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Long Island Catholics weigh in on meaning of bishops' statement on family issues

Pope Francis talks to prelates as he arrives

Pope Francis talks to prelates as he arrives for a morning session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Alessandra Tarantino

For some Catholics it is nothing short of revolutionary, a theological earthquake that brings back memories of the 1960s Vatican II reforms that shook up the church.

To others, the statement on divorced Catholics, unmarried couples and gays released this week by bishops meeting with Pope Francis in Rome changes little about basic church teachings.

The church leaders, in a preliminary summary after the first of two weeks of meetings at a synod about families, spoke of the "positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation." It raised the possibility of allowing divorced Catholics who remarry to receive Holy Communion even if their first marriage has not been annulled -- a lengthy process that requires action from the Vatican.

The church hierarchy also wrote that gays "have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community" and that some gay couples provide each other "mutual aid to the point of sacrifice" and "precious support in the life of the partners."

The 12-page statement, released Monday, provoked tussling among the bishops. On Thursday some conservatives struck back, seeking to water down part of it. In the English-language version, for instance, the heading on one section was changed from "welcoming" to "providing for" homosexual persons.

Carol Giambertone, 74, of East Meadow, called the idea of allowing divorced Catholics who remarry to receive Communion "wonderful." Giambertone, who at one point did not receive Communion for 10 years because she divorced and remarried, said many Catholics cannot afford to get an annulment.

"I think the church shut a door to a lot of people who deserved to be there," she said.

Millions divorced, remarried

Some 5.8 million Catholics in the United States were divorced and remarried at one point in their lives, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. They represent about 10 percent of all adult Catholics nationwide.

Eileen Sabella, 76, of Levittown, a Catholic who lived with a man for five years after her 41-year marriage ended in divorce, said she had mixed feelings about the church being more accepting of cohabitation outside of marriage. She thinks it is OK for older people, who sometimes move in together partly for financial reasons, but is less enthusiastic about the idea for younger people.

For Nicholas Coppola, 49, a gay Catholic who lost his volunteer job at a Catholic parish in Oceanside last year after he married another man, Monday's statement was groundbreaking.

"I am more hopeful today than I've ever been," he said. "The words are wonderful and loving. They are words we've never heard."

But John Picciano, a lifelong Catholic from Huntington, said the pope and bishops are simply refining the way the church interacts with gays. The statement is not a fundamental change in church teachings, he said, and reflects a preliminary summary of church leaders' conversations.

"This is like a warm-up to a warm-up," said Picciano, noting that the synod will meet over a two-year period before Francis issues any definitive positions. "The church is really doing nothing more than admitting that there is plenty of room to adjust or expand its language to better express the truth of its teachings."

No celebration yet

Jamie Manson, a lesbian from Long Beach who writes a column for the National Catholic Reporter, said the bishops sent a message of "love the sinner, hate the sin."

"It's certainly not time to be jumping for joy," she said. The hierarchy "is going to continue to see same-sex relationships as sinful, and to me that's not progress."

Some church analysts said that, whatever the outcome of a rewriting, Monday's document remains and is groundbreaking.

"It's pretty revolutionary," said the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America. "The change in tone is striking. I don't think anyone can deny that."

Tom Roberts, an editor at the National Catholic Reporter, based in Kansas City, Missouri, said the "significance to this is the change not only in tone, but permission to actually think and talk about topics and ideas that previously were forbidden. For 35 years, during the last two papacies, Catholics were told that there are certain things you can't talk about."

Pope Francis, he said, is saying, 'No, no, no. I want it all. I want the debate.' "

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