VATICAN CITY (AP) — A fight for the soul of the Catholic Church has broken out, and the first battlefield is a document on family values that pits increasingly alarmed conservatives against more progressive bishops emboldened by Pope Francis' vision of a church that is more merciful than moralistic.
On Tuesday, conservative bishops distanced themselves from the document's unprecedented opening toward gays and divorced Catholics, calling it an "unacceptable" deviation from church teaching that doesn't reflect their views and vowing to make changes to the final version.
The report, released midway through a Vatican meeting on such hot-button family issues as marriage, divorce, homosexuality and birth control, signaled a radical shift in tone about welcoming gays, divorced Catholics and unmarried couples into the church.
Its message was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance and understanding rather than condemnation. Gays, it said, had gifts to offer the church and their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided gay couples with "precious" support. The church, it added, must welcome divorced people and recognize the "positive" aspects of civil marriages and even Catholics who live together without being married.
The leaders of the bishops' meeting, or synod, that produced it stressed Tuesday that it was merely a working paper and was never intended to be a statement of church doctrine, but rather a reflection of bishops' views that will be debated and amended before a final version is released on Saturday.
Still, its dramatic shift in tone thrilled progressives and gay rights groups, and dismayed conservatives already deeply uncomfortable with Francis' aim to make the church a "field hospital" for wounded souls that focuses far less on the rules and regulations emphasized by his two predecessors.
The document was remarkable both in what it said and what it didn't say: Absent were assertions of Catholic doctrine present in most church documents that gay sex is "intrinsically disordered" and that couples who cohabitate are "living in sin." In their place were words of affirmation and welcome.
"The report, obviously composed under pressure, has easily given rise to some misinterpretation," British Cardinal Vincent Nichols said Tuesday. "It is not a doctrinal or decisive document. It is, as stated in its conclusion, 'intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer on reflection.'"
Several conservatives who participated in the synod immediately distanced themselves from the report. The head of the Polish bishops' conference, Cardinal Stanislaw Gadecki, called it "unacceptable" and a deviation from church teaching.
South African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier said the report didn't reflect the opinion of the synod in its entirety and contained problematic positions. He hoped the final report "will show the vision of the synod as a whole and not the vision of a particular group."
"My worry is that the message has gone out — and it's not a true message — that this synod has taken up these positions, and whatever we say hereafter is going to be as if we're doing some damage control, which is certainly not what is in my mind," he told reporters.
Hard-line American Cardinal Raymond Burke, the head of the Vatican's supreme court, told Catholic World Report that the document contained positions "which many synod Fathers do not accept and, I would say, as faithful shepherds of the flock cannot accept."
He accused the Vatican press operation of releasing "manipulated" information about the synod debate that didn't reflect the "consistent number of bishops" who opposed such a tone.
To some extent, he had a point.
The Vatican has greatly reduced independent access to information about the closed-door proceedings, withholding bishops' individual speeches from public view, much to the dismay of Burke and other conservatives who want their side known. The only information released has been summaries of the day's debate by the Vatican spokesman, whose briefings have reflected a general a tone of opening and welcome.
The briefings made scant reference to gays at all, and yet the provisional report gave significant ink to the issue. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said while he only recalled one major speech about gays out of 265, it was likely that bishops' written remarks covered the material and were reflected in the document.
The big question looming is how the battle over the final document will shake out.
The bishops themselves elected a host of known conservatives to lead the working groups hammering out details of the final report. In an apparent bid to counter their influence, Francis appointed six progressives to draft the final document.
The Vatican on Tuesday highlighted areas that will be debated in the coming days. In a summary of bishops' reactions, the Vatican press office said bishops had "appreciated" the report but that some offered additional reflections "to bring together various points of view."
These bishops suggested that the final document highlight faithful Catholic families to avoid "a near-exclusive focus on imperfect family situations."
On gays, they said "prudence" was required "so that the impression of a positive evaluation of such a tendency on the part of the church is not created."
"The same care was advised with regard to cohabitation," they said.
The bishops noted that the word "sin" barely appeared in the document at all and that the final document must better explain the "law of gradualness" — a theological concept that encourages the faithful to take one step at a time in the search for holiness.
Bishops are concerned that an emphasis on that concept can lead to confusion about whether Catholics really must follow church law to the letter on hot-button issues like contraception.
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