VATICAN CITY - Activists lashed out Sunday at the Catholic Church's failure at a major synod to open its doors to gay people, but praised Pope Francis for getting bishops to confront "taboos."
After two weeks of fierce debate, the prelates approved a final document but sidelined three paragraphs touching on the hot-button issues of creating a more welcome stance towards gays and allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.
That disappointed gay activists who had hoped the liberal-leaning pope would be able to bring groundbreaking change at the conference of bishops.
However, observers said the synod was unprecedented in its openness of debate, while Pope Francis, in closing remarks Sunday, called on participants to "overcome their fear in the face of God's surprises."
The pope urged bishops to allow themselves "to be taken down unexpected paths."
The results were a letdown for Lisbeth Melendez Rivera from the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent US gay group.
"Once more, members of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church have erred on the side of hypocrisy and fear," she said.
Opponents "prevailed, ignoring Pope Francis' message of inclusion and respect, and fundamentally rejecting the voices and lives of (sexual minority) Catholics," she said.
Veteran British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said the synod's failure to soften the Church's approach to gay people was "a personal defeat" for the pope and "a slap in the face for gay Catholics".
But others saw pluses in the synod.
"It's at least a positive thing that our reality was put on the table," said the co-president of a Christian gay group in France, saying she was "disappointed but not surprised".
"Even if the text wasn't approved, and that is a shame, it will have effects. The debate will continue," Elisabeth Saint-Guily told AFP.
And while the outcome of the synod was widely seen as a setback for the 77-year-old pope, papal biographer Marco Politi argued that "it was the opposite of a defeat."
Writing in the left-wing paper Il Fatto Quotidiano, Politi said: "The pope got the synod to open up to talking about subjects that were taboo."
The full document, including the contentious paragraphs that failed to garner the necessary support of two-thirds of the bishops, was made public at the pope's request in what another analyst called "a decisive" moment.
"This has never happened," said Gian Guido Vecchi of leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera. As a result, he said in an email: "This is still a working document. The three points still achieved an absolute majority and so we are moving forward, the discussions must 'mature'."
So, rather than suffering a setback, "the pope is moving forward," Vecchi said.
Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli said that conservatives may have prevailed, but they had not imposed their "rigid line."
"The truth is that the pope himself wanted a true, frank, free discussion as has never happened before the entire document is an exercise in transparency," Tornielli said.
The spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics had called for the Church to take a more merciful approach to unmarried mothers, remarried divorcees and gays, famously saying of homosexuals, "Who am I to judge?"
But the vote's outcome reflects the attitude of the top echelons of the Church towards reform - and ultimately towards Francis's rule, which has been coloured since his election in March 2013 by a determination to show the more humane side of the centuries-old institution.
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn told reporters that the adopted text was "much more reserved" than the draft document, reflecting opposition from bishops from "very different cultural situations".
This synod will be followed by a year of consultations, and a follow-up questionnaire will be sent out to dioceses around the world. A second, larger synod will then be held in October 2015.
After that, the results will be handed to the Argentinian pope, who will have the final say in outlining the Church's stance on family matters.