This coming October the Vatican will run a global summit of bishops themed around “marriage and the family.” In preparation for that summit, Pope Francis has asked bishops to survey attitudes in their dioceses about the Church’s sexual teachings. Some of those results have come back, and predictably expressed popular discontent with some of the teachings. This week Francis met with most of the world’s Cardinals to discuss the summit in light of these results. Over at the Boston Globe, John L. Allen Jr. situates this meeting in its larger context:
The session with cardinals will set the table for [the summit]… Among the hard questions is whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment, a church declaration voiding the first marriage, should be allowed to receive communion and the other sacraments of the church.It’s hard to overstate how important the issue is at the retail level. A 2007 study found that in the United States, nearly 10 percent of Catholics are divorced and remarried 10 years after their first marriage, a figure that rises to 18 percent after 20 years.
The October summit, and the meetings running up to it, could very well be a defining moment of Francis’ papacy. By surveying Catholics, the Vatican, intentionally or not, has given the impression that the Church is opening to input on its teachings. The survey wasn’t only about communion for the remarried, although Allen focuses in on that as the area in which movement is most likely. Rather it asked about the whole gamut of issues from contraception to gay marriage. With (reasonably or not) an expectation that the associated teachings could be changed or softened raised, the summit is likely to alienate at least one bloc within the Church.If no changes (to priestly celibacy, for example, or communion for the remarried) are made to the teachings after the summit, the Catholics (and non-Catholics) invested in those changes will be bitterly disappointed. These have so far given Pope Francis high praise in outlets like The New Yorker and Time Magazine, but that could quickly stop if the summit doesn’t deliver. If changes are made, however, the Catholics who expect the Church keep to its positions on hot-button issues will be disillusioned. Either way, as time goes on, Francis is going to be forced to address these issues in some decisive way. The more time passes, the more the circumstances pushing him to that will grow. This summit will be a key focal point of that energy. It looks like Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday might be ending, and his Good Friday approaching.