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Vatican City • Pope Francis sought Tuesday to assure conservatives that Catholic doctrine on marriage is safe as a three-week meeting of bishops began hashing out how the church should welcome gays, divorcees and other Catholics in "irregular" unions.
Francis took the floor after the meeting's first day was marked by a speech from the synod manager, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, in which he closed the door on any movement on whether Catholics remarried outside the church could receive Communion.
Francis told the 270 cardinals and bishops that the issue wasn't the only one on the table and that church doctrine was never up for question. But he also seemed to discount Erdo's commentary by saying the only "official" documents heading into the debate were a final report issued from a big meeting on family life last year, where the issue of Communion was left up in the air, and two of his speeches.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, echoed that by noting that the synod is debating a papally approved working text, where the question of Communion for civilly remarried Catholics is still open.
Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, who heads the synod's information commission, said the issue remains open as a pastoral question.
"There was the affirmation of the pope on what Catholic doctrine on matrimony is," Celli told reporters. "But I believe that if the work of the 'fathers' ended with yesterday morning's speech [by Erdo], what are we doing here?"
Church teaching holds that Catholics who divorce and remarry without a church annulment are committing adultery and therefore cannot receive the sacraments. Francis has called for a more merciful, inclusive approach in the church's pastoral care, but conservatives insist Catholic doctrine is clear.
An assistant to Lombardi, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, said other topics raised by the bishops in the first two days of debate included the effect of migration, poverty and war on family life; polygamy; violence against women; and the church's treatment of gays.
Rosica said several bishops raised the need for a new language in the church, "in particular speaking about homosexuals or gay persons."
Citing the interventions, he said: "We do not pity gay persons, but we recognize [them] for who they are. They are our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and neighbors and colleagues."
During last year's big bishop meeting on family life, synod organizers issued a draft report mid-way through extending a revolutionary welcome to gays. The bishops pulled back on the welcome and watered it down in their final report.
To prevent a repeat, no midterm report will be issued this year and a commission of 10 cardinals and bishops has been named by the pope to oversee the drafting process by the synod organizers, who were accused by conservatives of manipulating the interim report last time around.