VATICAN CITY — Divided clerics at a landmark Vatican summit echoed the more inclusive tone of Pope Francis on Saturday, extending a more welcoming hand to divorced and unmarried couples while stopping short of calling for clear alterations in church policies and leaving the ground-breaking pontiff as the ultimate decider of change.
The three-week summit — known as a synod — marked the culmination of a two-year process to recalibrate the faith’s approach to families in the 21st century. Under Francis’s direction, bishops and cardinals set a new precedent by tackling issues once considered taboo in the Roman Catholic Church.
Yet the still-significant opposition in the synod to rapid changes in rules also suggested how far off Catholics may yet be from seeing Francis’s revolutionary style turned into practice.
The document, in some respects, went further than some thought possible earlier in the week. But even top clerics conceded that liberal Catholics with high expectations of change under Francis might still come away disappointed.
“We have to be always cautious that there aren’t false expectations,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington. “One false expectation is that Catholic teachings would be changed. That is not going to happen.”
While a bellwether of the hierarchy’s thinking from its most heated gathering since the reforming Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the synod’s final communique amounts only to a list of recommendation for Francis. Rather than overhaul church doctrine — or the fundamental truths and teachings of the church — the question largely facing Francis is whether to alter procedures and empower bishops and priests to make more independent decisions on the ground.
In perhaps the most significant pronouncement, clerics sought to find more ways for divorced Catholics to participate in church life. Yet, to assuage the concerns of conservatives, the question of whether a door should be opened for divorced and remarried Catholics — who the church teaches are living in a state of adultery — to take communion at Mass was left vague.
Liberals argued that the language paved the way for Francis to endorse such a shift, while conservatives took heart that it does not explicitly call for one. Such a change, however, would reflect a practice already happening, as some parish priests have decided to offer communion to such couples despite church policy.
Inclusion of the clause came after a breakthrough among the German cardinals. Cardinal Walter Kasper, a liberal lion with the pope’s ear who championed a path to communion for such couples through penance, came to terms on language with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, an archconservative. The result was wording that could be broadly interpreted without directly mentioning the right to return to communion.
In a church that teaches homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered,” the document also recognized the “dignity” of gays and lesbians. But it stopped far short of endorsing the most liberal proposals on same-sex couples — including one by a Belgian bishop to recognize the spiritual value of such unions. In fact, the synod declared that same-sex unions could not “remotely” be compared with “God’s design for matrimony and family.”
The synod was more embracing of cohabiting heterosexuals, stating that some couples may not marry in the church for cultural or economic reasons. Their bonds, the synod concluded, could nevertheless involve the kind of “lasting” and “reliable” ties that can lead to marriage.
In a speech after receiving a list of 94 recommendations from the synod of bishops and cardinals, Francis acknowledged the rifts among clerics, noting that differences of opinion were freely expressed and “at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways.”
He noted the task ahead as he seeks to find a Solomonesque way to bridge those differences, particularly given the cultural gulfs among the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics. They include those living in the most liberal parishes of Western Europe and the United States as well as far more conservative ones, often based in parts of the developing world where the Catholic Church is growing most.
“We have seen that what is normal for a bishop on one continent is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop on another,” Francis said.
Yet the ambiguity of the synod also puts Francis in a highly difficult position. If he fails to change the status quo enough, he risks disappointing liberal Catholics — as well as many non-Catholics — who have heralded him as an agent of change.
But going too far beyond the synod’s recommendations could alienate many in his divided hierarchy, triggering an even stronger backlash among conservatives, some of whom are openly questioning the direction of his papacy.
Cardinals and bishops here were divided over what course they thought the pope would take.
“He has proven himself to be a man of surprises,” said Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia.
Liberals at the synod were being pragmatic, saying they were impressed they got as far as they did. “This synod has put an end to judging,” said the Rev. Lucas Van Looy, the bishop of Tielen, Belgium. “This is a welcoming church. . . . For me this is the word that has been most important in the synod: tenderness.”
The synod on family issues marked the Vatican’s second in two years, with a meeting last year touching off the debates on divorce and homosexuality. Unlike last year, when several controversial clauses failed to garner a required two-thirds majority, all the recommendations made this time reached that bar. But some said that was partly because of an attempt to make the language more palatable and ambiguous. Signaling the intensity of the debate, there were more than 1,300 amendments proposed by the more than 260 delegates
This year, homosexuality became less a focus than divorce. But some conservative bishops argued that the synod was being hijacked by liberals overwhelmingly focused on “Western” or “Eurocentric” issues.
Bishop Joseph Anthony Zziwa, a conservative Ugandan bishop, said there had been far too much talk about homosexuality, which is criminalized in his country, as well as divorce. Bishops even disagreed initially on the definition of a family — which in Africa, he said, often means extended families, compared with nuclear ones in Europe and the United States.
Africans more generally, he said, had far bigger problems .
“You keep asking someone from Nigeria to tell me about homosexuality, to tell me about divorce, when five of his children have been abducted by Boko Haram? You think that person has time to talk about that?” he said.
The divisions were geographic as well as ideological — with conservatives representing proportionately higher numbers in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Some bishops said they were surprised by how open some of the Italian and Spanish-speaking delegates were to reform.
But there were limits. Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, said that when he raised the idea in his working group at the synod that committed same-sex relationships could have spiritual value, “bad feelings came up.”
In the end, he said he was pleased that the synod did not delve deeper into the issue of homosexuality.
“That is a point for next time,” he said. “Better to leave it for later than discuss in it a hot and bad atmosphere.”
Stefano Pitrelli in Vatican City contributed to this report.