Vatican City: Pope Francis insisted that individual conscience be the guiding principle for Catholics negotiating the complexities of sex, marriage and family life in a major document released on Friday that rejects the emphasis on black and white rules for the faithful.
In the 256-page document "The Joy of Love," Francis makes no change in church doctrine.
But in selectively citing his predecessors and emphasising his own teachings, Francis makes clear that he wants nothing short of a revolution in the way priests accompany Catholics, saying the church must no longer sit in judgement and "throw stones" against those who fail to live up to the Gospel's ideals of 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, not dogmatic rules imposed across the board, 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.
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 divisive issue that arose was whether Francis would loosen the Vatican's strict position on whether Catholics who divorce and remarry can 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.
Francis took a unilateral step last year in changing church law to make it easier to get an annulment. Today, he said the rigorous response proposed by the conservatives was inconsistent with Jesus' message of mercy.
"By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God," he said.
"Let us remember that a small step in the midst of great human limitations can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties."
Francis didn't endorse the "penitential path" of bringing such civilly remarried Catholics to Communion that was advocated by leading progressives such as Cardinal Walter Kasper. But he repeated what the synod had endorsed of the need for pastors to help individual Catholics over the course of spiritual direction to ascertain what God is asking of them.
And he went further by explicitly linking such discussions of conscience with having access to the sacraments.
In footnotes, Francis cited his previous document "The Joy of the Gospel" in saying that the Eucharist "is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak."
In many ways the document is significant for what it doesn't say.
While Francis frequently cited John Paul, whose papacy was characterised by a hardline insistence on doctrine and sexual morals, he did so selectively.
Francis referenced certain parts of John Paul's 1981 "Familius Consortio," the guiding Vatican document on family life until Friday, but he omitted any reference to its most divisive paragraph 83, which explicitly forbids the sacraments for the divorced and civilly remarried.
In fact, Francis went further than mere omission and squarely rejected John Paul's call in that document for people in civil second marriages to live as brother and sister, abstaining from sex so they can still receive the sacraments.
In a footnote, Francis said that many people offered such a solution by the church "point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of children suffer."