Pope Francis has called for the Catholic church to revamp its response to modern family life, striking a delicate balance between a more accepting tone towards gay people and the defence of traditional church teachings on issues such as abortion.
In a landmark papal document entitled Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love), Francis outlined his vision for the church on family issues, urging priests to respond to their communities without mercilessly 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.
In comments likely to be 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 and 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,” said Francis.
“Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives,” wrote the leader of the Catholic church. The church defines same-sex relationships as “intrinsically disordered”, although this phrase was absent from the exhortation.
Following lengthy debate about the role in the church for 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.
“[They] should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment,” he said. Divorce was described as an “evil” which priests should help Catholics avoid, while being understanding towards those whose marriages have broken down.
Progressives have proposed the use of an “internal forum” in which a priest or bishop work with a Catholic who has divorced and remarried to decide jointly, privately and on a case-by-case basis if he or she can be fully re-integrated and receive communion.
Francis hinted his support for this, saying that although he could “not provide a new set of general rules … applicable to all cases”, he called for “responsible, personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases”.
Introducing the document in the Vatican on Friday, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the synod of bishops, praised the pope’s intervention: “In an era of global crisis in which families often suffer, the exhortation takes a positive look at the beauty of married love and the family.”
The Italian prelate lauded Francis for recognising the need for priests to help families experiencing difficulty. “To accompany and integrate people who live in these so-called ‘irregular’ situations, pastors need to look them in the face one by one,” Baldisseri told journalists at the Vatican.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, who is viewed as a progressive within the Vatican hierarchy, said the document showed something had changed in the church discourse. “Pope Francis speaks about families with a clarity that is not easy to find in the magisterial documents on the church,” he said.
“Pope Francis has succeeded in speaking about all situations without cataloguing them, without categorising, with that outlook of fundamental benevolence that is associated with the heart of God,” the cardinal added.
In the document, reflecting the hands-on approach seen throughout Francis’ 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”.
In recognising the Catholic church’s waning appeal to young people in recent years, Francis urged churchmen to present a more appealing view of marriage. “I think of Saint Valentine’s Day; in some countries, commercial interests are quicker to see the potential of this celebration than are we in the church,” he wrote during a section on marriage preparation.
The pontiff also 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.
Formal sex education in schools, however, was decried as promoting narcissism through its discussion of safe sex. “Such expressions convey a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against,” wrote Francis, asserting the church’s opposition to contraception.
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.”
The pope also showed no opening towards fertility treatment, describing creation as something which “must be received as a gift” and suggested infertile couples adopt.
Although the apostolic exhortation continues church rules that have remained in place for generations, the document also contains hints of the perceptiveness that has made the pope a popular figure globally.
“Much hurt and many problems result when we stop looking at one another,” he wrote, listing a string of common complains of family members feeling invisible or uncared for.
Childish behaviour was another problem the pontiff saw afflicting marriages. “Only in their forties do some people achieve a maturity that should have come at the end of adolescence,” he remarked.
The 79-year-old pontiff also explored the way technology affects relationships, such as when people stay on their mobile phones during meal times. He saw the fast pace of the online world impacting 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’.”
In addition to drawing on the challenges of the internet, the papal document also touched upon a number of other issues affecting families, such as abuse, migration and unemployment.