VATICAN CITY — Catholic bishops rejected a landmark change Saturday in the rigid stance on gays and divorcees, revealing enormous gaps within the church at the end of a two-week meeting.
The synod’s final statement failed to include remarkably conciliatory language revealed a week ago that would have welcomed the “gifts and qualities” of gay Catholics and called on pastors to “avoid any language or behavior” that could discriminate against divorced Catholics.
While the language on gays had been softened during discussion in the meeting’s last days, the final document failed to receive the two-thirds majority vote it needed. The bishops did, however, praise conjugal love — love within the bounds of traditional marriage — calling it “one of the most beautiful of all miracles and the most common.”
Still, the failure to reach a consensus on broader-reaching language is a failure for the more tolerant tone Pope Francis has struck since taking the role of pontiff more than a year ago. Last year, the pope made waves when, in response to a question about whether gays could be good Christians, he asked, “Who am I to judge?”
After the vote Saturday, Francis warned bishops against what he called “hostile rigidity” in their thinking on these topics, his remarks earning a five-minute standing ovation.
The Vatican downplayed Saturday’s developments, with Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi stressing at a briefing that the document — which sets guidelines for pastors to follow in their ministries — was a work in progress that could be tweaked and discussed over the next year.
“It is important not to overanalyze,” Lombardi said. “The fathers of the synod never saw themselves as reaching a final conclusion with this document.”
The dramatic shift in tone comes after a week of hot debate over the more-accepting language among conservative and liberal groups alike.
American Cardinal Raymond Burke said the conciliatory language revealed last week was forced and did not represent the majority view, adding that gays were “intrinsically confused.”
Burke, prefect of the Vatican’s court on canon law, revealed Saturday he is being reassigned to a lower-profile role in the coming days, a move the Italian media attributed to his recent criticisms.
Even the Italian government got involved, with Minister of the Interior Angelino Alfano sending a notice to local prefects that registrations of same-sex marriages would be voided. The move came after several officials — including those in Rome, Milan and Bologna — started preparing to register marriages between gay couples.
Italian activists, meanwhile, are disappointed in the outcome of the synod but said they still hold out hope.
“It’s disappointing that the recognition of gays in the church took two steps forward and one step back,” said Nello Salvai, a local activist. “But it’s clearly a different church under Pope Francis, and I have faith it will move forward.”
Rank-and-file Catholics who expressed surprise when the mid-synod document was released took the change in stride.
“It doesn’t seem realistic to change the direction of the church in a two-week meeting,” said Francesco Napolitano, a 39-year-old bus driver who was in St. Peter’s Square on Saturday evening. “For good or bad, the church is slow to change.”