By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - A gathering of world Roman Catholic bishops was thrown into confusion on Monday with the leak of a letter from conservative cardinals to Pope Francis bitterly complaining that the meeting was stacked against them.
It was published by the same Italian journalist whose press credentials were stripped by the Holy See last June after he ran a leaked copy of the pope's major encyclical on the environment.
The gathering, or synod, of more than 300 bishops, delegates and observers, including some married couples, is discussing how the 1.2 billion-member Church can confront challenges facing the modern family.
The bishops are debating ways to defend the traditional family and make life-long marriage more appealing to young people, and at the same time reach out to disaffected Catholics such as homosexuals, co-habiting couples and the divorced.
L'Espresso newsweekly, which published the English-language letter in full, said 13 cardinals signed the letter and one of them hand-delivered it to the pope last week.
It complained that the synod's working paper needed "reflection and reworking" and was inadequate as the basis for a final position paper the pope may use to write his own document.
The published letter also complained that a change in which small group discussions have greater influence than speeches to the assembly "seems designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions".
A Vatican spokesman said letters to the pope were private.
Four of the conservative cardinals cited by the magazine later disassociated themselves from the letter. Several said private letters should remain so and one said he signed a similar but different version.
The leak of the letter added a new layer of intrigue and confusion in the debate between conservatives and liberals on a host of sensitive issues. One topic is how to reach out to Catholics who have divorced and remarried in civil ceremonies.
They are considered by the Church to be still married to their first spouse and living in a state of sin. Some bishops want a change to the rules that bar them from receiving sacraments such as communion.
Conservatives are trying to block change to the current teaching on divorced Catholics. They also oppose resolutions that could be interpreted as a weakening of the Church's teaching against homosexual acts.
Since his election in 2013, Francis has given hope to progressives who want him to forge ahead with his vision of a more inclusive Church that concentrates on mercy rather than the strict enforcement of rigid rules they see as antiquated.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella, editing by Larry King)