VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis opened a divisive meeting of the world’s bishops on family issues Sunday by forcefully asserting that marriage is an indissoluble bond between man and woman. But he said the church doesn’t judge and must “seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy.”

Francis dove head-on into the most pressing issue confronting the meeting of 270 bishops during a solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica: how to better minister to Catholic families experiencing separation, divorce and other problems when the church’s teaching holds that marriage is forever.

He insisted that the church cannot be “swayed by passing fads or popular opinion.” But in an acknowledgment that marriages fail, he said the church is also a mother, who doesn’t point fingers or judge her children.

One of the major debates at the synod is whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion. A first meeting of bishops ended last October with no consensus. Conservatives insisted that doctrine is clear and unchanging. Progressives acknowledged the doctrine but sought wiggle room in pastoral practice.

In the ensuing 12 months, both sides have dug in and sparks are expected to fly in Round 2.


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