Pope opens synod on family

In Photo: Pope Francis leaves at the end of a vigil ahead of the opening of the synod of bishops in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican, on Saturday.

VATICAN CITY—Few Vatican meetings have enjoyed as controversial a run-up as the three-week gathering of bishops on family issues that opens on Sunday: There have been allegations of manipulation and coercion. Secret caucuses to plot strategy. A de facto law passed to take the wind out of the debate. And on the eve of the synod, a Vatican monsignor outing himself, urging the pope to hear his voice, and denouncing widespread homophobia in the church.

Francis opens the contentious meeting of 270 of the world’s bishops with a Mass on Sunday morning, buoyed by his recent star turn in the United States, but dogged by deepening divisions between conservatives and progressives precisely over the issues he has asked them to discuss: ministering to today’s Catholic families in all their shapes and colors, including gays, those who divorce and other Catholics in “irregular” family situations.

The split came strongly to the fore last year during the first round of the bishops’ meeting, and both sides have only dug in over the ensuing 12 months. As a result, sparks are expected to fly when the men, and a smattering of nonvoting women, get down to work on Monday.

“We are happy if there is turbulence,” said Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Italian running the synod. “We are in the sea, and so there has to be some turbulence.”

Francis launched the synod process two years ago by sending out a 39-point questionnaire to bishops, parishes and ordinary Catholic families around the world asking about their understanding of and adherence to church teaching on family matters. Their responses showed a widespread rift between official Catholic teaching and practice, particularly on sex, marriage and homosexuality.

The first meeting of bishops ended on October with no consensus on how to better welcome gays and divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in the church. Conservatives insisted that Catholic doctrine is clear and unchanging. Progressives acknowledged the doctrine but sought wiggle room in pastoral practice.

Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s finance manager who is firmly in the conservative camp, predicted little more than a reaffirmation of the status quo would emerge in Round 2, albeit with perhaps better explanation as to why the status quo exists.

“It’s quite impossible for there to be any change in the church’s teaching on Communion for the divorced and remarried,” Pell said on the sidelines of a conference last week about helping gays overcome their homosexual tendencies.

The conference was one of many initiatives launched by conservative bishops in the run-up to the synod aimed at reasserting traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and homosexuality, which holds that gays are to be respected but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.”

In a clear challenge to that teaching, a mid-level official in the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa, announced on Saturday that he was a proud gay priest (with a boyfriend), called for the synod to take up the plight of gays, and denounced homophobia throughout the church.

The Vatican summarily fired him.

Gay-rights activists, who were in Rome to try to influence the synod from the sidelines, came to his defense and urged the synod fathers to assert that there is no place for homophobia in the church.

Former Irish President Mary McAleese, a practicing Catholic with a gay son, said she hoped that more transparency would help “kill for once and all this terrible lie” that everyone was born heterosexual.

Image credits: AP/Riccardo De Luca


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