Let's talk about sex: can Rome win back its flock?
A synod beginning tomorrow will look at the Church's stand on sexuality. Just in time for a possible papal visit here in 2018
The Vatican has done nothing to dampen the growing speculation that Pope Francis will visit Ireland in 2018 as part of the 'World Meeting of Families'. Sources in Rome this week indicated that the only potential stumbling block could be the Pope's health given that by the time the event is held, he will be 82.
It's significant that, if the Pope does come, it will be in the context of a Vatican-sponsored gathering that reflects on challenges facing contemporary Catholics around the Church's teaching on marriage, sexuality and family life.
A consultation process carried out by the Church here last year found that Church teaching on contentious issues around divorce, contraception, homosexuality and cohabitation were either poorly followed or poorly understood - or both. It is this challenge that Pope Francis has summoned the world's bishops to a key Rome meeting due to begin tomorrow to address and debate.
Known in ecclesiastical speak as a Synod of Bishops, Irish Catholics will be represented by the Primate of All-Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin and Dublin's Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.
No doubt, many bishops from other parts of the world will be keen to hear the prelates' read of the referendum on same-sex marriage.
In the Catholic world, Ireland is still often caricatured as a bastion of Church orthodoxy. The traditional image of a land of saints and scholars still holds considerable sway, particularly in parts of the world where Irish missionaries were key in the spread of the faith. For those unaware of the seismic shift that has happened in Irish society, the result was a massive shock. The Pope's Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, even went so far as to describe the 'yes' vote as a "defeat for humanity".
A lot of expectation is resting on the Rome Synod. Many Catholics are hopeful of fundamental change in Church teaching. Chances are they'll be disappointed. All the indications are that Pope Francis is after a shift in focus and emphasis rather than doctrine. He has repeatedly made this point.
For Archbishop Eamon Martin, the task is clear. "The challenge facing the forthcoming synod will be to find ways of remaining completely faithful to the Church's teaching on marriage and the family while at the same time reaching out in a compassionate and merciful way to those whose home and family situations are very different".
It's a daunting challenge, and while many people are lining up to laud Pope Francis for his more open approach and inclusive language, there are plenty waiting in the long and not-so-long grass. US Cardinal Raymond Burke has described the Church under the Argentine pontiff as a "rudderless ship". Burke was recently dropped as a member of the influential synod body, but remains a weighty critic in the Vatican corridors of power. Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer, perhaps the most authoritative biography of Pope Francis to date, thinks that conservative Catholics are worryingly unnecessarily. For bishops attending, he insists, "assent to doctrinal orthodoxy is the starting point".
"What Pope Francis has called 'the fundamental truths of the sacrament of marriage' were never in question," according to Dr Ivereigh. He is adamant that, for Pope Francis, sex is for marriage, marriage is for a man and a woman, open to life, for life, and sexually faithful.
He points out that at last year's meeting of the synod, "there was no debate on these points".
"Pope Francis did not call this synod to change teaching, but to expand it to include the missing part: the 'missionary' and 'pastoral' dimension - the merciful, healing, loving, welcoming part of Catholicism, which those outside the Faith don't get to see. "Understand why they don't and you get the point of the synod," Dr Ivereigh insists. But it is not just those outside the Church who feel they don't get to see the Church's merciful side.
In the run up to the synod, bishops in England and Wales released the results of a widespread consultation there. It makes for fascinating reading. It found that many Mass-going Catholics found the Church to be bigoted, misogynistic, controlling, judgmental, outdated and pharisaical. It's hard to see how a mere shift in language and emphasis can address such a perception.
There's also the fact that many Catholics believe that the consultation process means they were being asked whether or not they thought key teachings should be changed rather than, as the Vatican has pointed out, being asked to reflect on their experiences of the teachings. So, if there is to be no change in teaching, how does the Church become more welcoming? This is an enormous undertaking: how do parishes bring healing to the divorced, while holding firm to the Church's belief in the indissolubility of marriage? How can the Church welcome gay Catholics while underlining the teaching that sexual expression is for marriage alone? Ultimately, all eyes look to Pope Francis. While the Pontiff is keen to listen to the experiences of the bishops from various parts of the world, the ultimate decision on how the Church's teaching can be experienced in a more merciful fashion is his. There will be many competing voices, some bishops will urge Francis to simply use the synod to reaffirm Catholic doctrine, and others will want him to make a dramatic shift. Probably the majority, however, will want him to steer a middle ground, leaving teaching unchanged, while accepting that people often find themselves unable to meet high ideals while still wanting to be connected to their faith.
Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican-watcher who many have accused of being hostile to Pope Francis, thinks the synod will be a fiery affair. "The battle is in full swing," he insists.
So, where does Ireland fit in to the wider jigsaw? Pope Francis knows many Catholics have become disillusioned with a Church that they often experience as judgmental and unrealistic when it comes to family life. Yet, he knows that as Pope, his role is to defend the traditional teaching of the Church while finding new language that is easily digestible to contemporary Catholics.
If his reformed approach is to have any impact, it will have to bear fruit in a country like Ireland where many Catholics have drifted away, not just because of clerical abuse, but because they don't believe they have heard a coherent and cogent explanation for why the Church teaches what it teaches. Ireland is all the more interesting too for the fact that many Catholics who disagree with the Church on key issues around marriage and sexuality have not drifted away. They may not be agitating for change, but they are there in the pews desirous to draw on the well of spirituality at the heart of Catholicism, while rejecting many teachings.
Two million Catholics will attend Mass on the island of Ireland tomorrow, with various levels of devotion and commitment. Pope Francis knows that if he can convince this group - ranging from the fervent to the lukewarm - that the Church's teaching is still relevant, then the Faith is in with a fighting chance.
His revolution lies in his ability to convince his fellow bishops that rules matter, but the Church should love people more than it love rules.
Michael Kelly is the editor of The Irish Catholic