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By Associated Press

ROME: Pope Francis urged Vatican bureaucrats on Thursday to avoid “rigid ideological positions” that prevent them from understanding today’s reality, an appeal made days after he formally allowed priests to bless same-sex couples in a radical change of Vatican policy.

Francis used his annual Christmas greeting to the Holy See hierarchy to encourage the cardinals, bishops and laypeople who run the Vatican to listen to one another and to others so they can evolve to truly offer service to the Catholic Church.

Speaking in the Hall of Blessings, Francis told them it was important to keep advancing and growing in their understanding of the truth. Fearfully sticking to rules may give the appearance of avoiding problems but only ends up hurting the service that the Vatican Curia is called to give the church, he said.

“Let us remain vigilant against rigid ideological positions that often, under the guise of good intentions, separate us from reality and prevent us from moving forward,”the pope said. “We are called instead to set out and journey, like the Magi, following the light that always desires to lead us on, at times along unexplored paths and new roads.”

Francis’ annual appointment with members of the Vatican hierarchy came the same week he formally approved allowing priests to bless same-sex couples, as long as such blessings don’t give the impression of a marriage ceremony.

The approval, which Francis had hinted at earlier this year, reversed a 2021 policy by the Vatican’s doctrine office, which flat-out barred such blessings on the grounds that God “does not and cannot bless sin.”

The Vatican holds that gay people must be treated with dignity and respect but that sexual relations between people of the same sex is “intrinsically disordered.” Catholic teaching says that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and woman, is part of God’s plan and is intended for the sake of creating new life.

Progressives and advocates for greater LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church hailed Francis’ declaration as a long-overdue gesture of welcome and acceptance. Conservatives and traditionalists have blasted it as contrary to biblical teachings about homosexuality.

Francis didn’t specifically mention the decision on Thursday. He kept this remarks vague and tied to the biblical story of the birth of Christ. Citing the teachings of the modernizing Second Vatican Council, he urged the assembled prelates to listen to one another, discern decisions and then journey forward, without being tied to preconceived prejudices.

“It takes courage to journey, to move forward,” he said. “Sixty years after the council, we are still debating the division between progressives and conservatives. This isn’t a difference. The real difference is between lovers and those who have lost that initial passion.”

The annual greeting is a high-profile event to which all Rome-based cardinals are invited. One conspicuous absence this year was Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was convicted over the weekend of embezzlement in a big financial trial and sentenced to 5½ years in prison. He plans to appeal.

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