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Vatican confronts shifting landscape on family issues

July 7, 2014

Faced with a cultural landscape that’s shifting faster than the church’s ability to keep up, Catholic bishops are looking for new approaches toward unmarried couples, divorced people and single parents who are disillusioned with the church.

The first-ever survey of 114 bishops’ conferences around the world found that many Christians “have difficulty” accepting church teachings on key issues such as birth control, divorce, homosexuality and cohabitation.

But one senior church leader cautioned that “the doctrine of the church is not up for discussion.”

The survey’s findings, released in a 75-page document by the Vatican on Thursday (June 26), will serve as the blueprint for October’s Synod of Bishops, when bishops from around the world will gather to discuss issues facing the family.

In response to the survey’s 39 questions, bishops stressed that the traditional family was in crisis, while many divorced individuals felt “frustrated and marginalized” with no access to Communion. Those seeking a divorce also want a simpler approach to obtaining an annulment within the church.

The survey, however, reaffirmed the bishops’ opposition to same-sex unions and abortion — both issues where there is likely to be little or no change anytime soon.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Bishops’ Synod, said the document “provides a vision of family reality in its actual context” and would mark “the beginning of deep reflection” for the bishops.

The document said every bishops’ conference opposed “redefining” marriage between one man and one woman or recognizing same-sex unions, but said the children of gay couples had the right to be baptized.

“The child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children,” the document said.

The unprecedented survey sought the views of lay Catholics as well as clergy, and has raised hopes that Pope Francis might be considering radical changes to the church’s practices, such as allowing divorced individuals and remarried couples access to Communion.

The document paints a picture of a complex and rapidly changing social and economic environment that poses serious challenges to families in both rich and poor nations. Many priests reported battling a “crisis of faith” as families dealt with violence, abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and other social issues.

According to the findings, some clergy were “uncompromising and insensitive” when dealing with single parents or divorced people. Catholics who remarried often faced a “more painful wound” when denied sacraments like Communion.

Clerical sex scandals had also “significantly” weakened the church’s moral credibility, particularly in North America and northern Europe, the document said.

“In North America, people often think that the church is no longer a reliable moral guide, primarily in issues related to the family, which they see as a private matter to be decided independently,” it said.

On contraception, the survey found “in areas strongly influenced by secularization, couples generally do not consider the use of contraceptive methods to be a sin” while many considered abortion “a very serious sin.”

The bishops’ survey appeared to underscore the enormous difference between official church teachings on sexual and lifestyle issues and how the faithful live their lives, but synod officials sought to play down expectations of any major doctrinal changes.

“The doctrine of the church is not up for discussion, as we have seen emphasized many times in recent years by various teachings,” said Monsignor Bruno Forte, special secretary to this year’s synod.

The October synod is the first of two back-to-back yearly meetings of the world’s Catholic bishops at the Vatican on the theme of “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”

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