Henry Chu (LA TIMES)
Reporting from Vatican City—
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.