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Major changes unlikely as Vatican family synod comes to a close

Some 270 Roman Catholic bishops are due to vote on a document to better minister to Catholic families. As the synod comes to an end, it appears unlikely they will back any major changes regarding homosexuals and divorce.

The aim of the contentious three-week summit was to vote on more than 1,300 proposed changes to a draft text which focuses on the church's teachings on marriage, family and homosexuals.

But when the 13 language groups presented their various positions on Wednesday, they disagreed with each other on the controversial issues. Several leading pastors from the Southern Hemisphere and the Middle East called for more attention to be paid to families suffering economic and social pressure, as well as those fleeing war and violence.

With a Saturday evening deadline, the participating cardinals and bishops will vote on more than 85 propositions and the wording of the final text. The document is intended to provide Pope Francis with advice; it does not, in itself, change church teaching or practice in any way.

It's still not clear whether the final document will be made public; Pope Francis must decide whether to release it. However, it is generally assumed that he will publish the Italian text immediately, following the precedent he set after the first synod on marriage and family a year ago. The pope has also been encouraging the synod fathers to speak freely to journalists.

'End of judging people'

Belgian Bishop Lucas Van Looy said the gathering at the Vatican marked the "end of judging people [and] the end of a church that passes judgment on all the situations."

"It's a church that welcomes, a church that accompanies, a church that listens, a church that also speaks with clarity," Looy said.

Prior to the meeting, Pope Francis already passed a new law making it easier for divorced couples to obtain an annulment which will invalidate their marriage in the eyes of the church.

Much of the attention over the last three weeks was focused on Catholics who have divorced and remarried in a civil ceremony.

Second marriages not equal to 'wicked weekend'

As the doctrine of the Catholic Church currently stands, Catholics in this scenario cannot receive communion unless they abstain from sex with their new partner. Their first marriage is still valid in the eyes of the church and they are therefore seen as living in an adulterous state of sin.

Some members of the synod believe the doctrine could be modified so that individual Catholics could receive permission to take communion following personal spiritual counseling with a priest or bishop.

Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge told reporters that a loving, stable second marriage by two divorced Catholics could not be put on the same plane as a "wicked weekend" tryst in a motel.

More conservative members of the synod have stood firmly by their belief, however, that changing the doctrine would be violating Jesus' teaching that marriage is "indissoluble."

German-language bishops have been unanimous in calling for a departure from the church's current practice of permanently excluding divorcees in civil unions from the sacraments, for which they were strongly criticized by several other bishops.

The German-language group includes the Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn; the chief theologian of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller; and the Vatican's minister emeritus for ecumenism, Cardinal Walter Kasper - three of the Catholic Church's most respected theologians in the College of Cardinals.

In a remarkable gesture, German-language bishops also asked homosexuals, divorcees in civil unions, unmarried couples and children born out-of-wedlock for forgiveness. They acknowledged that maintaining church doctrine "repeatedly led to hard and merciless attitudes" in pastoral situations, which caused suffering to people.

"As bishops of our church we ask these people for forgiveness," they said. However, some bishops at the synod defended the church's traditional tough attitude toward homosexuals.

Divided over homosexuality

Homosexuality, and how welcoming the Catholic Church should be towards homosexuals, was another topic that caused a divide during the synod.

Conservatives, including most African prelates, have said that homosexual acts are sinful and that the church should uphold Catholic teachings to avoid confusing the faithful.

Pope Francis is expected to ceremoniously close the synod by holding Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday.

In a separate message from the synod, the delegates also intend to address the situation in the Middle East. The focus of that statement will be criticism of the arms trade.

John Berwick, ksb/cmk (Reuters, AP)

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