Pope Francis urges compassion for all in landmark statement on family values

Papal document calls for Catholic church to revamp its response to modern family life, but remains firmly anti-abortion

Pope Francis has called for the Catholic church to revamp its response to modern family life, urging greater acceptance for divorced people and those in same-sex relationships while adhering to traditional church teachings.

The landmark papal document, entitled Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love), was hailed as a “paradigm shift” by Francis’s biographer Austen Ivereigh, who said it had the “potential to shape the church’s response to the family for generations to come”.

What is Pope Francis’s ‘modern families’ document about? – video

Over more than 250 pages, Francis outlines a more compassionate vision for the church on family issues, urging priests to respond to their communities without rigidly enforcing church rules. “Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs,” he wrote.

The apostolic exhortation concludes a two-year consultation that saw bishops twice gather in Rome to debate issues affecting the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Ivereigh said the document was “a remarkable step forward for the church”. It was “epic in scale, bold in ambition, and beautifully direct and tender, the fruit of decades of a holy man listening carefully to the truth of people’s lives”. He added: “It’s a fantastic piece of work.”

Much of the document is devoted to a detailed exposition of how a lifelong partnership between two people has the potential bring joy, comfort and companionship. Francis offers practical advice in overcoming marital and family problems and issues, including bringing up children, conjugal sex and ageing.

In comments welcomed by some LGBT organisations, Francis urged the church to “reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration”, while “every sign of unjust discrimination” is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression or violence.

But the pope stopped short of pushing for a change in church doctrine. “De facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage,” he said.

The church’s traditional definition of same-sex relationships as “intrinsically disordered” is notably absent from the exhortation, however.

Martin Pendergast, a Catholic LGBT activist in London, said the tone marked a new approach. The pope “clearly recognises the existence and experience of people in same-sex unions, although it’s still not willing to equate such unions with marriage. But the door is still open. Conservatives won’t like this document,” he said.

After a lengthy debate about remarried divorcees, who are not allowed to take holy communion, Francis did not call for the rules to be changed but said such parishioners must be made to feel part of the church.

He signalled his support for a proposal by progressives for “internal forums” in which a priest and a parishioner decide jointly, privately and on a case-by-case basis whether they can receive communion.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, who presented the document in Rome, said he recognised that some Catholics would be disappointed that the pope had not provided a new set of rules to govern the church’s response on remarried divorcees.

But the pope’s response demonstrated progress was being made on church teachings, said Schönborn, who is viewed as a progressive within the Vatican hierarchy.

In discussing reproduction, the pope voiced the Vatican’s opposition to abortion in all circumstances: “No alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life.”

He also rejected fertility treatment, describing creation as something which “must be received as a gift” and suggested infertile couples could adopt.

Francis offered support for women, condemning the “verbal, physical and sexual violence” that many endure in marriages, rejecting “sexual submission” to men and denouncing the “reprehensible” practice of female genital mutilation. He said the belief that feminism was to blame for the crisis in families today was completely invalid.

The pontiff dedicated two pages to “the erotic dimension of love” within marriage, promoting a positive vision of sexuality. “[This] must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses,” he said.

The 79-year-old pontiff explored the way technology affects relationships, such as when people stay on their mobile phones during meal times. He said the fast pace of the online world was affecting people’s approach to relationships. “They believe, along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly ‘blocked’.”

The papal document – which also touches upon a number of other issues affecting families, such as abuse, migration and unemployment – reflects the hands-on approach seen throughout Francis’s three-year papacy. The pope emphasised the need for priests to reach out to members of their communities and present the church as a “field hospital”.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the synod of bishops, who presented the document alongside Schönborn, envisaged a difficult road ahead for priests as they tried to follow the pontiff’s guidance.

“We are not used to such a work. Everything was imposed from above and now we have to apply discernment … to each and every situation. So we have to keep the doctrine of faith very clear,” he said.

Peter Doyle, the chair of the bishops’ committee for marriage and family life, said the document was “very exciting, embracing everyone whatever their situation. Some people will be disappointed that it is not full of black and white solutions, but as Pope Francis says every situation is different and needs to be approached with love, mercy and openness of heart.”

Matthew McCusker, of the conservative organisation Voice of the Family, said there were “grave problems” with the document, which failed “to give a clear and faithful exposition of Catholic doctrine”.

He said: “The church has always taught that when a Catholic does something that is gravely wrong they must seek reconciliation with God and the church through confession prior to receiving holy communion. If a person chooses to remain in a union, that contradicts the moral law they cannot be admitted to holy communion.”


Rosie Scammell in Vatican City, and Harriet Sherwood in London

The GuardianTramp

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