Pope calls for compassionate Church open to 'imperfect' Catholics

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Pope Francis's new teaching on Catholic families, explained

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -- Pope Francis on Friday called for a Church that was less strict and more compassionate towards "imperfect" Catholics, such as those who divorced and remarried, saying "no one can be condemned forever."

Francis said gays should be respected but firmly re-stated the Church's position that there are "absolutely no grounds" to equate gay unions to heterosexual marriage.

In a 260-page treatise called "Amoris Laetitia," (The Joy of Love), one of the most eagerly awaited pronouncements of his pontificate, Francis quoted Martin Luther King, Argentine Poet Jorge Luis Borges and even the 1987 Danish cult film Babette's Feast to make his case for a more merciful and loving Church.

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The keenest anticipation centered on what he would say about the full re-integration into the Church of Catholics who divorce and remarry in civil ceremonies.

Under current Church teaching they cannot receive communion unless they abstain from sex with their new partner, because their first marriage is still valid in the eyes of the Church and they are seen to be living in an adulterous state of sin.

The number of divorces has risen markedly in recent decades in most of the leading economies grouped in the OECD. About 42 percent of marriages in England and Wales ended in divorce in 2013, according to an estimate by the UK Office for National Statistics.

"No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves," the pope said.

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Pope calls for compassionate Church open to 'imperfect' Catholics
Pope Francis (R) wears a plastic poncho as he waves to well wishers after a mass in Tacloban on January 17, 2015. Pope Francis will spend an emotional day in the Philippines on January 17 with survivors of a catastrophic super typhoon that claimed thousands of lives, highlighting his concern over climate change. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
Harlem Globetrotters' Hi-Lite Bruton, second from left, Ant Atitkson, third from left, look at teammate Flight Time Lang, right, helping Pope Francis spin the ball on his finger as they meet during the general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 6, 2015. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - JUNE 25: Pope Francis holds his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square on June 25, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. This will be the last Pope's weekly audience before the suspension of the event for the summer. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis wears a traditional Mexican sombrero hat he received as a gift by a Mexican journalist aboard the plane during the flight from Rome to Habana, Cuba, on his way to a week-long trip to Mexico, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. The pontiff is scheduled to stop in Cuba for an historical meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill that the Vatican sees as a historic step in the path toward healing the 1,000-year schism that split Christianity. At right is Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi. (Alessandro Di Meo/Pool Photo via AP)
A gust of wind blows Pope Francis' mantle during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Faithful take selfies with Pope Francis during his visit at the St. Joseph parish church in Rome, Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014. Pope Francis will celebrate his 78th birthday on Dec. 17. Pope Francis is encouraging people to strive for joy, telling his worldwide flock, "We've never heard of a sad saint." (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - AUGUST 04: Pope Francis waves as he arrives in St. Peter's Square for an audience with thousands of altar servers from around Europe on August 4, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. The encounter was part of the ninth International Pilgrimage of Acolytes and Altar Servers. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis puts on a cap of "Scholas Ocurrentes" signed by students at the end of a ceremony at the Banado Norte neighbourhood in Asuncion, Paraguay, Sunday, July 12, 2015. "Scholas Ocurrentes" is a global project to support education. Pope Francis begins the last day of a weeklong South American tour on Sunday with a stop in Banado Norte, an Asuncion slum that borders the Paraguay river that frequently floods it and makes its dirt roads impassable pools of mud. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)
Pope Francis kisses a child upon his arrival for the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015. Pope Francis enters his 80th year on Thursday amid mounting hopes among his critics that it will be his last _ at least as pope. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis and President Barack Obama smile as they exchange gifts, at the Vatican Thursday, March 27, 2014. President Barack Obama called himself a "great admirer" of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican Thursday with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic first meeting comes as Obama's administration and the church remain deeply split on issues of abortion and contraception. (AP Photo/Gabriel Bouys, Pool)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - NOVEMBER 26: Pope Francis attends his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on November 26, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During today's General Audience Pope Francis told pilgrims the Church is on a continuing journey towards heaven. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
A pilgrim throws a blue hat in direction of Pope Francis (C) as he stands on the popemobile and waves to the crowd in St Peter's square for the 60th anniversary of the Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation) catholic mouvement on March 7, 2015 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
A balloon flies past Pope Francis during his general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on May 14, 2014. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Vatican Swiss Guard salutes Pope Francis holding his skull-cap as he leaves after the morning session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. Francis has urged bishops to speak their minds about contentious issues like contraception, gays, marriage and divorce at the start of the meeting aimed at making the church's teaching on family matters relevant to today's Catholics. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - JANUARY 29: Pope Francis kisses a little girl as he arrives at his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on January 29, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. After his appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, today Pontiff was also found to be represented in a graffiti in Rome that portrays him in a superhero vest. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gesticulates as he is driven through the crowd, in Mother Teresa Square in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis denounced that extremists around the world are "perverting" religion to justify violence as he arrived Sunday in Albania, a Balkan nation where Christians and Muslims endured brutal religious oppression under communism but today live and work together peacefully. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)
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Pope Francis attends his general audience at St Peter's square on May 28, 2014 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
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VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - SEPTEMBER 16: The robes of Pope Francis are blown over his head by a gust of wind as he holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on September 16, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pope Francis on Wednesday appealed for prayers for his Apostolic Voyage to Cuba and to the United States, which begins on Saturday. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
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Presenting the document at a packed Vatican news conference, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, called it "a classic case of the organic development of doctrine," which he described as being a continuation of theological thought without rupture with the past.

Progressives have proposed the use of an "internal forum" in which a priest or bishop work with a Catholic who has divorced and remarried to decide jointly, privately and on a case-by-case basis if he or she can be fully re-integrated and receive communion.

DISCERNMENT, NOT RIGID RULES

Francis seemed to embrace this view, saying he could "not provide a new set of general rules ... applicable to all cases," but he called for "responsible, personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases."

Father James Bretzke, professor of moral theology at Boston College, said while Francis did not explicitly give a green light for remarried Catholics to return to communion, "the dots are pretty close together, you can connect them reasonably easily and conclude that he is saying this is a possibility.

"If he's not opening the door, he is at least showing you where the key under the mat is."

The document appeared to be partly aimed at the pope's own bishops, saying while basic tenets of the faith remain, there had to be more consultation and debate within the Church about how they are applied locally in the type of de-centralized institution Francis has called for.

Francis said he understood those conservatives who "prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion" but the Church should be more attentive to the good that can be found "in the midst of human weakness."

"The Church turns with love to those who participate in her life in an imperfect manner," he said, including in this category those Catholics who are cohabiting, married civilly or are divorced and remarried.

Conservative American Catholic author George Weigel said he did not see an opening to the divorced and remarried but rather "a call for the Church to be creative in integrating people in difficult situations."

The document, formally known as an Apostolic Exhortation, followed two gatherings of Catholic bishops, or synods, that discussed family issued in 2014 and 2015.

In other sections, Francis said young people had to be better prepared for a life-long commitment, praised the "erotic dimension" of love within marriage and said the Church needed a "healthy dose of self-criticism" for in the past preaching that procreation was the "almost exclusive" reason for marriage.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Janet Lawrence)

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