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Pope Francis Opens Door To Divorced Catholics In 'Amoris Laetitia'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Pope Francis is reframing the way Catholics should think about love and marriage. In a 250-page document, he opens the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to be more welcome in the Church. The proclamation is called The Joy of Love. We'll hear reaction from American Catholics in a moment. First, Rocco Palmo is a writer who closely follows the Vatican.

Welcome to the show.

ROCCO PALMO: Anytime, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This document does not actually lay out new doctrine. So what exactly does it do?

PALMO: Well, the Church always has to exist between two poles. One is, you know, the doctrine, the teaching evolved over 2,000 years. But the other pole is what's called pastoral practice, the living, concrete experience of people and their lives. And now, common perception's been that the Vatican, you know, tends to kind of have the wagging finger and, you know, start with the teaching. But it's been a priority of Francis's from his first days as pope that you have to begin with the person. So he talks about the Church being a mother with an open heart.

SHAPIRO: Well, what specifically does this document say about divorce and remarriage, which have historically been treated as sins in the Catholic Church?

PALMO: Francis - it was a remarkable statement today in this document - he said the Church can't just look at every couple who's not in a valid Catholic marriage and accuse them all of living in sin and not having some sort of grace in their life. He even went further to say that there are elements of relationships which don't fully match up with Catholic teaching which can be appreciated. He wanted to begin from a place of mercy and acceptance, and he's pushed that now through to its conclusion.

SHAPIRO: And on same-sex relationships, what does this document say there?

PALMO: In today's document, Francis actually said that gays and their families in the Church should have a respectful pastoral welcome and all the help they need to figure out what God's will is in their life. But he's placing it not so much on himself as the pope to come up with the answers all the way in Rome but for people to figure out that out with their own pastors. It speaks to a decentralization of the papacy, which, counter-intuitively, is actually one of his major political agenda items.

SHAPIRO: This document seems to encourage a range of interpretations depending on geography, circumstances, other individual factors. Does the Catholic Church take this approach with other issues, or is this new?

PALMO: Well, this wasn't the pope deciding anything from on high. It was him saying, I want to listen to the entire Church. There are things which, you know, while the teaching is going to be universal, how that is handled in daily life in one cultural context may be very different from how it's handled in another. I think of one example the document didn't touch was polygamy, which is a major challenge in the growing African Church.

SHAPIRO: Was this a risky political move for the pope?

PALMO: Well, the entire process was because, you know, the major challenge here - he talked about two sides, one of which wanted to change too much without any reflection, the other side which wanted to basically, you know - to paraphrase him - throw rules at people and think that would do something for them in their lives.

And, you know, the challenge, the risk that is if he didn't successfully thread that needle or strike that balance if you will, there could've been a split in the Church. The tensions surrounding this debate have been enormous. This is by far, even for the other major documents Francis has issued, this is the most significant one because the stakes internally were so high.

But again, hearing from progressive figures today in the American Church and elsewhere, hearing from conservative figures in the American church and elsewhere, every side feels heard. Every side is saying that they feel that their voice is reflected in this outcome. And again, there's enough latitude or trust from the pope saying, you guys know how to work this out at ground-level and I'm not going to do your job from over here because I can't.

SHAPIRO: Rocco Palmo writes about the Roman Catholic Church for the website Whispers in the Loggia.

Thanks a lot.

PALMO: Anytime, Ari. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.