ROME - At a time when Pope Francis appears to be calling the Roman Catholic Church to study - and maybe rethink - its views on sexuality, birth control, and divorce, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput says he expects next year's World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia will hew to traditional church teachings.
"All of us have some divorced and remarried people in our families or in same-sex relationships," Chaput said at the Vatican on Tuesday. "But we're not going to focus on problems and conflicts," he said, or provoke uncertainty.
Still, it was evident at the news conference that the international gathering - expected to bring hundreds of thousands to Philadelphia in September 2015 - remains a work in progress.
Although the archdiocese has already provided the Vatican with what Chaput called some "wonderful presentations," about the World Meeting, Rome has not approved a draft of the teaching documents that Philadelphia proposes to use, or even its theme.
Chaput speculated that Francis and other Vatican leaders were still working out the agenda for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family to be held here in October, and that might affect planning for the World Meeting.
How planning for those synods might shape the World Meeting remains unclear. What is unusual here is that the Vatican last fall sent an unprecedented questionnaire to every diocesan bishop in the world. It asked them to circulate it among their flocks, and report back the results.
Among the many questions asked were:
Do you see significant numbers of people in same-sex unions, and are they permitted to adopt children?
Are single-parent families a common phenomenon?
How well accepted is the church's ban on artificial birth control?
Is surrogate motherhood an accepted practice?
Few dioceses or national bishops' conferences made the results public before sending them on to Rome. But those that did revealed a sharp rift between the laity and church teachings.
In Germany, for example, the national conference of bishops reported that a large portion of its flocks believe the Catholic Church "deals mercilessly" with divorced and remarried members. Many respondents also complained that the church's teachings on sexual morality were "far from the real life" of most lay people.
Most surveyed viewed the ban on artificial contraception as "incomprehensible," the bishops said, and few heeded its teachings on premarital sex, homosexuality, or remarriage after divorce. Most German Catholics said, however, that they agreed with the church's vigorous objection to abortion.
The Austrian and Swiss bishops reported similar results, as did a priests' organization seeking liberal church reforms in Ireland. Polls in the United States suggest many who call themselves Catholic feel the same way.
But the questionnaire does not necessarily mean Francis will use the synods to reverse church teachings on such topics, says David Gibson, a former reporter for Vatican Radio.
"What appears to be happening with the synods on the family is that Francis is trying to teach the church to talk to itself, to debate openly and discuss issues," said Gibson, author of several books on the Catholic Church and a columnist for Religion News Service. "Francis is opening some windows."
Rather than seek abrupt changes in church teachings on sexual morality and marriage, Gibson said, Francis might explore their "pastoral application, and talk again about broadening the sense of mercy and forgiveness" for those who do not fully comply. "And that can be as consequential."
Chaput said it was unlikely that the World Meeting's agenda would invite debate on such topics as same-sex marriage and the church's ban on divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving Holy Communion, but "we will deal with those" issues as they come up.
It will be the Vatican and Francis who will determine the tenor of the Eighth World Meeting of Families, Chaput acknowledged. "We provide the place, we provide the on-site energy for it," he said. "But the final decisions lie with the Holy See."
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