Pope Francis' call Wednesday for a church of "open doors" that welcomes divorced Catholics prompted speculation over whether he was signaling support for easing the ban on Communion for couples who remarry without a church annulment.
The issue is at the center of an extraordinarily public debate among cardinals from around the world who will gather this October at the Vatican for a synod, or meeting, on the family, where treatment of such couples will be a key topic.
"He wants the church to get over a psychology that if you're divorced and remarried that you're a lesser Catholic," said Phillip Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. "But it doesn't address the real issue of what is the path forward for Catholics who want to enter into full communion with the church."
Under Catholic teaching, unless a marriage is annulled, or declared null and void by a church tribunal, those who remarry cannot receive Communion or other sacraments because they are essentially living in sin and committing adultery. Such annulments can take years to process — if they are granted at all — a problem that has left generations of Catholics feeling shunned by their church.
Catholics who divorce after a church marriage, but don't remarry can receive Communion.
The pope, speaking at his weekly general audience at the Vatican, underscored Catholic teaching on divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment, saying, "the church knows well that such a situation contradicts the Christian sacrament." But he emphasized, "these people are not at all excommunicated."
"They always belong to the church," Francis said. The church, he said, must be one of "open doors."
Francis praised pastors who have shown "a fraternal and attentive acceptance" for such couples. Children especially will be damaged if they see their parents kept at a distance from the church, he said.
"They are the ones who suffer the most in these situations," the pope said. "How will we be able to recommend to these parents to do their utmost to educate their children in the Christian life, giving them the example of a convinced and practiced faith, if we hold them at a distance from the life of the community, as if they were excommunicated?"
The question of how to translate that compassion into a real world policy has split the cardinals and others in the church. One faction has argued for creating a process by which such Catholics can formally repent of their actions so they can be once again allowed to receive Communion.
Opponents see a danger to this approach and warn it will undermine church teaching overall on marriage.
James Hitchcock, author of "Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation?" and an opponent of any change in church practice on the issue, said Francis' comments Wednesday indicate "he kind of leans in the direction of 'Let's loosen our discipline on this.'"
"He is not a systematic thinker. I don't think he sits down and works this all out. I think he follows his heart. I think he says things in a way he thinks will be inspirational or helpful and then we can work that all out later," Hitchcock said.
Dennis Doyle, a theologian at the University of Dayton, a Marianist school in Ohio, said it's not possible to conclude from the pope's remarks whether any change will emerge from the October assembly. By speaking so emphatically Wednesday, Francis clearly wants to stoke a discussion about how to address a problem he sees as urgent, Doyle said.
Nearly half of the total annulment cases in the world came from the United States in 2012, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. But the overall number of annulment cases in the U.S. and globally has dropped, as the world's population ages and the number of marriages celebrated in the church has declined.
"He's not saying anything goes. He's saying that we've got to look at this through the eyes of the small children," Doyle said. "He wants this situation to be addressed in a pastoral manner that is open and welcoming. I don't think it's possible to say exactly what policy will come out."
Associated Press reporter Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.