The Vatican has moved to dampen down speculation that it might be softening its prohibitions on artificial birth control, divorce and homosexuality.
A 'mid-term report' issued on Monday by the Extraordinary Synod on the Family appeared to signal that traditional teaching was being relaxed, to the fury of conservative commentators and the delight of liberals.
However, a Vatican statement was released yesterday in an attempt to clarify some of the assumptions that have been made about the report. It said that "often a value has been attributed to the document that does not correspond to its nature".
It was, the statement said, "a working document, which summarises the interventions and debate of the first week, and is now being offered for discussion by the members of the Synod gathered in the Small Groups, in accordance with the Regulations of the Synod".
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, said: "The report, obviously composed under pressure, has easily given rise to some misinterpretation. Its nature has to be understood. It is not a doctrinal or decisive document. It is, as stated in its conclusion, 'intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer reflection.'"
However, he said that the report "served to crystallise the hopes and difficulties raised in that week" and was "proving to be a stimulant to very searching and creative discussions". He added: "I appreciate the spirit of the report which seeks to proclaim and strengthen the pastoral care of the Church. The warmth and the reach of the Church's pastoral care is crucial even if not always known or experienced."
The Cardinal concluded: "The process of this Extraordinary Synod is being conducted with great openness. This Report comes at the half-way stage. I know that one of the deepest desires of the Synod Fathers is to blow a trumpet for marriage and family as central part of God's plan for our happiness and fulfilment."
While the Synod will not change traditional teaching, indications are that it may produce a final report later this week with significant changes in tone from the language traditionally used in the areas it is considering. The shift reflects the new approach brought to pastoral issues by Pope Francis, who in his public pronouncements has repeatedly stressed the need for understanding and forgiveness.
The final report will be studied around the world in a process of discernment before the next stage in the process begins.