' call for the church to be more forgiving with “imperfect” Catholics.
The biggest issue at the synod meeting last year was whether the church should offer Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Church teaching says that a remarried person must receive an annulment of an earlier marriage to take part in Communion. In an annulment, Catholic clergy rule that the earlier marriage was invalid, in violation of church law.
Conservatives oppose any change to the church’s teaching.
Liberals want to look at each marriage on a case-by-case basis. They support creating a path that could lead them to take part in major religious ceremonies.
Francis changed church law last year to make it easier to get an annulment. On Friday, he said the opposition from conservatives was in conflict with Jesus' message of mercy.
"In thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God," he said. "Let us remember that a small step in the midst of great human limitations can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties."
The Rev. James Bretzke, a Boston College theologian, said the document will help clergy to welcome divorced and civilly remarried Catholics back to the church. He said, "Pope Francis does not outlaw that, whereas John Paul II specifically outlawed (it).”
Mark Brumley has published the writings of retired Pope Benedict XVI. He said Francis' attention to morality "doesn't mean this is a free pass to do whatever you want."
He said the document tries to navigate the difficult path of supporting church teaching while letting the civilly remarried to participate in the life of the church.
"It's a very tricky thing," Brumley said.