VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - MARCH 11: Members of the Carabinieri stand guard in front of Saint Peter's Basilica on March 11, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Cardinals are set to enter the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI after he became the first pope in 600 years to resign from the role. The conclave is scheduled to start on March 12 inside the Sistine Chapel and will be attended by 115 cardinals as they vote to select the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)2013 Getty Images
Vatican City – Catholics should not expect quick changes to Church rules against divorce, contraception and gay marriage even if a majority of Catholics express dissenting views in a global survey, Vatican officials said on Tuesday (November 5).
The Vatican sent a survey of 39 questions to dioceses around the world ahead of a meeting of bishops, known as a synod, on the theme of the family, scheduled for next October.
For the first time in preparation for such a meeting, the Vatican asked bishops to share the survey widely with parish priests and for them to consult with parishioners.
The questions, under eight main headings according to subjects, included themes such as homosexual marriage, birth control and how Catholics who have divorced and re-married should be treated in the 1.2 billion-member Church.
"We don't have a desire to re-open all the discussion on Catholic doctrine," said Cardinal Peter Erdo, who will be the synod's coordinator.
"It is not a question of public opinion," he said, adding that the gathering would discuss how "to find concrete solutions" to difficult pastoral situations "within the doctrine that we already have."
The questionnaire demonstrates a greater sensibility to issues once considered taboo, like how to include the adopted children of gay couples in the Church. It includes sections on "unions of persons of the same sex," "the education of children in irregular marriages," and "the openness of the married couple to life".
Since a leaked copy of the survey was published last week by the National Catholic Reporter in the United States, there has been much speculation in the media on whether the survey could lead to changes in Church rules.
But Vatican officials made it clear at a news conference any change would come slowly and that ultimately it would be up to Pope Francis to decide what to do with the deliberations of the synod and the results of the survey.
"The synod does not make decision based on the majority of public opinion" explained Archbishop Bruno Forte, special secretary to the synod.
"That is not how it works. But to ignore that there is a large part of public opinion that feels a certain way would be a mistake. We have to reflect, pray and (the pope) will shed light on it" he said.
The survey does not signal any shift in Church doctrine toward gay marriage or birth control, but it does offer more proof of Pope Francis's push to reach out to ordinary Catholics on issues pertaining to the contemporary family.
"We are hoping to receive from the bishops an outline of thought, not from the bishops but that which is said by the priests. The bishop can make his evaluation but we want to be able to take the pulse of the situation from people, organisations and movements from within parishes" explained Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri.
"That there is an open and sincere outline of what people really think and how they are living in this situation" Baldisseri said.
"The bishops here, today, said that they really want to get the information from the base" explained Robert Mickens, writer for the weekly catholic newspaper The Tablet.
"The first thing that is going to happen in 2014 is kind of take the temperature of the situations of families and marriage and all these irregular situations as well. The challenges to spreading christian faith and inculcating the teaching of the church on marriage and the family. That is the first thing, they are only going to take the temperature, get a snap shot of that and then take that information and a year later in 2015 we will have a general or ordinary assembly of the synod of bishops during which they will sit down and try and hammer out concrete pastoral initiatives and guidelines" Mickens explained.
"I think that this idea of taking a risk is something certainly that has been encouraged by Pope Francis who has said 'I don't want a church that is closed in on itself but a church that is accident prone' that means it is alive, it is willing to go out to listen, to accept and to be in dialogue with the world" Mickens explained.
Certainly the survey has been greeted warmly by the general public.
"This is an innovation in the Vatican, a step forward. They were a bit behind with these things" said Rome resident Giuseppe Reitano.
In England, bishops have posted the survey online so that anyone, including lay people and Catholic parents, can respond.
The poll findings will be included in a working paper for an extraordinary meeting of the synod of bishops next October.