Vatican Synod Tests The Pope's Vision Of A More Merciful Church Bishops are meeting with Pope Francis these next two weeks for an extraordinary conference to debate family matters – including hot-button issues like artificial contraception and gay civil unions.

Vatican Synod Tests The Pope's Vision Of A More Merciful Church

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At an opening mass at the Vatican today, Catholic leaders gathered to mark the start of a meeting called by Pope Francis. The closed-door session is called a Synod, and its purpose is to foster conversations among church leaders about marriage and family. As NPR's. Sylvia Poggioli reports, not since the landmark second Vatican Council half a century ago has a church meeting raised so much hope among progressive Catholics and so much apprehension among conservatives.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: As with every big Vatican meeting, Catholic groups from all over the world descend on Roman in the hopes of contributing to the discussion. Catholic Church Reform International, an umbrella organization of progressive groups from all over the world, met last week in one of Rome's baroque churches.

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RENE REID: Pope Francis has told the bishops we want to hear from the people. We want dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.

POGGIOLI: Rene Reid and her group have come to ask for some basic changes.

REID: We would like to see the birth control issue revisited. We'd like to see celibacy become an option. We'd like to see greater respect and equality given to women.

POGGIOLI: But no topic has become more heated in the lead up to the debate than suggestions made by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the pope's favorite theologian, on the possibility on a case-by-case basis of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion. The idea triggered a vehement response from five prominent Cardinals who wrote a book upholding church teaching on the permanence of marriage.

One of the authors, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican Supreme Court, accused the media of trying to hijack the Synod by fueling expectations of changes in Catholic doctrine. But Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, says bishops and priests deal with contemporary reality and the tragic causes behind many failed marriages every day. Just like the pope who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, went to comfort the faithful in the slums.

FATHER THOMAS REESE: He saw that lots of people were living together who weren't married, lots of families broke up because of poverty or other issues. He saw the real world out there. And as a pastor, he wants to respond to that.

POGGIOLI: Father Reese is very pleased that disagreement over this issue is being aired finally in public.

REESE: In the last two papacies, disagreements were hushed up, there was only one line that people could take. Bishops came to Rome, and they looked to see what the Vatican wanted them to say, and they got up and said that. I mean, it was embarrassing at the Synods.

POGGIOLI: But a recently published book documents growing resistance to Pope Francis's repeated urgings for open and frank debate. It's called "Francis Among The Wolves," a reference to the story of St. Francis taming a ravenous wolf.

MARCO POLITI: But the wolves around Pope Francis don't kiss his hands, or officially they kiss his hands, but they are now very aggressive.

POGGIOLI: Author Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican analyst, says a cadre of hardliners has been campaigning for months behind the scenes against Francis.

POLITI: They say that he's a demagogue, that he speaks too much about the poors like a socialist, that he's diminishing the sacred aura of the papacy, that he's too Democratic.

POGGIOLI: A head of the Synod, the Vatican sent out a questionnaire seeking input from clergy and laypeople on many hot-button issues. The results showed the vast majority of Catholics reject church teaching on sex and contraception as intrusive and irrelevant. But at the Synod, 191 cardinals, bishops and priests will be flanked by only 12 lay observers. Vatican analyst Robert Mickens says the Synod needs to listen to a wider array of Catholics.

ROBERT MICKENS: Married people need to be heard. Gay people and their struggles need to be heard. Single mothers need to be heard. It won't do for a bunch of celibate men, so-called, to be parsimonious with God's mercy.

POGGIOLI: The two-week-long Synod is just phase one, discussion of issues. It won't be until a second assembly, a year from now, that concrete decisions are taken. The outcome will not only affect issues of sexual ethics, contraception and divorce. It will ultimately determine the Catholic Church's relationship with the modern world. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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