Will the Catholic Church start backing down from its staunchly traditional teachings on sex and marriage this weekend?
Pope Francis attends the Sunday Mass at the St. Peter's Basilica on September 14, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During the Mass Pontiff celebrated the marriage of twenty couples. Giulio Origlia/Getty Images
Pope Francis' Synod of Bishops on the family is set to begin Sunday and continue for two weeks, and the meeting has brought competing groups to Rome, with traditionalists urging the church hierarchy to hold fast and reform-minded groups pushing for radical change.
As other Christian churches have embraced everything from contraception to same-sex marriage over the past century, the Catholic Church's official teachings have remained essentially unchanged.
While the Synod of Bishops on the family could offer a platform for reconsideration — after all, Pope Francis has famously given many people private advice that seems to contradict church teaching — both liberal and conservative Catholics have said the synod probably won't bring fundamental changes.
Rev. Thomas Reese, columnist for the progressive National Catholic Reporter, characterized the synod's makeup as "disappointing."
Reese noted that only 14 married couples will be attending the synod as auditors (observers), and one of the two American couples is actively involved with promoting natural family planning, the Catholic method of birth control that relies on regulating intercourse around a woman's menstrual cycle instead of condoms or the pill:
We will have to wait and see whether the auditors will represent to the bishops the views of lay Catholics, but it is hard to argue that they are representative of Catholics at large. Certainly any who think natural family planning is the church's great gift to the laity will not. And those who are church employees could fear losing their jobs if they spoke the truth.
At the 1980 synod on the family, the lay participants were remarkable for how totally out of touch they were with the views of average Catholics. I fear this is a rerun.
The "average Catholics" Reese references might disagree with many church teachings on sex and marriage, and the Vatican's preparatory document for the synod notes that "concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago" — from the new widespread legality of same-sex marriage to commonplace premarital cohabitation — intimately impact the lives of many Catholics.
But big changes in church teaching aren't necessarily likely.
Decrying a media "hijack[ing]" of the synod, Cardinal Raymond Burke told the National Catholic Register that the meeting will focus on ways to compassionately and effectively communicate church teaching without altering the basic tenets.
“The media has created a situation in which people expect that there are going to be these major changes which would, in fact, constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible,” Burke said.
Bride and groom attend the Sunday Mass held by Pope Francis at the St. Peter's Basilica on September 14, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During the Mass Pontiff celebrated the marriage of twenty couples. Giulio Origlia/Getty Images
The Vatican's preparatory document seemed to echo Burke's words, calling for a change in human hearts rather than in church teaching:
The good news of divine love is to be proclaimed to all those personally living this basic human experience of couples and of a communion open to the gift of children, which is the family community. The teachings of the faith on marriage is to be presented in an articulate and efficacious manner, so that it might reach hearts and transform them in accordance with God’s will, made manifest in Jesus Christ.
This story has been updated.
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