Bishops slam brakes on Vatican reform push for gays and divorcees

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Catholic bishops have spoken out against a landmark Vatican report calling for a more open approach to gay believers, presenting a series of strongly-worded changes bound to disappoint progressives.

A preliminary report on Monday for a special synod of bishops in the Vatican on family matters made waves around the world by suggesting the Church should reach out to homosexuals, who have "gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community".

But the Vatican on Thursday published a fresh report summing up the reactions of 10 working groups of bishops, which smacked in places of panic among conservatives determined to derail Pope Francis' push for reform.

South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier moderated a group of bishops from Africa, Asia and Oceania which said the initial report placed "too much emphasis on the problems facing the family", and wanted "the Word of God, and the beauty of the Gospel of Marriage" to take centre stage.

The Church "must continue to promote the revealed nature of marriage as always between one man and one woman united in lifelong, life-giving, and faithful communion," they said.

A group led by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said they "respect and welcome homosexual people" but warned that "this does not mean that the Church should legitimise homosexual practices".

Other groups protested over proposals to be more open towards unmarried couples who live together, or divorced people living with new partners.

Ultra-conservative American cardinal Raymond Leo Burke's group said that where the report "appeared to be suggesting that sex outside of marriage may be permissible, or that cohabitation may be permissible, we have attempted to show why such lifestyles do not lead to human fulfilment."

"We believe that if we imply that certain lifestyles are acceptable, then concerned and worried parents could very easily say 'Why are we trying so hard to encourage our sons and daughters to live the Gospel and embrace Church teaching?'" it said.

The group also said it was against allowing divorced and re-married people to take communion - just one of several hot-button issues that appeared to have received positive backing in the initial report.

Francis has called for the Church to take a more merciful approach to sinners, famously saying of homosexual people, "Who am I to judge?"

It remains to be seen whether the final document, which will be released on Saturday, will reflect his hopes to make the centuries-old institution a more welcoming place.

While the working groups of bishops were largely headed by conservatives, the drafting committee charged with writing Saturday's closing document is made up of perceived progressives appointed by Francis himself.

The document will be put to a vote, and with tension rife in the Vatican, religious experts will be watching to see just how close the final result may be.