Vatican family synod will be a test case for Pope Francis’ papacy

October 2, 2014
(Pope Francis waves as he leaves at the end of his weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican October 1, 2014. REUTERS/Tony Gentile)

(Pope Francis waves as he leaves at the end of his weekly audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican October 1, 2014. REUTERS/Tony Gentile)

A global assembly of Roman Catholic bishops is shaping up as the first major showdown of Pope Francis’s papacy, with conservative and progressive cardinals trading insults ahead of its start on Sunday.

The two-week synod on the theme of the family will be attended by more than 250 people — nearly all of them bishops of the 1.2 billion-member Church and also 13 married couples.

The session will prepare the way for a larger gathering of Catholic clerics next year and could become a milestone in the clash between conservatives and liberals over the future direction of a Church that the pope has insisted must become less bureaucratic and theologically esoteric.

The synod, the first since Francis’ election in March 2013, is seen as a test case for him and his vision of a Church he wants to be closer to the poor and suffering and not “obsessed” by issues such as homosexuality, abortion and contraception.

The run-up to the meeting has been dominated by a rare public feud between cardinals centered on whether the Church should modify teachings that ban Catholics who have divorced and then remarried in civil services from receiving communion.

For Catholics, a second marriage without an often lengthy Church annulment of the first amounts to adultery and anyone remarried in a civil ceremony cannot receive communion at Mass unless they refrain from sexual relations with a new partner.

That issue has emerged as the most likely candidate for possible reform after Pope Francis ordered a worldwide survey of Catholics and heard that many ignored Church teachings on birth control, sex before marriage or acceptance of homosexuality.

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