Contraception, cohabitation, divorce, remarriage and same-sex unions: They’re issues that pain and puzzle Roman Catholics who want to be true to both their church and themselves.
Now those issues are about to be put up for debate by their leader, a man who appears determined to push boundaries and effect change.
On Pope Francis’ orders, the Vatican will convene an urgent meeting of senior clerics this fall to reexamine church teachings that touch the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. Billed as an “extraordinary” assembly of bishops, the gathering could herald a new approach by the church to the sensitive topics.
The run-up to the synod has been extraordinary in itself, a departure from usual practice that some say is a mark of the pope’s radical new leadership style, and a canny tactic to defuse dissent over potential reforms.
Within a few months of his election last year, Francis directed every diocese in the world to survey local attitudes on family and relationships and report back to the Vatican, a canvassing of a sort that few of the faithful can recall previously. The results are being tallied and synthesized behind the walls of the Vatican.
The exercise reflects Francis’ desire for less centralized and more responsive decision-making, mirroring his own self-described evolution from a rigid, authoritarian leader as a young man into one who consults and empathizes. His training as a Jesuit has taught the pope to cast as wide a net for information as possible, analysts say.
Taking the public temperature also brings tactical advantages. Nobody at the Vatican will be surprised to learn that vast numbers of Catholics disobey its ban on premarital sex and birth control, or that some are in gay partnerships. Setting down those realities irrefutably on paper, however, could strengthen a bid by Francis to soften the church’s official line and put pressure on bishops inclined to resist, including some in the United States and many in Asia and Africa, conservative areas where the church has been growing.
“It is telling the pope and the Vatican what they already know. But it’s what the Vatican in the past has not wanted to hear,” author and Vatican expert John Thavis said.
“It’s strategic, but it’s also a genuine effort to find out what the voice of the church really is on this,” Thavis said. “It’s very much Pope Francis who wants less of a top-down model — the bishops preaching the rules and doctrine down to the faithful — and more of a dialogue.”
Hardly anyone expects the pope to propose sweeping changes to Catholic doctrine at the synod in October despite widespread criticism that the modern world has left the church behind. Indeed, Francis has unequivocally upheld heterosexual marriage and procreation as God’s established, sanctified ideal.
But liberal reformers have been excited by the Vatican’s shift in tone under Francis. His remark regarding gays, “Who am I to judge?” has gone viral, as has his warning to the church not to obsess over “small-minded rules” and contentious subjects such as abortion.
So, although Francis almost certainly will not call for ditching the church’s policy of denying communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried, his emphasis on pastoral care and compassion could offer local priests a work-around, with greater flexibility to address individual circumstances. That would fit with the pope’s vision of the church as a “field hospital” that triages people’s spiritual wounds rather than aggravates them.
Likewise, Thavis said, Francis has hinted that same-sex unions, though not “marriage,” could serve a practical purpose, if not a sacred one, by legally protecting the children of such relationships. This month, in an event that made headlines, the infant daughter of a lesbian couple was baptized in a cathedral in Francis’ native Argentina, apparently with the Holy See’s tacit assent.
“When he was cardinal in Buenos Aires, he really had a go at priests who wouldn’t baptize the children of single mothers,” said Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Tablet, a Catholic weekly in Britain. “He takes it back to a human place. It’s more about the person than about sticking to the letter. He’s willing to find a way through things.”
But analysts warn that Francis’ global popularity could fuel inflated expectations of the changes he is able, or wants, to deliver.
Although he’s unquestionably the man at the top, disgruntled underlings can ignore or seek to thwart his injunctions. Conservative bishops in the U.S., most of them appointed by Francis’ conservative predecessors, have grumbled about the direction Francis is taking and oppose relaxation of traditional strictures on marriage and family, said Massimo Faggioli of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
“The Catholic Church is not a military dictatorship where, if they don’t obey, you can send the army. It’s very difficult for a pope to force bishops to do what you want them to do,” Faggioli said.
Some jockeying is already underway.
Prelates in Germany, Switzerland, parts of the U.S. and a few other jurisdictions who favor a softer line have published their survey findings to bolster the case for change. The German bishops reported that many of their parishioners view the church’s teaching on sexual morality as “unrealistic,” its prohibition on artificial contraception as “incomprehensible” and its treatment of remarried divorcees as pitiless.
That the Germans also publicized their results in English “clearly meant they were trying to influence public opinion in a worldwide manner,” said Robert Gahl, who teaches at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
The Vatican has reportedly requested church officials in Ireland, England, Wales and other places not to release their findings out of concern over stoking division.
The survey asked 39 lifestyle questions in each diocese — including whether unmarried couples living together was common, whether same-sex unions were legal, how many children were being raised in non-traditional families, and what programs effectively conveyed Catholic teaching on such matters.
Although the Vatican told bishops to distribute the questionnaire as widely as possible, apparently not all complied. In the U.S., the National Catholic Reporter found that many dioceses posted the survey online for parishioners to fill in, but others did not seem to notify laypeople at all.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese put a simplified version of the questionnaire on its website in English, Spanish and Korean and invited parishioners to participate. The results have been kept secret.
“There was no pretense of this being a scientific, neutral study,” Gahl said. “It’s like a massive global brainstorming.”
While the published results from Western countries show large-scale rejection of Catholic dogma on sex and marriage, little is known of the response in Asia and Africa, where conservative views are more likely, analysts say. That could complicate reforms by Francis, who wants to broaden the input and influence of those growing regions.
Some critics also demand more participation by women in the discussion, so that crucial decisions on marriage, sex and family life are not made exclusively by a group of single, celibate, childless men.
The “extraordinary” synod in October is the first half of a two-phase process. Bishops will discuss the findings of the survey and air proposals to deal with them. They will then settle on new guidelines at an “ordinary” synod next year.
The two-step process should give prelates time to reflect and adjust to reforms proposed by Francis, author Thavis said.
But the pope would need to tread carefully, maintaining a tricky balancing act between ordinary Catholics who desperately want change and those among their leaders who spurn it.
“The pope is the pope, and I think we can expect that even more conservative bishops will listen to what he says,” Thavis said. “In the end, it comes down to a policy that could be changed without causing people to leave the church or causing people to slam the door on the way out of the synod.”