VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Sunday defended marriage and heterosexual couples as he opened a synod on the family overshadowed by a challenge to Vatican orthodoxy by a gay priest.
During a mass to mark the three-week meeting of Roman Catholic bishops, the pope delivered a homily on “solitude, love between man and woman, and the family.”
He referred to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, as a bedrock for understanding human relationships.
“This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self,” he said.
“God,” the pope said, “joins the hearts of two people who love one another… (and) joins them together in unity and indissolubility.”
The synod is the second and final round of a review of Catholic teaching on the family.
Francis on Sunday opened a synod to review family issues the day after a senior priest announced he was gay and accused the Vatican of “institutionalized homophobia.”
The Church’s approach to gay and lesbian believers is only one in a wide range of topics that bishops will discuss during their three-week meeting.
The pope led a Mass to celebrate what will be the second and final round of a review of Catholic teaching on the family.
Dressed in green vestments and a cream-colored miter, the somber-looking pope declared the day’s reflection would focus on “the drama of solitude, the love between man and woman and the family.”
The gathering has been overshadowed by a bombshell announcement by a Polish priest, Krzystof Charamsa, who works for the Vatican office for protecting Catholic dogma, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In separate interviews to Italy’s Corriere Sera and to the Polish version of Newsweek on the eve of the synod, Charamsa, 43, said he was a practicing homosexual with a partner.
“I know that I will have to give up my ministry which is my whole life,” he told the Italian daily.
“I know that the Church will see me as someone who did not know how to fulfill his duty [to remain chaste], who is lost and who is not even with a woman but with a man!”
Charamsa said his decision to come out was motivated by concern for the Church’s attitude to homosexuals, which he described as “backward.”
He presented a 10-point “liberation manifesto” against “institutionalized homophobia in the Church,” which he said particularly oppressed the gay men who, according to him, make up the majority of priests.
The Vatican hit back, saying the timing of his “pointed statement” was “very serious and irresponsible, since it aims to subject the synod assembly to undue media pressure.”
Some prelates have called for homosexuality not to be discussed at the synod, according to Church sources.
The Vatican said Charamsa would be unable to continue in his present job and warned his local bishop would determine “the other aspects of his situation.”
Even before Charamsa’s initiative, Catholic attitudes to sexuality were dominating headlines.
The Vatican confirmed on Friday that Francis had hugged an old gay friend and met his partner during his recent visit to the United States.
The highly symbolic gesture, indicative of Francis’s personally tolerant attitude toward gays, came a day before the pontiff met prominent gay marriage opponent Kim Davis — another private encounter in the United States that the Vatican said did not indicate support for her stance.
Last year’s first round of the synod also caused controversy when reformers attempted to push through a statement that loving same-sex relationships had qualities that the Church should recognize.
After a backlash from conservatives who regard homosexuality as a kind of sickness, that groundbreaking phrase was excised from the final conclusions.
Official Catholic doctrine holds that homosexuality is an “intrinsic disorder,” but progressive theologians recently came to accept that sexuality is innate, a premise that makes it harder to maintain a stance of outright condemnation.
Even senior clerics admit the synod could expose deep fissures in the Church — although those with long memories also recall that this situation is hardly unprecedented.
At the heart of the synod’s agenda is Francis’s belief that the Church must demonstrate mercy in its attempt to address the gulf between what it currently says about marriage, love and sex and what tens of millions of its followers actually do every day.
In practical terms, that is most clearly articulated in a demand for Catholics who have divorced and remarried to be allowed to take communion and confess their sins, rather than being de facto excluded from the Church as they currently are.
Francis appears favorable to change on this issue, saying the Church must tend to the “wounds” caused by family breakdown rather than judging followers in “irregular” situations.