VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said Friday that Catholics should look to their own consciences rather than rely exclusively on church rules to negotiate the complexities of sex, marriage and family life, demanding the church shift emphasis from doctrine to mercy in confronting some of the thorniest issues facing the faithful.
In a major church document entitled "The Joy of Love," Francis made no explicit change in church doctrine and upheld church teaching on the lifelong bond of marriage between a man and a woman.
But in selectively citing his predecessors and emphasizing his own teachings in strategically placed footnotes, Francis made innovative openings in pastoral practice for Catholics who civilly remarry and signaled that he wants nothing short of a revolution in the way priests guide ordinary Catholics in their spiritual life. He said the church must no longer sit in judgment and "throw stones" at those who fail to live up to the Gospel's ideals of perfection in marriage and family life.
"I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion," he wrote. "But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness."
On thorny issues such as contraception, Francis stressed that a couple's individual conscience, educated in church teaching — and not just dogmatic rules imposed on them across the board from above — must guide their decisions and the church's pastoral practice.
"We have been called to form consciences, not replace to them," he said.
He insisted the church's aim is to reintegrate and welcome all its members. He called for a new language to help Catholic families cope with today's problems. And he said pastors must take into account mitigating factors — fear, ignorance, habits and duress — in counseling Catholics who simply aren't perfect.
"It can no longer simply be said that all those in any irregular situations are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace," he wrote. Even those in an "objective situation of sin" can be in a state of grace, and can even be more pleasing to God by trying to improve, he said.
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, told a Vatican press conference that while there was no explicit change in church doctrine about the family, the document contained an "organic development" in church teaching.
"It's the classic case of an organic development of doctrine. There is innovation and continuity," he said. "There are true novelties in this document, but no ruptures."
The document's release marks the culmination of a divisive two-year consultation of ordinary Catholics and the church hierarchy that Francis initiated in hopes of understanding the problems facing Catholic families today and providing them with better pastoral care.
The most controversial issue that arose during two meetings of bishops, or synods, was whether Francis would loosen the Vatican's strict opposition to letting Catholics who divorce and remarry receive Communion. Church teaching holds that unless these Catholics receive an annulment, or a church decree that their first marriage was invalid, they are committing adultery and cannot receive Communion.
Conservatives had insisted that the rules were fixed and that there was no way around Christ's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Progressives had sought wiggle room to balance doctrine with mercy and look at each couple on a case-by-case basis, accompanying them on a path of reconciliation that could lead to them eventually receiving the sacraments.