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Catholic synod moves closer on Communion for remarried divorcees

Pope Francis leads Mass on Oct. 18, 2015, at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.

Pope Francis leads Mass on Oct. 18, 2015, at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

(Filippo Monteforte / AFP/Getty Images)

The Catholic Church inched closer to giving Communion to remarried divorcees under a measure narrowly approved Saturday at a contentious meeting of priests, bishops and cardinals at the Vatican.

The synod’s final statement, meanwhile, said there is “no foundation whatsoever” for homosexual marriage, while declaring that gays should be treated with respect and without discrimination.

The issue of giving Communion to remarried Catholics served as a battle line for conservatives and progressives at the synod, with the former defending church laws while the latter pushed for more merciful treatment — an ongoing theme of Pope Francis’s tenure.

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“In the course of this synod, the different opinions which were freely expressed — and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways — certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue,” Pope Francis said in his final speech to the sometimes argumentative synod after the voting concluded.

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The closely watched measure says priests could bring remarried divorcees back into the life of the church on a case-by-case basis. No clear green light was given to offer them Communion, but the language could give Pope Francis a precedent to ease rules in the future.

Officially, the pope has the last word on the work of the gathering and is free to accept or ignore its advice. In the conclusion of the synod document, the 270 prelates stated that the document was for the pope’s attention and that members “humbly” asked him to issue his own document.

On Saturday, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said he had “no idea” if and when Francis would issue a definitive document.

The church traditionally has excluded those who remarry from Communion because it sees the first marriage as remaining valid, meaning the person is living in sin.

With a two-thirds majority required in voting for each of the 94 points in the synod’s final document, the measure on the remarried won 178 “yes” votes, one more than the 177 needed, while 80 prelates voted against it.

A second measure that also discusses divorcees, and which scraped through with 187 “yes” votes, said priests needed to look at various ways the remarried are now excluded from the life of the church and decide “which can be overcome.”

“The document does not specifically mention their participation in the sacrament, but it puts it on the table, so it is a success for those who wanted to open up the discussion,” said Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis. “This allows both sides to move on with integrity — it’s a very Catholic result,” he said.

“Remarried divorcees may now be invited to take part as catechists, even if Communion will be left until later,” he added.

In his final speech to synod fathers, Pope Francis, who was given a standing ovation, suggested that getting prelates from around the world to debate family issues in a frank fashion was an achievement in itself.

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

But he also had tough words for conservative bishops, saying the aim of the synod was “about laying bare the closed hearts” who “sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.” He also talked of battling “conspiracy theories” and “blinkered hearts.”

The open challenges to the pope’s views on the merciful treatment of Catholics prompted American Cardinal Donald Wuerl to suggest some inside the synod “just don’t like this Pope.”

The synod did not make any changes to church thinking on homosexuality. A single paragraph dedicated to the subject suggested that progressives chose not to take on conservatives. While stating that homosexuals should be treated with respect and without discrimination, the paragraph said there was “no foundation whatsoever” for homosexual marriage, which “could not even remotely” be compared to heterosexual marriage.

That marked a sharp contrast in tone with a paragraph inserted into a provisional document last year issued during a preliminary synod on the family. The paragraph, titled “Welcoming homosexual persons,” stated that homosexuals had “gifts and qualities” and should be offered a “fraternal space” in the church.

Although the words indicated no shift from Catholicism’s doctrinal opposition to homosexual sex or gay unions, it was interpreted by many analysts as a change in the Vatican’s traditionally tough tone on homosexuality.

But the paragraph was excluded from the final document put to a vote at the meeting last year, as a result of pressure from conservatives.

Kington is a special correspondent.

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