Pope Francis status as the Vatican's great reformer and modernizer suffered a setback on Saturday, when proposals for wider acceptance of gays and divorced Catholics who remarry were diluted in the final draft document on the church's relationships with families.
The document, published late Saturday near the end of Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, confirmed that the pope's reforms efforts are forging ahead but won't hand him easy victories as the conservative elements resist change.
An earlier version of the document, known as the Relatio Synodi, talked about "welcoming gays" and noted that they have "gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community." The final version of the Relatio removed those references, saying only that homosexuals "should be treated with respect and sensitivity."
Even though the final version of the treatment of gays was watered down, it still met with resistance from the conservative prelates. Of the 183 prelates who voted on the individual paragraphs, 62 voted against giving their approval on the paragraph dealing with "pastoral attention to persons with homosexual orientation."
Although the two-thirds majority was denied in this particular paragraph, and on two others, they were still included in the final document. Father Thomas Rosica of Toronto, who is acting as English-language spokesman during the Synod, said the pope wanted all the paragraphs published even if they did not receive two-thirds approval. "This is not a magisterial document," he said. "It's a work in progress."
The changes to the Relatio's wording reflected the sharp divisions between the conservative and progressive wings of the Church and may have triggered the removal of Raymond Burke, the American cardinal who known for his strict interpretations of Catholic doctrine, from his post as chief justice of the Vatican's supreme court.
In an interview in BuzzFeed that was widely picked up by Vatican correspondents, Cardinal Burke confirmed that would leave the court and take up a largely ceremonial role as patron the of Sovereign Military Order of Malta. He was particularly critical of the Synod's interim document, released Monday, that has called for the welcoming attitude towards gays and for mercy to be applied more generously. In interviews, he said the interim document was "not of this church" and called upon Pope Francis to confirm traditional Catholic doctrines.
A few African cardinals were known to be upset with more conciliatory tone of Synod's interim document. One was Cardinal Robert Sarah, of Guinea, who told the Catholic News Agency that the document represented "an attempt to push the church [to change] her doctrine. "The church has never judged homosexual persons, but homosexual behaviour and homosexual unions are grave deviations of sexuality," he said.
The Relatio does not officially change Church doctrine, meaning there was never any possibility that, for example, gay marriages would be endorsed or marriages be accepted as anything but indissoluble. It is not even a final document, in the sense that the Synod is merely the preface to a much larger Synod that it take place in October, 2015.
If it hasn't changed doctrine, it has changed the tone while solidifying Pope Francis's role an open-minded leader who wants his cardinals and bishops to speak their minds about the church's direction. "His main accomplishment is that he has given us an open conversation and debate in the church," Father Thomas Reese of Washington D.C., the senior analyst National Catholic Reporter who is covering the Synod. "He wants a wide discussion and he hear from bishops and Catholics around the world."
In an interview, Kim Daniels, senior adviser to Catholic Voices USA, said the Synod under Pope Francis "shows the new vibrancy of the church" and its fresh efforts to "deal with complex situations," including gay relationships, unmarried couples and divorced Catholics who remarry. "It's not a shift in teaching," she said. "It's a shift in tone and it's a way of bringing people into the church."
A "welcoming attitude" by the Church to all Catholics emerged as the dominant theme of the two-week long Synod.
In a three-page "message" released Saturday afternoon, ahead of the release of the formal Relatio document, the prelates of the Synod called for the Church to be "a house with doors always open to welcome everyone."
To reinforce the theme, the message used Jesus's words from the Book of Revelation: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me."
Speaking at the press briefing during which the message was released, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Bombay, called the final version of the Relatio is "very balanced" but said should not be treated as a complete document. "It admits that we don't have the answers to all the questions today," he said, "but it's a commitment that we will continue to search for a way ahead to find a pastoral approach to the problems of today."
But even the simple message exposed rifts within the Synod's prelates. Of the 174 prelates present Saturday morning who voted on the final text of the message, 16 voted against it even though it was rather bland and did not even mention gays, focusing instead on families and their gifts and challenges.
The Synod formally concludes on Sunday with the beatification of Giovanni Battista Montini, who was Pope Paul VI from 1963 until his death 1978. He is probably best known for his Humanae vitae encyclical, which rigorously upheld priestly celibacy and the Church's teachings against artificial contraception. Beatification is the last step before sainthood.