A Swiss Guard salutes as Pope Francis and cardinals leave a meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican on Thursday (Feb. 20). The pope asked the world's cardinals and those about to be made cardinals to meet at the Vatican Feb. 20-21 to discuss the church's pastoral approach to the family. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

A Swiss Guard salutes as Pope Francis and cardinals leave a meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican on Thursday (Feb. 20). The pope asked the world’s cardinals and those about to be made cardinals to meet at the Vatican Feb. 20-21 to discuss the church’s pastoral approach to the family. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

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VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis on Thursday (Feb. 20) opened a major two-day meeting on the church’s approach to the complexities of modern family life, telling the world’s Catholic cardinals that the church needs a “pastoral” approach that is “intelligent, courageous and full of love” and not focused on abstract arguments.

In brief introductory remarks released by the Vatican, Francis pushed the closed-door summit of about 150 cardinals to “deepen the theology of the family and discern the pastoral practices which our present situation requires.”

He asked that they do so “thoughtfully” and by keeping the focus on “the beauty of family and marriage” while at the same time showing that the church is ready to help spouses “amid so many difficulties.” Francis added the phrase “intelligent, courageous and full of love” extemporaneously.

Francis summoned the cardinals to Rome for a weekend of ceremonies at which the pope will appoint his first batch of 19 “princes of the church,” as cardinals are often called.

But he asked them to arrive early so that they could spend time discussing one of Francis’ signature themes: shifting the church’s approach on controversial topics like divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, gay marriage and contraception.

Those issues will also be the focus of two larger and longer meetings of bishops at the Vatican this fall and in 2015.

“The pope has opened a dialogue, he’s not decided anything yet and now he’ll let us discuss,” Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian who is a favorite of Francis, told Reuters on Thursday.

Kasper said the talks were not about changing doctrine or watering down traditional marriage — “that’s not possible,” he said. But “it’s a question of how to apply (church teaching to) the concrete, difficult, complex situation.”

Francis tapped Kasper to open the meetings with an address that would set the stage for the talks. Kasper — a onetime sparring partner of another German cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Benedict XVI — delivered a two-hour talk that centered on marriage and took up most of the morning’s session.

Kasper has pushed for relaxing the ban against Communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment; as a bishop in Germany in the 1990s, he tried to institute a policy that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion in certain circumstances. The plan was rejected by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, then headed by Ratzinger.

In his talk on Thursday, Kasper did not offer any specific proposals, but repeatedly stressed the importance of pastoral flexibility and realism in dealing with people in challenging or unusual family situations.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, said Kasper’s talk would remain private but he provided reporters with an overview of the address.

“Our efforts are not about restating that the doctrine of the church is thus and so,” Lombardi said in summarizing Kasper’s remarks. “Our efforts are about returning to the beginning of the doctrine itself, which is the gospel.”

Lombardi described Kasper’s talk as “in great harmony” with Francis’ views, stressing the importance of accompanying people in difficult circumstances and the need for patience in helping them.

Even before he was elected pope last March, Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires — blasted priests who “hijacked” the sacraments and refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. He called such clerics “hypocrites” who “drive God’s people away from salvation.”

After his election, Francis continued to make the point, telling a pregnant single woman that he would baptize her baby if she couldn’t find another priest to do it, and baptizing — in the storied Sistine Chapel — the baby of a couple who were married civilly but not in the church.

In other venues Francis has also repeatedly stressed the priority of preaching God’s mercy rather than focusing on the details of doctrine and church rules. That, in turn, has led some to wonder if he was signaling a possible change in some teachings.

But Vatican insiders say the pope prefers to try to change the church’s approach rather than start a civil war over doctrine that would distract from the church’s mission to the poor and marginalized.

That doesn’t mean the shift toward mercy and away from finger-wagging is sitting well with all church leaders. Disagreements were expected as each of the cardinals gets a chance to weigh in with their own views.

