Five things to know about the Vatican’s family synod

Pope Francis yesterday opened a two-week meeting of bishops and cardinals from around the world aimed at making the church’s teaching on family life — marriage, sex, contraception, divorce and homosexuality — relevant to today’s Catholic families.

The pre-synod debate has been dominated by mudslinging between liberals and conservatives over divorce and remarriage, but there are many more issues up for discussion.

Here are five things to know about the synod:

What’s on the table?

Last year, Vatican officials sent out a 39-point questionnaire to bishops’ conferences asking for frank input from clergy and lay Catholics on a host of issues such as pre-marital sex, contraception, and gay unions.

In a brutally honest compilation of the data in June, the Vatican conceded that the vast majority of Catholics reject Church teaching on sex and contraception as intrusive and irrelevant. It said the church had to do a better job ministering to gays in civil unions and to children being raised in such families.

It blamed pastors for failing to adequately preach Church teaching and said a “new language” was necessary to convey the Church’s message. The findings are to form the basis of the discussion.

Who’s taking part?

In all, 191 synod ‘fathers’ are taking part: Most are presidents of national bishops’ conferences, others were named by Francis and still others are taking part thanks to the Vatican positions they hold.

Given that the issue at hand is Catholic families, Francis also invited 12 ordinary Catholics, members of families, to participate. One US couple is prominent in promoting natural family planning, a natural birth control method endorsed by the church that involves monitoring a woman’s cycle to avoid intercourse when she is most likely to conceive.

What will the public see?

Technically, the synod is a closed-door affair, with only the opening session broadcast and a final written message published. Press conferences are scheduled throughout.

What’s happening on the sidelines?

As occurs during any big Vatican meeting, Church reform groups are descending on Rome in hopes of influencing the debate or at least grabbing some airtime while attention on the Vatican is high.

A prominent reform group, We Are Church, advocates women’s ordination and an end to priestly celibacy.

The US-based Catholic gay rights group New Ways Ministry is in Rome, encouraged by the fact that pastoral care for families headed by same-sex couples is a top area of discussion. The European Forum of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual Christian Groups is also hosting several events.

On the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, Voice of the Family, which counts several pro-life groups as members, warned that while the synod could reinforce traditional Church teaching, it also “risks confusing Catholics and non-Catholics worldwide on Catholic teaching on sexuality, family, and life”.

How does it end?

The synod ends on Sunday, October 19 with the beatification of Pope Paul VI.


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