ROME— Pope Francis said the Catholic Church must find ways of welcoming divorced and gay Catholics as part of a yearlong debate by the church’s leadership that has already exposed a split within its ranks.
In an interview with Argentine newspaper La Nación published Sunday, the pontiff addressed the turmoil his 20-month papacy has stirred with more tradition-minded groups in the church, saying it was a “good sign” that there isn’t “hidden mumbling when there is disagreement.”
The pope also announced that a reorganization of the Vatican bureaucracy won’t be completed next year and said he would add visits to both Latin America and Africa to his travel schedule next year.
The comments on gays and divorced Catholics were the pope’s first public remarks since the end of the synod, or meeting of bishops, in October on problems facing the family.
That meeting of nearly 200 bishops opened discussion on a range of problems affecting Catholic families, with the goal of providing better solutions on issues such as gay unions, divorce, poverty, domestic violence and polygamy.
However, sharp disagreement emerged on the church’s approach to divorced Catholics and gays. One group of bishops called for open support of gay couples and pushed for the possibility of allowing remarried Catholics to receive communion. Currently, the church denies communion to Catholics who have remarried, unless their first marriage is annulled.
Those positions—which, according to senior Vatican clerics, enjoy the support of the pope—sparked fierce opposition from more tradition-minded bishops.
They also exposed the fault lines that have opened since the Argentine-born pontiff was elected in March 2013. While the pope has consistently underlined his support for church doctrine, his reformist agenda and emphasis on welcoming people who have felt repudiated by the church have led to some fears that he is watering down church teachings.
U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke openly criticized the pope in October, saying the church under his leadership is like “a ship without a rudder.”
Bishops will meet again next October to continue the discussion of family issues, after which the pope will decide on any changes in the church’s approach.
In the interview with La Nación, the pope pointedly said the synod never discussed gay marriage, which the church opposes. But he said the bishops must still consider ways to help “a family that has a homosexual son or daughter…(and consider) how can they raise him or her.”
Meanwhile, he noted that divorced Catholics who have remarried are currently barred from activities such as giving readings at Mass or becoming godparents. “It seems they are excommunicated de facto,” he said. Instead, the church should “open the doors a little bit more…Why can’t they be godparents?” he asked.
The pope didn’t directly address the question of finding a way for remarried Catholics to receive communion.
Pope Francis openly acknowledged the serious discomfort his papacy has caused some groups within the church, but said he welcomed the debate. Some senior figures remark that the pontiff is far more popular with the population at large—both Catholics and non-Catholics—than with some of the church hierarchy. “Resistance is now evident,” he said. “And that is a good sign for me…It’s healthy to get things out into the open.”
The pope also denied that his decision to demote Cardinal Burke from a senior position in the Vatican was punishment for the cardinal’s criticism of his papacy.
Elsewhere, a continuing overhaul of the Vatican bureaucracy, or Curia, won’t be completed in 2015 as many had expected, the pope said, describing the process as slow and complex.
During the run-up to the conclave that elected the pope last year, cardinals demanded wholesale change of the Holy See’s bloated and scandal-prone bureaucracy. A major thrust will be to merge some of the Vatican departments, simplifying the structure and bringing its finances under much tighter scrutiny.
For instance, Cardinal George Pell, head of the newly created Secretariat of the Economy, which is charged with a thorough reorganization of the Vatican’s finances, announced last week that his group had found hundreds of millions of euros previously unaccounted for in various departments’ books.
The pope announced additions to his travel schedule next year, which already includes Sri Lanka, the Philippines and the U.S. He will also travel to three Latin American countries and Africa, although he declined to provide further details, and will visit his native Argentina in 2016.
Questioned about the state of his health, the pope said: “I have my aches and pains, and at this age one feels them. (But) up to now I can keep up a rhythm of work that is more or less good.”
Pope Francis, who turns 78 on Dec. 17, takes no holiday, usually rises at 4:30 a.m. and maintains an intense schedule. For his birthday last year, a staff member brought in three homeless men to celebrate with the pope, along with the staff in the rooming house where he lives. This year, the pope will again celebrate with the staff.
“It will be just another day to me, pretty much like any other one,” he said.
This article was originally written by Deborah Ball for The Wall Street Journal.