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American Catholics Have Mixed Response To Early Synod Report

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For the last week, Catholic bishops from around the world have been meeting behind closed doors at the Vatican. This gathering is focused on family issues and the meeting will go on for another week. But a summary of what's been discussed so far has raised some eyebrows. The bishops indicated a softer message towards gay people, divorced individuals and those in less traditional families. NPR's Sam Sanders reports on how the summary is going over with American Catholics.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: It's a quiet afternoon at Loyola Marymount University, just about two miles from the beach in Los Angeles. Loyola is a Jesuit school. Pope Francis is a Jesuit as well, so it's not surprising that Catholic students here are pleased with the new tone at the pope's Synod on the Family.

KENDRA GLENN: Well, I was talking to one of my friends earlier about it.

SANDERS: Kendra Glenn is a student at Loyola and a Catholic. Glenn says she supports the document's statements on gay people in the church because it says that gay people and gay couples have quote, "gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community."

GLENN: I have a lot of friends who are gay and I support them. And I think that it's about time that the church, like, supports them too and recognizes them and still remembering our roots, but, you know, like, adapting to what's going on now.

SANDERS: Michael Regal is another Catholic student at Loyola Marymount who's on board with the messaging. Regal says part of what's driven him away from the church has been its strict doctrine on issues like gay marriage.

MICHAEL REGAL: It's kind of what really turned me off about the Catholic religion itself, just kind of like how it's close minded and just, like, really old-school and just not really open to adapt and change to the world we live in currently. And that's just cool to see that it's making changes.

SANDERS: The document was released from the Vatican a few days ago, and it touched on more than just gay people. It also struck a more open tone towards divorced Catholics and Catholics who were living together outside of marriage. Not far from Loyola, John Johnson is headed into mass at St. Augustine Church in Culver, City California. Johnson agrees with the new tone in the document. He's 57, and says this would not have happened when he was younger.

JOHN JOHNSON: Honestly? No. No, it's something that's brand new, which I think is good.

SANDERS: The document, though, is just a draft. And even when it's done, it won't be doctrine. It's not changing rules, it's shifting the tone. Johnson says that could be confusing, but it's a start.

JOHNSON: You know, anytime you start something, there's always a mixed message. But it has to begin somewhere.

SANDERS: Reverend James Bretzke is a professor of moral theology at Boston College. He says not all Catholic response to this new messaging has been positive.

JAMES BRETZKE: There is a minority - a quite vocal minority - that see this as an absolute betrayal of the church's teaching, that - there are even calls to stop the synod. And people are even saying that Pope Francis is some sort of anti-pope, like, maybe he's even a heretic.

SANDERS: In fact, some 40 Catholic leaders actually taking part in the synod voiced objections or suggested changes to the document. Some leaders have used words like irredeemable, undignified and shameful to describe the text. But Bretzke says these debates are good.

BRETZKE: It is in a certain sense taking away the veneer or the covering that we used to put forward to mask real divisions within the church.

SANDERS: But one document from one meeting won't change those divisions that much.

BOB MON-DAUK: I don't think it's going to change anything big like people are thinking it's going to.

SANDERS: Bob Mon-dauk is visiting Washington, D.C. from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He's at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Mon-dauk says the core teachings don't change just because some modern Catholics might change their minds. He, like several Catholics NPR spoke to, was reluctant to criticize Pope Francis, but Mon-dauk did indicate that the softer language isn't in line with church tradition. And for that reason, it really won't be a big deal.

MON-DAUK: The church has certain infallible truths that it believes, so my opinion on what I think wouldn't matter because it's not going to change it. And if you really read church doctrine or really study, there's no way it can change.

SANDERS: A final report on the synod will be released in the coming days. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.