VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican secretary of state called Thursday for greater dialogue within the Catholic Church after a small group of traditionalists formally accused Pope Francis of spreading heresy with his 2016 opening to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin said those who don't agree with the pope are free to express themselves, "but on these things one must reason and find ways to understand one another."
Parolin's comments marked the Vatican's first response to the formal accusations made public last weekend.
The so-called "filial correction," prepared by a few dozen traditionalist academics and clergy, accuses Francis of propagating seven heretical positions concerning marriage, moral life and the sacraments with his document "The Joy of Love" and subsequent "acts, words and omissions."
None of the signatories is a high-ranking member of the church, and to date fewer than 150 people have signed. But the 25-page letter has made headlines, tapping into an overall unease among conservative Catholics about the pope's document on family love and how it has been interpreted by some bishops.
"It's important to dialogue, also inside the church," Parolin was quoted by the ANSA news agency as saying Thursday on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq.
Francis himself hasn't responded to the heresy letter or to a request four cardinals made for him to clarify a series of questions, or "dubia," they had about the 2016 text.
When it was released in April 2016, "The Joy of Love" immediately sparked controversy because it opened the door to letting civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion.
Church teaching holds that unless these Catholics obtain an annulment — a church decree declaring their first marriage invalid — they cannot receive the sacraments since they are seen as committing adultery in the eyes of the church.
Francis didn't give Catholics who remarry outside the church an automatic pass, but suggested — in vague terms and strategically placed footnotes — that bishops and priests could do so on a case-by-case basis after accompanying them on a spiritual journey of discernment.
Subsequent comments and writings suggest he intended to create such wiggle room in keeping with his belief that God's mercy extends particularly to sinners and that the Eucharist isn't a prize for the perfect, but nourishment for the weak.
Francis explained his thinking in a speech to Jesuits that was published Thursday, rejecting criticism that there was "no Catholic morality underlying 'The Joy of Love' or at least no sure morality."
The pope insisted that he does not approach morality as a one-size-fits-all set of rules, but rather in the more nuanced way favored by the church doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas.
"I want to say this so that you can help those who believe that morality is purely casuistic," he told the Jesuits in Colombia earlier this month according to remarks published by the Jesuit journal "Civilta Cattolica."
Coming to Francis' defense Thursday was Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri, the head of the pope's newly refounded institute for marriage and family life.
In an editorial in the weekly edition of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Sequeri said the pope's "Joy of Love" critics needed to pipe down.
"Enough with the laments," Sequeri wrote. The faithful should instead spend time helping families in need and "driving out the ghosts of fear in our walk through the shadows."