VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican set the stage Tuesday for another round of debate on hot-button issues like gays, remarried Catholics and unmarried couples living together with a working document that confirmed a rollback on welcoming gays into the church.
The document released Tuesday, which will guide discussions at the October synod of bishops, breaks no major ground on the most divisive issues. But it offers some nuances in approach that may prove key when bishops gather for three weeks of discussion on providing better pastoral care for Catholic families today.
It repeats that gays should be welcomed and respected, as church teaching requires, and that the church should provide special pastoral care for gays and their families. But it goes no further.
The first big meeting on family issues last October was marked by an initial and remarkable openness to gays, with an interim document saying they had gifts to offer the church and that their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided "precious" support.
After fierce opposition by conservative bishops, that language was watered down in the final document, and the whole paragraph on gays failed to win approval in the final vote.
The working document repeats the problematic paragraph, and complains that aid groups often condition their assistance to developing countries based on whether gay marriage is legal.
Catholic LGBT advocacy groups expressed disappointment over the new working document, saying it hardly reflects the current discussion at lower levels of the church on welcoming gays and providing them with pastoral care.
A coalition of LGBT groups, The Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, called for the bishops to insist that children of gay couples be readily welcomed into the faith, that gays receive suitable ministry and that the church condemn discrimination and other injustices committed against gays around the world.
The working document stresses the idea of the church accompanying all Catholics in a path of discernment working toward living model Catholic lives. It considers, for example, that couples who live together but aren't married aren't living in sin but are rather potential candidates for church marriage.
After soliciting input from bishops, academics and ordinary Catholics, the synod organizers said in the document there was "common agreement" about the need to offer divorced and civilly remarried Catholics a "path of forgiveness" to better integrate them into the life of the church.
Currently, these Catholics — who haven't obtained a church annulment declaring their first marriage null — are often discriminated against. They are forbidden from receiving the sacraments since the church considers they are essentially living in sin and committing adultery.
The document doesn't provide a clear fix, but suggests some wiggle room through this penitential process, relying on the conscience of the faithful and spiritual guidance. It says that a priest can accompany the couple in a process of discernment, even while stressing that the couple must decide to not have sex.
Monsignor Bruno Forte, a top synod organizer, said the key to reading the document was in the concept of the "law of gradualness," which encourages the faithful to take one step at a time in the search for holiness.
The decision by civilly remarried Catholics to not have sex, for example, could come at the end of the path of penitence and not necessarily the beginning, he said. He stressed that the document was not a "prejudicial no" to allowing remarried Catholics to receive communion.
The question of conscience was also referenced in a section on contraception: It repeated that "natural" family planning, in which a woman's menstrual cycle can be monitored to prevent pregnancy, should be taught to ensure "responsible procreation."
But it added that the absolute opposition of the church to artificial contraception can be an "unsupportable weight" for the faithful and that the conscience of each believer should be listened to.