Story highlights

The Pope blasted bishops who hurl condemnations at Catholics

The bishops appeared willing to meet Francis halfway in his desire for a more merciful church

Francis encouraged the bishops to everything on the table

CNN  — 

At the conclusion of a contentious three-week meeting, Catholic bishops in Rome recommended a path for divorced and remarried Catholics to participate more fully in church life – a top priority for Pope Francis – but failed to forge a consensus on some of the deepest challenges facing many of the faithful.

The new suggestions came in the form of a dense, 94-paragraph report approved by 265 bishops from 120 countries around the world. They were called to Rome by Pope Francis to discuss the “difficulties and uncertainties” of Catholic families trying to live up to the church’s high ideals, especially in Western countries that are rapidly growing less religious.

The synod’s recommendations now go to Francis for final deliberations. The bishops concluded their report by asking him to issue a teaching document on family life.

The bishops gathered for the meeting, called a synod, were not expected to find “exhaustive solutions” to every problem encountered by modern Catholics, the Pope said in a speech on Saturday concluding the deliberations.

Instead, the synod “was about showing the vitality of the Catholic Church,” he said, “which is not afraid to stir dulled consciences or to soil her hands with lively and frank discussions about the family.”

Focus on same-sex couples, divorcees

No one – the Pope included – expected those discussions to be easy.

The sometimes “spicy” debates, as one archbishop said, were accompanied by a fair amount of extracurricular intrigue, including backbiting bishops, secret letters and even unfounded rumors about the Pope’s health.

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The synod, which was a continuation of another meeting convened last fall, included bishops from vastly different social contexts discussing everything from polygamy to parenthood. Many were appointed by Pope Francis’ more conservative predecessors.

Expectations – and accusations – ran high as bishops attempted to grapple with competing priorities, including the tricky theological terrain of how to balance mercy with judgment.

The most contentious debates, according to interim reports released by the Vatican, centered on Catholics in “nontraditional” relationships, especially same-sex couples and divorcees.

Currently, Catholics who remarry without obtaining an annulment of their first marriage are not allowed to serve as godparents, participate in the Mass as readers or officially teach the faith as catechists. They are also barred from receiving Holy Communion, the church’s chief sacrament.

The bishops’ recommendations do not mention Holy Communion for Catholic divorcees, an omission that could be seen as a compromise, church experts said.

“Reformers can say the door remains open and conservatives can say that the rules remain unchanged,” said Austen Ivereigh, a Catholic journalist and biographer of Pope Francis who has been in Rome covering the synod.

Perhaps more importantly, the bishops’ suggestions give the Pope an avenue to make concrete changes to the church’s pastoral practices.

Some bishops had also urged the church to modify its tone toward gays and lesbians, whose same-sex orientation is called “objectively disordered” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“That language automatically sets people off, and probably isn’t useful anymore,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, one of nine U.S. bishops at the synod.

But the synod’s final recommendations merely restate the church’s respect for the dignity of gay people and desire to accompany families with gay members. The bishops denounced same-sex unions themselves as “not even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna said the bishops considered the topic of homosexuality, “too delicate” to be addressed fully.

“Some will be disappointed,” he told journalists in Rome. “The fact that it has been left out does not mean that, in places like Europe and North America, this is not a theme for the church. But … the diversity of political and cultural situations must be respected.”

The Pope himself made a similar point at the synod’s closing.

“We have seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another.”

But the synod was about “trying to open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints,” Francis said, apparently alluding to conservatives who have accused him of pushing through progressive changes by any means at hand.

Vatican experts say Francis’ predecessors, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI, essentially did the same, from the conservative perspective, appointing hundreds of bishops, some of whom seem uncomfortable with the direction Francis has taken the church.

“A lot of the reservations about what the Pope has said and done in the last two and a half years – his ‘Who am I to judge?’ approach – have surfaced at this synod,” said John Thavis, a veteran Vatican reporter and author.

Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, who Francis appointed to the synod, said some of the angst could be attributed to the pontiff’s decision to revive debates on issues that many in the hierarchy considered closed.

“What the Holy Father has done is give us all the permission to put everything on the table and to talk about it. And I think that’s a very healthy thing,” Cupich said in an interview from Rome. “This is the way adults work; and he is calling us to be an adult church.”

Pope: Condemnation not the right path

As the Pope has acknowledged, though, some church teachings, such as the “indissolubility” of marriage, are not up for debate. Citing Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew, the Catholic Church holds that second marriages are adulterous.

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But Pope Francis has repeatedly called on this church to show more mercy toward divorced and remarried Catholics, noting that they should not be considered excommunicated.

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Without mentioning the issue by name, Francis, in his remarkably candid speech to the bishops on Saturday, expressed frustration with Catholics who “hide behind church teachings” and “judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.”

“The church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.”

But early in the synod, many bishops seemed reluctant to budge. Any change to pastoral practices would sow confusion among Catholics, they argued. “We can’t rewrite or overlook what Jesus requires in order to follow him,” Chaput said.

In the end, however, at least two-thirds of the bishops – the number required to approve recommendations – appeared willing to meet Francis halfway.

They suggested that some divorced and Catholics, in consultation with their priests, could “take steps” to participate more fully in “liturgical, pastoral, educative and institutional areas” of the church. They also acknowledged that not all divorces can be blamed on both spouses.

“While maintaining a general norm, it is necessary to recognize that the responsibility for certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases,” the bishops said. “Pastoral discernment, while taking into account rightly formed consciences of people, must consider these situations.”

Still, in a sign of their divisiveness, the suggestions concerning divorced and remarried Catholics were approved by the slimmest of margins. Those paragraphs passed by two votes.

CNN’s Delia Gallagher reported from Rome. Daniel Burke reported from Washington.