Bishops expect to examine annulments, same-sex marriage at summit

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Hot button issues from annulments to same-sex marriage, along with other challenges facing Catholic families will be on the table at a rare summit of bishops that kicks off in Rome Sunday.

The synod on the family, called for by Pope Francis and the first to take place in more than 30 years, has some hoping it will lead to significant change in how church leaders counsel and guide their flock of 1.2 billion.

“I would like to see the formal church take a more open and inclusive stance towards families, how they’re made up, … a more welcoming attitude to people who are divorced and remarried, who are homosexual,” said Chicagoan Laura Singer, a 42-year-old married mother of three young children.

She’d also like to see changes made regarding artificial contraception and to allow divorced couples, who’ve remarried outside the church to take communion.

“It is very troubling when I see people who don’t go up to communion,” she said. “They are there every Sunday. They want to participate in this loving sacrament… and I think they should be able to fully participate.”

The Rev. Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of St. Sabina Church on the South Side, has similar views.

“Rather than tell people you shouldn’t take communion because you’ve gotten remarried [outside the church], let’s approach it in different ways,” he said. “How do we reconcile, instead of condemn. I’m not saying that we should just have a church where anything goes. I’m saying . . . let’s deal and face and wrestle with the issues, but not use the communion table to be the place where we punish people.”

Pfleger is among many Catholics who also see a need for streamlining the annulment process.

“Not only is it difficult, sometimes the annulment process is very painful in going back and trying to deal with your ex or answering questions,” he said. “The annulment process can be one more thing that runs people away” from the church.

Experts say amid some also strong opposition to change, the lid should be kept on expectations.

“The Catholic Church is like Queen Mary,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst with National Catholic Reporter. “It doesn’t turn on a dime… I think the pope and the bishops like to act with consensus. Well, consensus is going to take a while.”

Still, he and other church experts say some change is already afoot. Francis has welcomed debate. He is “encouraging discussion, even disagreements among the cardinals, which is really something new for these synods,” Reese said.

“The very fact that we’re having an open discussion in the church about some of these issues is extremely important.”

That sentiment was echoed by the Rev. Stan Chu Ilo, research fellow/assistant professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University. He expects the synod to show that the idea of “classical Catholicism where everyone has to agree to the same thing in order for us to be truly church, maybe that era is gradually coming to an end.”

Catholics shouldn’t expect this synod to produce resolutions, but it’s important because as a planning synod, it will inform what happens at a second family synod set for October, 2015, noted Michael Murphy, director of Catholic Studies at Loyola University of Chicago. The 2015 synod will result in recommendations for Francis.

Some church experts predict there will ultimately be action to simplify annulments. Among suggestions that have been put forth are changing the process from a legal one to a simpler administrative one, or copying the practice used by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which allows people to be civilly married after divorce and take communion, Reese said.

Ilo is hoping the synod includes discussion on how to deal with poverty and violence against women in other parts of the globe and on the use of artificial contraception to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa.

“Whereas in the west, people are preoccupied with issues of annulment, abortion … and same-sex marriage, in the global south people are more concerned about the basic needs of how do you educate your children, how do we have that partnership of equality between the husband and the wife so that women are not suffering [from] domestic violence,” he said.

Catholics in Chicago and globally have reason to care about what comes out of the synod, Reese said.

“Family is at the core of who we are as people,” he stressed. “I think every person is either in a family or knows a family that needs help… families that are in poverty, that have addictions, that are dysfunctional, and just the ordinary family that needs some help every once in a while. How [we] can help as a church, and that’s everybody from the pope on down, down to the altar boys and the ushers and the people in the pews” is important.

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