“Everybody will have a chance to yell about something,” one cardinal quipped after the first day’s sessions.



  1. The most complex aspect of modern family life is this: Mary the mother of Jesus and males at that time married at or just after sexual maturity. That would be the last thing we would want in a modern society. But the long wait between sexual maturity and marriage is supposed to be without sex. Not realistic and not of a superior morality.

  2. This is an important 1st step for Francis as he attempts to slow the ship so it can be turned around. This is the new foundation upon which a new “culture” is established within the church clerical hierarchy. It is a way of molding the way one thinks about church doctrine. When one’s thinking is changed new doctrines are put into place… hence change occurs.
    It is important to note that the task is to return to the Gospel. Let’s hope they look toward Gospel texts that have been reviewed, studied, and accepted by biblical scholars as it is well known the “original Gospels” are buried within many years of unauthorized revised editions – mostly by independent scribes and monks. These “kernels of truth” need to be allowed by the magisterium to be unraveled from the original texts so the TRUE word of GOD can be properly applied to the church’s doctrine & dogma.
    Erroneous doctrine & dogma based on inaccurately translated biblical passages need to be humbly reassessed by the magisterium and revised. Otherwise, the magisterium is perpetuating a false position. This is morally and ethically reprehensible.
    Francis should continue to hold clerics feet to the fire and clean-up this mess. My question; “If the Church is all that it claims – and it claims to be everything under the sun – why does it need constant reformation?” The response is the imperfection of humanity. Yet, the church has all these rules, laws, policies, and procedures, etc., as well as the claim of the inerrancy of the Vicar of Christ & guidance of the Holy Spirit. My response, you can’t have it both ways. Either you have it together or you don’t. My careful study and personal experience within the church for over 60 years – 4 years in the seminary – is that they don’t. They claim they do and want to try to convince you they do – but they don’t and never will. Once, I learned this I felt as if a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. A pope such as John XXIII & JP II (God rest their souls) and now Francis is, in my view, the Holy Spirit trying, against the attempts of godless men, to bring the church where it needs to be. (The Holy Spirit does this with all churches and people so the Catholic church is not special in this regard).
    It is my fervent prayer that P. Francis is hugely successful – beyond even his wildest dreams – in his efforts to bring Christ back into the Catholic church.
    Thank you for the opportunity to comment

  3. I have not been divorced. In fact I am happy to be married to my wife of 41 years. However, all three of my sisters have been divorced.
    Alone and without companionship for years it seems to me an overly intrusive burden to Spiritual cognizance to require a formal “Annulment” before sacraments can be received..
    To me, going to a Tribunal so that a Priest can be convinced to make a formal ruling that the previous Marriage in a Catholic setting is to be disregarded is a bit overly technical. Similar to the rituals required by the Pharisees of the old testament. Do we believe that if this formal process is not followed then remarried couples can not be “Catholic” and participate in the sacraments when over 50% of marriages fail?

  4. Yeah, let’s make everything easier for everyone. Jesus was clear about those who divorce. Just because some people cannot follow the rules doesn’t mean you have to or for that matter can change the rules. Many times Jesus preached and they hated what He was saying. The truth is never easy to uphold, but the CHurch has to uphold a standard lest they become like the world.

  5. Marriage is very important and Jesus stressed how important it was. Although it still remains true to this day, things have changed. They should not focus on the “you cant…” when talking about marriage. They should talk about the positive values of commitment and marriage. Unfortunately, most Catholic priests are not married so they can’t lead by example.

  6. Am a catholic & looking forward to being blessed with a Catholic wedding but all priests have refused to do so as am marrying a non catholic divorcee & the only way out is an annulment by the church for the previous wedding . It really is so difficult . I wish there was another way out .

  7. We are free to believe what we want to believe. I think that faith can be above reason, but I would suggest that faith that goes against reason should be carefully analysed. If your faith promotes compassion and respect for all, including those who do not share your faith, then you might be on the right path.

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