Representatives of the Roman Catholic Church from across the globe will convene Sunday in Vatican City for a monumental two-week conference, during which some of the most controversial issues facing the church will be discussed.
The so-called Synod of Bishops on the family is the first forum of its kind in nearly 30 years, after St. John Paul II called the first such synod in 1980 (synods on other church matters are a fairly regular occurrence). Expectations loom large for what the gathering will accomplish, and its results will help shape the legacy of the church’s current and hugely popular leader.
“It’s the single most important event for Pope Francis,” says Rev. Michael Russo, who teaches political communication and religion at St. Mary’s College of California. “It’s Pope Francis’ way to put a personal stamp on his take with regard to issues that face Christians and Catholics and people around the world.”
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has hinted at a new Catholic approach to questions about marriage and family. October’s meeting eventually will produce a clearer articulation of how that approach will look.
“It’s a bold way for Pope Francis to take up issues that have been contested since the last synod on the family in 1980,” says Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
More than 250 participants will attend what’s labeled the “extraordinary synod,” the first of two meetings (the second meeting of the synod will take place in 2015) centered around the theme of “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” They are expected to produce a summary of the points under consideration, which will act as a working document for the 2015 “ordinary synod,” where an even larger body of church leaders will vote on any formal changes to church guidelines on family matters.
In addition to the presidents of national bishops conferences and other invited church leaders, a number of lay people – including 14 married couples and various other experts – will also be present as nonvoting members. The synod is expected to touch on a whole range of issues: faith in the family, child-rearing, marriages in which only one partner is Catholic, the role of sexuality in marriage, contraception, and same-sex relationships.
“Part of the Catholic view of things is that these things are connected, so if you think about divorce and remarriage, that also affects your view about sexuality before marriage, it affects your view about marriage among people who are the same sex,” Elie says.
While such issues have drawn less attention in the Western press, church officials also have highlighted in their preparations for the synod the economic and political challenges facing families, particularly those in impoverished countries.
“All of the energy and the lobbying of the interests on all sides of the issues prior to the synod strongly confirms the wisdom of Pope Francis in calling such a synod. We really need it,” says Rev. Paul Sullins, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America. “People are concerned, upset – both liberals and conservatives – about families and how they fit in with modern society.”
The issue drawing the most attention in the run-up to the meeting is the question of marriage and divorce. Under church rules, Catholics who have been divorced and remarried without first seeking an annulment – a Catholic practice that does not dissolve a marriage but rather declares a valid marriage never occurred in the first place – cannot receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, one of the most important activities within the church.
“Pope Francis has said a couple times that there is a greater need for mercy,” says Rev. Thomas Rausch, professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Rausch cites a declaration issued by Francis that calls the Eucharist “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a trusted adviser to the pope, has given a number of interviews and speeches – including one to a council of cardinals at the invitation of Francis – suggesting the church will soon allow Catholics remarried after divorce to receive Holy Communion, running counter to the views expressed by other Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, head of the church office tasked with ensuring and defending sound doctrine.
Kasper’s views are likely to be a hot topic at the synod, considered the pointed response they have already drawn. Last month, Müller and four other cardinals released a book following up on other recent materials reaffirming the church’s current stance on divorce and remarriage. One of those cardinals – Cardinal Raymond L. Burke – said in an interview with Catholic News Service this week that Kasper’s proposal should be taken “off the table.”
But if there is any leader who can navigate such a heated debate, it’s Francis, papal experts say.
“He is a person who has enormous emotional intelligence, someone who is able to bring, often enough, people who disagree together,” Russo says. “For any leader, it is a matter of informing, preparing, evaluating, but also dealing with conflict resolution. This is something that he is better at doing as a former religious superior than probably anybody around.“
Click here for more.