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.
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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TOPSHOT - Pope Francis laughs as he greets people during his weekly general audience at the Paul VI audience Hall on December 7, 2016 in Vatican. / AFP / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 26: Pope Francis attends his general weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on October 26, 2016 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Pope Francis wears a traditional Mexican sombrero hat received as a gift by a Mexican journalist on February 12, 2016, aboard the plane to Havana.
Pope Francis headed to Cuba on Friday looking to heal a 1,000-year-old rift in Christianity before embarking on a tour of Mexico dominated by modern day problems of drug-related violence and migration. / AFP / POOL / ALESSANDRO DI MEO (Photo credit should read ALESSANDRO DI MEO/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 23: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Pope Francis (L) walk through the colonnade prior to an Oval Office meeting at the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Pope begins his first trip to the United States at the White House followed by a visit to St. Matthew's Cathedral, and will then hold a Mass on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (Photo by Alex Wong/WHITE HOUSE POOL (ISP POOL IMAGES)/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Pope Francis gestures to his watch to apologize for not being able to greet everyone at the end of a midday prayer with US bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, DC, on September 23, 2015 on the second day of his six-day visit to the US. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
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)
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 matle blown by the wind covers his face as he leads the weekly general audience at St Peter's square on August 27, 2014 in Vatican City. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
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)
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)
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)
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)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: Pope Francis waves from the back of his Fiat after arriving from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis loses his 'papalina' cup as he catches a baseball ball thrown by a faithful at the end of his weekly audience at St. Peter's Square on September 24, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During his General Audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis reflected on his Apostolic Voyage to Albania. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
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)
APARECIDA, BRAZIL - JULY 24: Pope Francis takes communion as he celebrates Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida on July 24, 2013 in Aparecida, Brazil. The shrine attracts millions each year and honors the dark-skinned Virgin of Aparecida, who is considered the patron saint of Brazil. Pilgrims throughout the world are joining Pope Francis for his visits to various locations in Brazil from July 22- July 28 during the Catholic Church's World Youth Day celebrations. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Pope Francis takes a sip of 'Mate', a traditional South American infused drink, with Argentinian soldiers of the United Nation during the weekly general audience at St Peter's square on February 3, 2016 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Pope Francis looks on as artists perform during his weekly general audience in St Peter's square on February 3, 2016 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
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)
Pope Francis reacts during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 27, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pope Francis adjusts his mantle blown by a gust of wind as he leads the weekly audience is Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Tony Gentile TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pope Francis smiles onboard the papal plane during his return to Rome, from Asuncion, Paraguay July 12, 2015. Pope Francis left for Rome on Sunday at the end of a trip to South America during which he censured capitalism, championed the rights of the poor, warned of irreversible damage to the planet and urged youths to "make a mess". Picture taken July 12, 2015. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pope Francis reacts as he is greeted by cloistered nuns at the Duomo during his pastoral visit in Naples March 21, 2015 REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A gust of wind blows Pope Francis's skull cap off during his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican May 20, 2015. REUTERS/Tony Gentile TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pope Francis gestures during a meeting with Asian youths at the Solmoe Shrine in Dangjin August 15, 2014. The pope began his five-day trip to South Korea on Thursday. The main purpose of the trip is to preside at the gathering of Asian Catholic youth and beatify 124 people killed for their faith in the 18th century. REUTERS/Ahn Young-joon/Pool (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: RELIGION PROFILE POLITICS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
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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)