The Catholic Church ended its synod on the family on Saturday without clear progress on inclusiveness of gays and lesbians, or divorced parishioners, and Pope Francis says it exposed those with "closed hearts."
The pope will take the recommendations of the bishops into account when drafting his own teaching on the family, and The New York Times reports that liberals say the final document succeeds at not tying his hands in too many areas. One exception: the bishops are quite clear they will not accept same-sex marriage, not that the pope was aiming that far anyway.
It was the lack of progress on whether divorced Catholics can receive communion, on whether to welcome gays and lesbians, that triggered a critical closing address from the pope.
Pope Francis said the synod had succeeded in "laying bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church’s teachings or good intentions." While the pope said the church had proved it is not afraid of "lively and frank discussions about the family," he also said some bishops took part "in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families."
The bishops use the three-week gathering to outline how they believe the church should move forward on family issues, with the pope taking their recommendations to later draft his own teaching. The 270 bishops vote on each paragraph of the document, requiring a two-thirds approval.
"Certainly, the Synod was not about settling all the issues having to do with the family," said Pope Francis, according to a translation by Vatican Radio, of his expectations heading into the conference. "Surely it was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family, but rather about seeing these difficulties and uncertainties in the light of the faith, carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand."
The LGBT Catholic group in the United States, New Ways Ministry, reacted to the report from the Vatican Synod by highlighting what it says is still possible.
Francis DeBernado, the group's executive director, said in a statement that "a great deal has changed" at "the highest levels of the church."
"Even though this synod did not achieve a stronger statement of LGBT acceptance, the movement for a more inclusive and equal Church for LGBT members can take hope from this meeting because the discussion has moved forward," said Bernardo, "and we’ve heard that a large number of bishops see the need for this discussion to continue into the future."
DeBernado expressed greatest disappointment that the bishops repeatedly cast transgender people as victims of "gender ideology," and that they said adopted children should be raised by a mother and a father.
"The remarks show that the bishops do not understand the transgender experience or how people experience their gender identity, which is often received as a spiritual, life-giving revelation," said DeBernado, who called for more education of the bishops.
When Pope Francis does sit down to write his teaching on the family, he'll face the question of how to find common ground among bishops from different continents, with vastly different cultures. The bishops from Africa are more ardently opposed to acceptance of gays and lesbians than those from North America.
"We have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another," the pope said. "What is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another. What for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied."
Ultimately, the pope left room for further changes.
"The Synod experience also made us better realize," he said, "that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit."