5 questions as Pope Francis summons bishops for synod on 'family'

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Story highlights

  • Synod likely will emphasize a more welcoming stance toward gays, some cardinals say
  • Pope Francis has been looking for ways to welcome divorced Catholics
  • Conference ends October 25, but it's hard to say when changes -- if any -- will happen

Rome (CNN)Hundreds of Catholic bishops from around the world are meeting in the Vatican this month, invited by Pope Francis to debate the Catholic Church's position on "the family."

At the Vatican these days, talking about "the family" inevitably means talking about sex, including homosexuality.
    Pope Francis has been seen as more accepting of gay people than anyone expected, saying soon after his election, "Who am I to judge" homosexuals who seek God.
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    But the week before the assembly -- known as a synod -- was marked by a number of controversies involving gay people.
    The Pope met Kim Davis, the American official briefly jailed after defying a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but then the Vatican distanced itself from her position. Days later, the Vatican fired a priest who announced publicly he was gay and had a boyfriend.
    So what, if anything, will this synod change?

    1. Will the church change its position on same-sex marriage?

    No.
    As the synod opened, Pope Francis reiterated Sunday that marriage was between a man and a woman. Several cardinals speaking before the synod said that there would be no change in the church's position on same-sex marriage. At most, these cardinals said, the synod will emphasize a more welcoming stance toward gay people.
    The document that lays out what the bishops are supposed to work on has three paragraphs on gay issues.
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    The first, paragraph 130, summarizes the Catholic Church's current "No, but ..." position: "'There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family.' Nevertheless, men and women with a homosexual tendency ought to be received with respect and sensitivity."
    But the next paragraph says Catholic dioceses should "devote special attention" to homosexuals and their families.
    The third paragraph says it is "unacceptable" either to put pressure on priests over homosexual issues -- or, on the other hand, for international organizations to link aid to laws allowing same-sex marriage.

    2. Will the church change its teaching on birth control or abortion?

    No.
    The Catholic Church opposes artificial birth control and abortion, and the synod agenda makes clear that's not going to change.
    The agenda calls abortion a "tragedy" and says the church is "actively committed to defend life."
    It calls for a "return" to the message of the church document on birth control, called Humanae Vitae, and "natural methods for responsible procreation."
    And it emphasizes that health care workers who oppose abortion have "the moral obligation of conscientious objection."

    3. What about euthanasia?

    No change there either.
    The agenda restates the official church position on euthanasia: "The Church not only feels the urgency to assert the right to a natural death, avoiding overly aggressive treatments and euthanasia, but also provides care for the elderly, protection for people with disabilities, assistance to the terminally ill and comfort to the dying."

    4. So will this meeting change anything at all?

    Possibly. Pope Francis has been looking for ways to welcome divorced Catholics -- even though the church officially opposes divorce.
    As it stands, Catholics who have divorced and remarried may not receive communion, one of the sacraments, unless the church has annulled their first marriage.
    The Catholic Church considers them still married to their first partner and therefore in an adulterous relationship with their new one.
    Allowing divorced, remarried Catholics to receive communion is one of the more contentious points of the synod.
    Some participants are adamantly in favor, claiming the Pope has said the communion is "medicine" and not a "prize for the perfect."
    Others are just as strongly opposed, saying it would give the impression that the Catholic Church condoned sexual relationships outside marriage.
    Pope Francis has attempted to resolve the impasse by streamlining the annulment process, hoping to encourage those Catholics who have not annulled their first marriage to do so.

    5. If the synod does recommend any changes, when will they take effect?

    It's hard to say. The conference lasts until October 25, with recommendations sent to the Pope when it ends.
    He considers them, and, if he chooses, can then write an official statement changing church practice.
    It could take several months to a year or so after the synod ends.