At a major meeting of bishops this October at the Vatican, leaders of the Catholic Church will consider a series of topics relating to family life, including same-sex relationships, divorce, and contraception.
Pope Francislast fall directed bishops around the world to consult lay Catholics on a range of family- related issues. The results are to be used to create an agenda for the meeting, dubbed an "extraordinary synod." The survey sought to take the temperature of lay Catholics, and did not offer any surprises, according to Vatican watchers.
"It is telling the pope and the Vatican what they already know. But it's what the Vatican in the past has not wanted to hear," author John Thavis told the Los Angeles Times. "It's strategic, but it's also a genuine effort to find out what the voice of the church really is on this. It's very much Pope Francis who wants less of a top-down model -- the bishops preaching the rules and doctrine down to the faithful -- and more of a dialogue."
In the U.S., fewer than half of the nearly 200 Catholic dioceses appear to have followed the pope's request for lay consultation, according to the National Catholic Reporter. But those Catholics who did respond voiced concern over the church's teaching on homosexuality, divorce, and contraception, results that weren't unexpected.
"If you have your ear to the ground, you would have a sense of things that people are considering," Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., told NCR. "A lot of people felt that the church's teaching on marriage and sexuality was not always accepted in a full and complete way. I think we knew that."
The Times reports that sweeping changes following the meeting are unlikely, but perhaps a change in emphasis is possible.
"When he was cardinal in Buenos Aires, he really had a go at priests who wouldn't baptize the children of single mothers," Catherine Pepinster, editor of U.K. Catholic publication the Tablet, told the Times. "He takes it back to a human place. It's more about the person than about sticking to the letter. He's willing to find a way through things."
Francis is the first pope to arrive at the Vatican from a country where same-sex marriage is legal, Argentina, and he has hinted that the church should take a more merciful approach to issues related to family life.
The pope is expected to make his first visit to the United States in 2015 at a gathering of Catholics in Philadelphia that will also consider family life.
Follow Michael O'Loughlin on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.