The pope is gay and Catholic marriage counseling, as well as a host of other forms of religious counseling, are legal in the United States, but the pope is not allowed to counsel the divorced and remarried.
His decision to seek legal guidance on the matter has been seen as a blow to a tradition that dates back to the early years of the church, which has long promoted religious freedom for divorced and civilly remaried Catholics.
On Wednesday, the pope issued a statement clarifying that he is not speaking to a churchwide “law” on gay marriage and that he has “concerns about some aspects of the pastoral care of divorced and separated people.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Francis also said that he did not know whether his pastoral practice was compatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The Vatican issued a brief statement on Thursday saying the pope had been “surprised by some reports and misinterpretations” in recent weeks, but he did say he was not speaking on behalf of the Vatican or the Catholic church.
“I do not speak for the Vatican.
I speak on behalf and on behalf alone of the Pope,” the statement said.
“The Holy See considers the pastoral practice of the Holy See, especially of the bishops, and all those who participate in it, a sacred and authentic and indispensable role.”
Francis, who is a Jesuit and the third-most senior pontiff in Catholic history, is also expected to speak on the issue later this month, a decision that could have broad implications for the relationship between divorced and cohabiting Catholics in the U.S. And the pontiff’s comments were the latest in a series of statements that have signaled his desire to change the church’s stance on gay rights.
Earlier this year, Francis said gay couples should be able to marry, and he has said the Church should be open to gay unions.
The pope has also called for a greater emphasis on women’s roles in the church and for Catholics to work on their own ordination.
A church statement said Francis “has been asked by the Pontifical Council for Bishops to clarify his position on same-sex couples and their marriage in light of the current context of society and the human family.”
Francis’ comments come amid growing tensions between the Catholic and gay rights movements in the country, with Pope Francis recently calling on church leaders to protect marriage as “an inseparable bond of the Christian life.”