NEW YORK — Pope Francis’ call Wednesday for a church of “open doors” that welcomes divorced Catholics prompted speculation over whether he was signaling support for easing the ban on Communion for couples who remarry without a church annulment.

The issue is at the center of an extraordinarily public debate among cardinals from around the world who will gather in October at the Vatican for a synod, or meeting, on the family, where treatment of such couples will be a key topic.

“He wants the church to get over a psychology that if you’re divorced and remarried that you’re a lesser Catholic,” said Phillip Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. “But it doesn’t address the real issue of what is the path forward for Catholics who want to enter into full communion with the church.”

Under Catholic teaching, unless a marriage is annulled, or declared null and void by a church tribunal, those who remarry cannot receive Communion or other sacraments because they are essentially living in sin and committing adultery. Such annulments can take years to process – if they are granted at all – a problem that has left generations of Catholics feeling shunned by their church.

Catholics who divorce after a church marriage but don’t remarry can receive Communion.

The pope, speaking at his weekly general audience at the Vatican, underscored Catholic teaching on divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment, saying, “the church knows well that such a situation contradicts the Christian sacrament.” But he emphasized, “these people are not at all excommunicated.”

“They always belong to the church,” Francis said. The church, he said, must be one of “open doors.”

Francis praised pastors who have shown “a fraternal and attentive acceptance” for such couples. Children especially will be damaged if they see their parents kept at a distance from the church, he said.