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 failed to approve even a watered-down section on ministering to homosexuals that 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 have to confront. It said “people with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and delicacy,” but repeated church teaching that marriage is only between man and woman. The 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 outcome showed a deeply divided church on some of the most pressing issues facing Catholic families.
It appeared that the 118-62 vote on the gay section might have been a protest vote by progressive bishops who refused to back the watered-down wording. 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.”
The draft 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 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 another meeting of bishops next October that will produce a final report to be sent to Francis.
“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 woman.
“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 synod.
“Thanks to you and your colleagues for the work you have done,” he said. “Grazie tante.” Conservative bishops had harshly criticized journalists for reporting on the dramatic shift in tone in the draft, even though the media reports merely reflected the document’s content.
Francis’ gesture, and his words inside the synod hall chastising bishops who were overly wed to doctrine and were guided by “hostile rigidity,” as well as those bishops who showed a “destructive goody-goodiness,” indicated that he was well aware of the divisions the debate had sparked. 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.
The bishops signaled a similar tone in a separate message directed at Christian families released Saturday. There was no mention whatsoever of families with gay children, much less gay parents, and it spoke of the “complex and problematic” issues that arise when marriages fail and new relationships begin.
“Christ wanted his church to be a house with the door always open to welcome everyone, without excluding anyone,” the message read. (Oddly, the English translation was less welcoming than the official Italian, ending the sentence after ‘everyone.’)
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.