Pope Francis eases the return for divorced Catholics while reiterating objections to abortion, birth control, gay marriage

, and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Vatican: "Is the pope changing the rules? No. But … there is an attitude of welcome."

Pope Francis, who has declared 2016 a Holy Year of Mercy, published a much-anticipated exhortation on love and marriage Friday that eases the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to rejoin the faith, but reiterates limits on gay unions and the ban on contraception and abortion.

The 260-page document, the product of several years of debate within the Roman Catholic hierarchy, calls for flexibility, tolerance and compassion in the church. But it is likely to disappoint the pope's legions of liberal fans looking for doctrinal change.

"By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth," the pope wrote. "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.'"

Reaction in Maryland was mixed, as one might expect for a document that calls for compassion but proposes no specific changes in church law.

Edward Herrera, director of the office of marriage and family in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, praised the pope's focus "on love, especially the love between spouses, but also on talking about how we as a church, as a family of families, need to better love and support one another."

Others said they wish the pontiff had reached out more explicitly to members of families the church considers nontraditional, including those that include divorced and remarried men and women, and members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

Ryan Sattler is a member of the LGBT ministry team at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Baltimore.

"As much as we love Pope Francis — he has changed the tone of conversation on so many issues — when you have real, deep substance and doctrine in the church that continues to hurt and marginalize people, changing the tone doesn't do the job," he said.

As the first pontiff from the Americas enters the fourth year of his papacy, he has struck a sharp contrast to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, by calling for a more inclusive church.

Pope Francis has traveled to the poorest slums and most violent prisons on four continents, washed the feet of Muslims during Holy Week ceremonies and excoriated the rich and powerful for greed and neglect.

"Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family," the apostolic exhortation released Friday, continued that theme, treading a line that is not always predictable.

In some areas, this pope pushes boundaries, while in others he hews to traditional teachings.

The document represents Pope Francis' final word on many of the family- and life-related issues that were debated at two frequently tense synods at the Vatican in 2014 and 2015.

It gives some room to priests on granting Communion to remarried divorcees — a hot-button issue that divides Catholic conservatives and progressives, and is of special interest to American Catholics.

Currently, the church officially excludes Catholics who have divorced and remarried from receiving Communion because it sees their first marriage as still valid, meaning they are committing the sin of adultery.

Pope Francis states bluntly that "divorce is an evil" but adds that "it is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. They are not excommunicated and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community."

Their exclusion "can be surmounted," he says, and local priests and bishops can work with such couples to that end.

"The Christian community's care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage," the pope wrote. "Rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity."

The pope says he is not offering "a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases," but he appears to leave the door open to bishops to offer Communion on a case-by-case basis.

"Is the pope changing the rules? No," Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said. "But does he leave daylight? Yes. There is an attitude of welcome."

On gay marriage, Pope Francis is less flexible.

"De facto or same-sex unions … may not simply be equated with marriage," he writes. "No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society."

He also praises Christian marriage as being "fully realized in the union between a man and a woman."

Elsewhere, though, the pope sounds a more conciliatory note, writing that "some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way. The Synod Fathers stated that the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations."

The language drew some criticism in Maryland.

Frank DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said his organization is "disappointed that this pope, who has already done so much for LGBT issues, did not make a positive statement on LGBT issues specifically," and continued to cite church doctrine DeBernardo says stigmatizes lesbians, gays and transgenders.

New Ways Ministry, based in Mount Rainier, ministers to LGBT Catholics nationwide. The Archdiocese of Washington has denied authorization for its activities, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said it does not present an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching or an authentic Catholic pastoral practice.

DeBernardo said Pope Francis "does have a lot of very positive things in the document about being a more open and welcoming church, but they're all discussed in the context of other issues, such as divorce

Sattler, at St. Matthew, agreed.

He cited two same-sex couples in the parish who have legally married and adopted children. He said they serve as models of healthy familial love.

"The pope had an opportunity to say that is good, that is blessed, that God is pleased with those unions," Sattler said. "And he didn't do it."

Pope Francis leaves no gray area on abortion: "So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother's womb, that no alleged right to one's own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the 'property' of another human being."

He quotes synod documents that state that "those who work in healthcare facilities are reminded of the moral duty of conscientious objection" and adds that "the Church strongly rejects the forced State intervention in favor of contraception, sterilization and even abortion. Such measures are unacceptable even in places with high birth rates, yet also in countries with disturbingly low birth rates we see politicians encouraging them."

Pope Francis' views reflect Catholic doctrine, but his words will have extra resonance in the United States during an election year.

While Catholic progressives expressed disappointment, and conservatives remained uncomfortable with granting any leeway that, in their view, could undermine religious discipline, church leaders broadly welcomed the pope's message.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori called it "a beautiful affirmation of love and family life that stems from Scripture and the rich Tradition of the Church."

It's a "welcome encouragement to all who minister to God's people, most especially those who have been marginalized or separated from the Church," Lori wrote in a blog post.

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez said it comes at a critical time, when the meaning of marriage, family and love is "confused and disputed in our society." Gomez said he was encouraged by what the pope said about preparing couples for marriage and the need to approach "wounded families" with compassion.

"We need to inspire people to see marriage and family as God's way for their lives, and to call them to this adventure in life-long love that grows deeper through the sharing of joys and trials and the bringing of new life into the world," Gomez said in a statement. "We all have a lot to learn from 'Amoris Laetitia.'"

Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, said conservative Catholics who shun the idea of divorce should not be worried about the document's conciliatory tone.

"It is not a slippery slope, but a pathway forward for people who have otherwise found themselves stuck," Cupich said at a news conference.

Francis' "ability to really be sensitive to the human situation in life continues to amaze me," Cupich said. "He's got an intuition about where people live their actual lives. He's not living in a bubble."

Catholics for Choice, a lay group that supports abortion rights and access to contraception, said the papal exhortation displayed the "immense chasm" between church policy and everyday Catholic practice.

"The law says one thing, but Catholics the world over behave according to their conscience," Jon O'Brien, the group's president, said in a statement. "How you apply the law matters — it's what drives people away."

O'Brien said Pope Francis' pastoral approach represented a "breath of fresh air" compared with his predecessors. But he added that the pope again condemned abortion as evil, and went "back to the party line about contraception" to "shore up any concerns that conservatives may have that real change is possible."

All this, O'Brien said, despite the fact that about one in four Catholics in the United States has been divorced.

Between the tough words on abortion and gay marriage, the document dwells at length on ways to shore up the institution of marriage, offering guidance on how to build a loving family with tips on forgiveness, patience and sex.

Pope Francis warns that "we treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye. Narcissism makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves, beyond their own desires and needs."

Herrera, of the Baltimore archdiocese, said it's important to remember that an Apostolic Exhortation is a pastoral document — that is, one meant not to introduce doctrinal change, but to "be an opportunity for introspection, to ask how we are welcoming people."

The document's main thrust, he said, is to bolster the strength of families, which the church considers "foundational cells" in society, but which face many obstacles in modern life.

Pope Francis says the church has spent too long waving rule books at families instead of giving constructive advice on how to avoid breakups.

"We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life," he writes.

He quotes the 1987 film "Babette's Feast:" "The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven," he writes. "We can think of the lovely scene in the film 'Babette's Feast,' when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: 'Ah, how you will delight the angels!'"

Tribune Newspapers reporter Sarah Parvini contributed to this article.

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