POPE Francis has urged bishops to speak their minds without fear about contentious issues such as contraception, gay people, marriage and divorce, at the start of a two-week meeting aimed at making the Church’s teaching on family matters relevant to today’s Catholics.
He also told bishops they should not even be afraid of showing him disrespect, saying he wanted a frank debate that should not be tempered by fears that some issues are too taboo to even be discussed.
“You have to say what you feel the Lord tells you to say, without concerns of human respect and without fear,” he said yesterday at the start of the meeting.
The Pope urged the nearly 200 cardinals, bishops and priests gathered for the synod to listen to one another with humility “and welcome with an open heart what our brothers say”.
The meeting, preceded by public clashes between progressives and conservatives, is seen as a test case for the pontiff’s vision of a Church that he wants to be closer to the poor and those who are suffering, not obsessed by issues such as homosexuality, abortion and contraception.
No immediate changes are expected to result from the synod, though it will prepare the way for a larger gathering of clerics next year. This will present the Pope with suggestions that some Catholics hope could lead to changes in issues related to the family and sexual morality.
The synod is the first since Pope Francis was elected 19 months ago with a mandate to turn around an institution hit by declining membership in many countries and damaged by scandals including the sexual abuse of children by priests.
The meetings are taking place behind closed doors and the Vatican does not plan to release texts or disclose who said what, in an effort to encourage free debate.
To prepare for the meeting, the Church held a worldwide survey on family issues that showed many Catholics ignored Church teachings on birth control, sex before marriage and acceptance of homosexuality.
The responses also said the Church must develop a pastoral plan to minister to gay people in civil unions, and to children being raised in such families.
Church reform groups have said such honest responses, and the Pope’s insistence that no issue is too taboo to be discussed, are reasons for hope. However, more conservative figures are hoping the synod will simply reaffirm Church doctrine and make it more known and understood by Catholics.
Cardinal Peter Erdo, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and Primate of Hungary, suggested one answer to the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics was to simplify the annulment process. That way, he said, divorcing couples could better know how marriages might be annulled, since “it does not seem hazardous … to believe that many marriages celebrated in the church may be invalid.”
Pope Francis has quoted a former archbishop of Buenos Aires as saying half the marriages celebrated in the church are invalid, primarily because the bride and groom did not fully know what they were getting into or appreciate that marriage was a life-long commitment.
Cardinal Erdo said doctrine was not up for debate, but that the Church must better discern pastoral responses on a case-by-case basis.