POPE Francis opened a global Roman Catholic assembly yesterday, showing his apparent irritation with Church leaders who have waged a sometimes bitter public battle between progressives and conservatives on family issues.
The synod is the first since Francis’s election 19 months ago with a mandate to turn around an institution hit by declining membership in many countries and scandals, including the sexual abuse of children by priests and irregularities in Vatican finances.
It is seen as a test case for the pontiff’s vision of a Church he wants to be closer to the poor and suffering and not obsessed by controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortion and contraception.
Francis, in the sermon of a solemn Mass in St Peter’s Basilica formally opening the synod with nearly 200 bishops in attendance, alluded to in-fighting that preceded the gathering and made clear that it did not please him.
“Synod assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent,” he said. Comparing the Church to a vineyard, he said that all of it had to be nurtured with freedom, creativity and hard work.
Liberals in the Church say that conservatives are trying to dictate the outcome of the synod, particularly over the issue of whether the Church should modify teachings that deny communion to Catholics who have divorced and then remarried in civil services.
No immediate changes are expected to result from the synod, though it will prepare the way for a larger gathering of Catholic clerics next year, which will present the pope with suggestions that could lead to changes in issues related to the family and sexual morality.
Cardinal Leo Raymond Burke, a Vatican-based American arch-conservative, and four other like-minded cardinals launched a pre-emptive strike last month by jointly publishing a book entitled Remaining in the Truth of Christ, forcefully defending the status quo on rules for those who divorce and remarry.
The main target of their criticism has been Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German who has argued that the Church must find ways of showing mercy to people whose first marriages have failed and who, at the same time, want to remain an integral part of the Church.
Debate on family issues has intensified after a worldwide survey showed that many Catholics ignored Church teachings on birth control, sex before marriage and acceptance of homosexuality.
Cardinal Kasper, whom the Pope has described as one of his favourite theologians, has accused his critics of attacking him because he has encouraged dialogue and indicated that the pontiff might be open to changes in teachings if recommended by the bishops.
The synod is not expected to deal with the sexual abuse crisis or scandals involving Vatican finances, though participants are free to bring up any topic in the debate.