So it seems that pope Francis has convened an ‘urgent’ meeting of senior clerics of the church to take place this October in which they will discuss all the major issues that the church is confronting. He had earlier asked them to canvass the views of their members on these issues prior to the meeting and those results are currently being tallied, so that the discussions will reflect the actual concerns of people.
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.
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.
Some see this as a tactical move by Francis.
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.
Although the church is not calling this Vatican III, after the famous Vatican II convened by pope John XXIII that introduced some modernization, commentators are wondering if this is the first step towards making major changes.
I am not hopeful. As far as I can see, the current pope seems to fully endorse traditional church doctrine on contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, priestly celibacy, male only clergy, and so on. What he may call for is a softening of the edges on these issues in order to shift them off the front pages and to focus instead on issues like fighting poverty and inequality which is where his interests seem to lie.
But by convening this group and asking for specific feedback on those doctrinal issues, he risks raising hopes for real change and this could lead to big disappointments if nothing major changes.