VATICAN CITY — In a sweeping document on family life that opened a door to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Pope Francis insisted Friday that church doctrine cannot be the final word in answering tricky moral questions and that Catholics must be guided by their own informed consciences.
Francis didn't create a churchwide admission to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics as some progressives had wanted. But in the document "The Joy of Love," he suggested that bishops and priests could do so on a case-by-case basis in what could become a significant development in church practice.
The pope also strongly upheld the church's opposition to same-sex marriage.
The 256-page document, two years in the making and the product of an unprecedented canvassing of ordinary Catholics and senior churchmen, is a plea from Francis' heart for the church to stop hectoring Catholics about how to live their lives and instead find the redeeming value in their imperfect relationships.
"I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion," he wrote. "But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness."
The document is cleverly worded: Francis selectively cited his predecessors, making clear he is working within their tradition but omitting the sometimes harsh, definitive language that is an anathema to his mercy over moral priorities. He cited himself repeatedly, making some of his most significant points in strategically placed footnotes, rather than the text itself.
"It's the classic case of an organic development of doctrine," said Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna who presented the document at a Vatican news conference. "There is innovation and continuity. There are true novelties in this document, but no ruptures."
Gay Catholics were highly critical, saying Francis had failed them. The document offered nothing significant beyond existing church teaching that gays are not to be discriminated against and are to be welcomed into the church with respect and dignity. It repeated the church's position that same-sex unions can in no way be equivalent to marriage between a man and woman.
"He has ignored submissions and appeals by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics," said British gay rights advocate Peter Tatchell. "Gentler words do not assuage Vatican opposition to gay equality."
On thorny issues such as contraception, Francis stressed that a couple's individual conscience educated in church teaching — and not just dogmatic rules imposed on them across the board from above — must guide their decisions and the church's pastoral practice.
"We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them," he said.
He insisted the church's aim is to reintegrate and welcome all its members. He called for a new language to help Catholic families cope with today's problems. And he said pastors must take into account mitigating factors — fear, ignorance, habits and duress — in counseling Catholics who fail to live up to the ideal.
"It can no longer simply be said that all those in any irregular situations are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace," he wrote. Even those in an "objective situation of sin" can be in a state of grace, and can even be more pleasing to God by trying to improve, he said.
Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, a Francis appointee, said the pope was telling Catholics they should cultivate their consciences "with the light of the Gospel" as their guide.
"He's recovering something that we may have lost sight of," Cupich said at a news conference in his archdiocese.
The document's release marks the culmination of a divisive consultation of ordinary Catholics and the church hierarchy that Francis initiated in hopes of understanding the modern problems facing Catholic families and providing them with better pastoral care.
The most controversial issue that arose in two meetings, or synods, of bishops was whether Francis would loosen the Vatican's strict opposition to letting Catholics who divorce and remarry receive Communion. Church teaching holds that unless these Catholics receive an annulment, or a church decree that their first marriage was invalid, they are committing adultery and cannot receive the sacrament.
Conservatives had insisted the rules were fixed and there was no way around Christ's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Liberals had sought wiggle room to balance doctrine with mercy and look at each couple on a case-by-case basis, creating a path to reconciliation that could lead to them eventually receiving the sacraments.
Francis took a unilateral step last year and changed church law to make it easier to get an annulment. On Friday, he said the rigorous response proposed by the conservatives was inconsistent with Jesus' message of mercy.
"By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God," he said. "Let us remember that a small step in the midst of great human limitations can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties."
Francis didn't explicitly endorse the "penitential path" of bringing such civilly remarried Catholics to Communion that was advocated by leading progressives such as Cardinal Walter Kasper. But he repeated what the synod had endorsed of the need for pastors to help individual Catholics over the course of spiritual direction to ascertain what God is asking of them.
And he went further by explicitly linking such discussions of conscience with access to the sacraments.
In a footnote, Francis cited his previous document "The Joy of the Gospel" in saying that confession should not be a "torture chamber," and that the Eucharist "is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak."
The Rev. James Bretzke, a Boston College theologian, said the document will give cover to and empower those priests and bishops who want to apply a broader understanding of the confidential discussions between priests and divorced and civilly remarried Catholics — a concept known as the "internal forum solution."
"He does not outlaw that, whereas John Paul II specifically outlawed (it)," he said.
Still, Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press, an English-language publisher of the writings of retired Pope Benedict XVI, said Francis' emphasis on conscience "doesn't mean this is a free pass to do whatever you want."
He said the document tries to navigate the difficult path of upholding church teaching while allowing the civilly remarried to participate in the life of the church.
"It's a very tricky thing," Brumley said.
Such recourse to the use of a "well-formed conscience" and the internal forum in negotiating moral issues is not new by any means. But it has been de-emphasized by the past two popes.
"This is not about a reform of rules. It's about reform of the church," Cupich said.
In many ways, the document is most significant for what it doesn't say.
While Francis frequently cited John Paul, whose papacy was characterized by a hard-line insistence on doctrine and sexual morals, he did so selectively. Francis referenced certain parts of John Paul's 1981 "Familius Consortio," which until Friday was the guiding Vatican document on family life, but he omitted any reference to its most divisive paragraph 84, which explicitly forbids the sacraments for the divorced and civilly remarried.
In fact, Francis went further than mere omission and effectively rejected John Paul's suggestion in that document for people in civil second marriages to live as brother and sister, abstaining from sex so they can still receive the sacraments. In a footnote, Francis said many people offered such a solution by the church "point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of children suffer."
Similarly, in discussing the need for "responsible parenthood" and regulating the number of children, Francis made no mention of the church's opposition to artificial contraception. He squarely rejected abortion as "horrendous" and he cited the 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae," which deals with the issue.
But Francis made no mention of the "unlawful birth control methods" cited and rejected in "Humanae Vitae." Instead, he focused on the need for couples in their conscience to make responsible decisions about their family size.
Francis made a single reference to church-sanctioned family planning method of abstaining from sex during a woman's fertile time. He said only that such practices are to be "promoted" — not that other methods are forbidden — and he insisted on the need for children to receive sex education, albeit without focusing on "safe sex."
The document devoted an entire chapter to love and sex in marriage — at times explicitly. Schoenborn acknowledged that Francis dared address such issues even though bishops and cardinals in two separate synods essentially ignored the question. Schoenborn suggested the celibacy of the synod fathers was perhaps responsible for the omission in synod documents.