Pope Francis on Friday opted for no change in the Catholic approach to homosexuality but signalled a more open stance on cohabiting and divorced believers under new Church guidelines on family life.
In his 260-page “Apostolic Exhortation”, a long-awaited document which is likely to disappoint advocates of more radical change, Francis strongly reiterates the Church’s opposition to the legal recognition of gay relationships.
He notes that bishops who reviewed Catholic teaching on the question at synods in 2014 and 2015 had observed that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
While the Exhortation also expresses opposition to “every sign of unjust discrimination” based on sexual orientation, it includes no positive language about gay relationships.
While not unexpected, that will come as a disappointment for gay Catholics who had been encouraged to hope for real change by Francis’s famous “Who am I to judge?” remark about homosexuality early in his papacy and a more positive document presented to the first synod, which was shot down by conservatives led by bishops from Africa.
In the absence of any new language on gay believers, official Church teaching defaults to the controversial formula that same-sex relationships are “intrinsically disordered.”
The area in which the missive arguably signals the biggest change to the Church’s 1.2 billion followers around the world is in its recognition of the values embodied in the relationships of people once routinely and often severely condemned as “living in sin.”
– Divorced not excommunicated –
It acknowledges that there are many reasons why they were not able to marry before a priest.
“The choice of a civil marriage or, in many cases, of simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations,” the text states.
“In such cases, respect also can be shown for those signs of love which in some way reflect God’s own love.”
The text also notes that some couples do not marry because of the expense involved: “Material poverty drives people into de facto unions,” it states.
In light of such circumstances, “these couples need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly.”
On believers who have divorced and remarried, the texts says it is important they are made to feel part of the Church and encouraged to participate in parish life.
“They are not excommunicated and they should not be treated as such,” it states while sidestepping the deeply divisive issue of whether they should be allowed to receive communion.
Although the text stresses that the situations of divorced and remarried believers “require careful discernment” it does not appear to authorise local bishops to grant access to communion on a case by case basis, as some had hoped it would.
Conservatives in the Church are fiercely opposed to divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion as they see such a step as a threat to the principle that marriages are indissoluble.
Entitled “Amoris Laetitia,” (“The Joy of Love”), the document presented at the Vatican on Friday was also being unveiled in dioceses around the world, where bishops have been sent guidelines on how to explain the changes to their congregations.