He calls for divorced and remarried Catholics to participate more fully in church life. But he closes the door on gay marriage. He quotes Jorge Luis Borges and Jesus Christ. There is an entire chapter on Love.

But more than anything, Pope Francis’ long awaited document on family life, released Friday by the Vatican, amounts to an exultation of traditional marriage while recognizing that life, in his own words, isn’t always “perfect.” Yet rather than judging, he commanded, the church should be a pillar of support.

Some two years in the making, the 256-page document known as an apostolic exhortation and titled Amoris Laetitia, or “the Joy of Love,” amounted to his most sweeping pronouncement to date on the social issues that have deeply divided his senior clergy.

The reformist pope often appeared to strike a pragmatic balance and offered no changes in church laws – either to the status of gay people or those who divorce and remarry outside the church.

But it may appear to some that he left open the important question of whether select divorced and remarried Catholics could take Holy Communion, using words that could be interpreted by liberal priests as a license for change and sending chills down the spines of staunch conservatives. Though observers had hoped for clarity, the pontiff’s ambiguity on access to the sacrament could sow tensions as a divided church hierarchy parses his words like so many tea leaves.

Yet the pope seemed to say that the church must deal with the world it lives in, not the world it wants. He sometimes sounded less like a pontiff than a marriage counselor.

Single women get pregnant, and need the support of those around them, he wrote. Children sometimes need punishment – and, he notably added– sex education. Gays and lesbians deserve protection from “unjust discrimination.” And while he clearly upholds his church’s teachings of marriage as only between a man and woman, he notes that unconventional unions do indeed form. And they are not, he writes, without their “constructive elements.”

Perhaps most importantly, he exhorts the church – specifically it’s clergy – to use “discernment,” and not paint with a broad brush. Do not, he warned, wield “moral laws” like a weapon.

“This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings,” he scolds, comparing such moralizing to “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority.”

“The pope does not overlook the fragility of families, and even their failure,” Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, told a press conference at Vatican City Friday.

“It is matter of reaching out to everyone,” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna told a press conference in Rome. He later added, “no one is condemned, no one is scorned.”

Contrary to Pope Francis’ informal quips on the road, the document is written in sometimes-indirect Popese. It is highly nuanced in parts, a fact the pope himself seems to nod to by stating: “I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.”

For a pope known for changing the tone but not necessarily the substance of Catholic teachings, the document contains one very important element. In a roundabout way, he appeared to side with progressives clamoring for change on divorced and remarried Catholics, who under church teachings are committing adultery and thus technically barred from the highest sacrament of the Catholic Church: Holy Communion.

Two highly contested synods- or meetings of the hierarchy – failed to come to a clear consensus on whether such parishioners should be granted access to the sacrament. Conservatives see banning them as vital to preserving the church’s moral bar, while progressives view change as key to avoiding blanket judgments.

The pope, in the document, was not explicit on his specific position regarding communion. But he wrote that priests must use their individual relationships with such parishioners to determine their level of access to church life. The Rev. Bruno Forte, a senior Italian archbishop and a top official at last year’s synod said the pope seemed to be saying that such decisions should be made by priests on a case-by-case basis.

“In some cases, integration can be realized as far as allowing participation to the sacraments,” he said.

He further interpreted the pope by saying, “there’s a need to be faithful to doctrine but at the same time, to be faithful to real people, especially those living in situations of failure and in the wounds of love.”

Others immediately viewed the pope’s words as an example of loose discipline. Rose Sweet, a US-based Catholic marriage counselor and writer, suggested the pope was treating sinners like coddled children.

“We’re dealing with very immature, uninformed people who want Papa Francisco to give them what they want,” she said. “And they don’t want it too hard, and they will love him for it. And they’ll say, ‘You’re like Jesus; you’re so merciful.’ But here’s the thing: what real mercy is, it’s not letting people off the hook.”

The apostolic exhortation, while not as high level in the hierarchy of papal documents, as, say, the environmental encyclical he released last year, nevertheless carries the weight of his office and is seen as powerful interment of church teachings. Progressive Catholics seemed to hail his movement on the divorced and remarried, while expressing regret that he did not go farther on issues relating to same sex couples.

“There is some disappointment in Pope Francis [among progressives] now because they want him to act quickly, they want him to change laws, they want him to be different,” said Christian Weisner, a founding member of the Munich-based Catholic reform group who advocates church-sanctioned same sex unions.

“But what I see here is that he is starting a process, one that will redefine the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church,” he said. “But that’s going to take a long time, and some people are disappointed because of that.”

With a couple of key exceptions – same-sex marriage and the idea of fluid gender – the document emphasizes and reemphasizes a single point: Support families. The pope builds a mighty laundry list of challenges to relationships today, from the economy and migration to social isolation, priests who are unprepared to give decent marriage counseling and people too exhausted by daily demands to greet one another at the end of the day with a kiss.

He repeatedly says people’s day-to-day realities should take priority over any teaching or dogma, and that pastors should not place boxes of rules atop real life situations.

“At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite,” Francis wrote.

As far as the concrete impact of the document, this will be typical Francis fare – Catholics will disagree about what it says and what he meant. In multiple sections, Francis makes clear that he didn’t intend to issue a clear policy manual on family life, in fact the opposite – he believes the conversation is continuing.

“If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases,” he wrote. “What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment.”

On the topic of gay equality, Francis repeated words he has written and said before: same-sex unions are no in way “similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Yet for the pope who floored the planet when he said, of gay priests, “who am I to judge,” there may be others who still hold out hope, based on other comments Francis wrote in his document

After praising Christian marriage as being “fully realized in the union between a man and a woman. . .” he write that “Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way. The Synod Fathers stated that the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage.”

There will undoubtedly be Catholics who see Francis as closing the door on gay equality forever while others will say he left it open a crack .

Rather than scolding, Francis enumerates the pressures on modern families. Among them: a lack of quality sex education, the way electronic devices feed the need for instant gratification, migration, lack of housing, pornography, child abuse, lack of respect for the elderly and violence against women. He sees burdens in “the ideological denial of differences between the sexes” and the “impact of biotechnology in the field of procreation.”

He encourages people to nurture romance with “a morning kiss, an evening blessing, waiting at the door to welcome each other home, taking trips together and sharing household chores. Yet it also helps to break the routine with a party, and to enjoy family celebrations of anniversaries and special events.”

One question looming over the document was whether it would seem overly addressed to Western Catholics – the ones divorcing and gay-marrying. Yet at a time when the church’s growth market appears to be in the developing world – where competition is stiff with evangelical Christianity – Francis emphasized decisions shouldn’t always come from Rome.

“Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle. . . needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied,” he wrote.

Faiola reported from Berlin, Boorstein from Washington. The Washington Post’s Stefano Pitrelli in Rome, Julie Zauzmer in Washington and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.


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