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Pope Francis is consulting widely on the reform of church teaching on the family. AAP/Newzulu/Silvia Lore

What do Australian Catholics think of church teaching on sex and family?

Pope Francis has announced significant changes to the marriage annulment process for Catholics. The possibility of reform gained support during the Synod of Bishops in October 2014. Some commentators have suggested it was a strategic move by Francis aimed at “recalibrating” the discussions at the second synod gathering from October 4-25 this year, defusing tension between progressives and conservatives.

This announcement was met with a further round of commentary claiming that Pope Francis is a “great reformer”. Is this the case? What we know of Australian Catholics and their attitudes to reform reveals a more complex picture.

A key part of preparations for both synods has been an plausible commitment to widespread consultation. This includes the distribution of questionnaires to Catholics around the world.

The response of Catholics in Australia to the consultation ahead of the first synod gathering reveals two areas of agreement. Australian Catholics agree that the way the church is dealing with challenges facing families is problematic. They also agree that they want to talk about solutions.

Different views fall into three categories

Unsurprisingly, however, the research also reveals that Catholics are not unanimous in their perceptions of what the problem is or of where solutions lie. The differences seem to turn largely on whether or not there is any need for change in Catholic teaching on sex, marriage and the family, and if so, what kinds of change are possible. We have identified three standpoints.

First, there are those who think that no change to church teaching is necessary, but communication or education regarding the teaching needs to be improved.

Where people think the church’s teachings or their philosophical and theological underpinnings are not widely understood, they advocate more effective education. They maintain that the church is teaching the right thing for the right reasons: if people only understood these reasons more fully, they too would ultimately accept the teachings.

Second, there are those who think there needs to be doctrinal change, that is, a change to the church’s official teaching.

For example, a person may judge that he or she has an adequate understanding of the church’s teaching on contraception and nonetheless rejects the teaching. This person sees the church as teaching the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

Here, the implications may be both doctrinal and pastoral – that is, practical. If there are real objections to the theological and philosophical arguments underpinning moral teachings, then it makes little sense to simply reiterate the teaching and demand obedience.

Third, there are those who do not advocate for doctrinal change, but see a need to reform pastoral practice.

Pope Francis leads the 2014 Synod of Bishops, which laid the ground for the synod in October 2015. EPA/L'Osservatore Romano

Prior to the 2014 synod, the consultations revealed a strong agreement among Australian Catholics that simplifying the legal processes of marriage annulment would assist the church’s pastoral capacities. Other areas where Australian Catholics also seem to hold this position include with respect to children of marriages deemed “irregular”, co-habiting couples, divorcees, single parents and couples in same-sex relationships.

Francis’ recent changes to the annulment process illustrate the kind of reform that this third standpoint can achieve. The consensus among Australian Catholics on this issue seems to have been echoed by other parts of the world and consequently by their representatives at last year’s synod.

Pastoral reform likely to happen first

Francis seems to be realising his goal of a church that listens. But it is a standpoint with both strengths and weaknesses.

The first strength of this standpoint is that it is more likely to achieve consensus because it doesn’t explicitly challenge a person’s own doctrinal position. Whether one is a so-called progressive or conservative on a particular issue, most people seem to agree that the Catholic Church should be caring, inclusive and merciful in its practice. Any reform that appears to achieve this is an attractive option.

The reforms to the process of annulment have in no way changed the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Both “progressives” and “conservatives” can claim it as a victory for their view.

There is another important, though perhaps less obvious, strength to this standpoint. If maintaining the global communion of more than one billion Catholics is a primary consideration, as it is likely to be for the pope and for most people in positions of leadership in the church, then enacting changes to practice along the lines of the third standpoint can begin a process of reform by affecting practice without the upheaval of a doctrinal revolution.

In light of these two strengths, any reforms that do arise from the synods, and from the pontificate of Francis, are probably going to be pastoral reforms, or reforms of process and practice.

Doctrinal reform may still be needed

That said, it is not impossible to imagine some kind of doctrinal reform. This arises from an apparent weakness of the third standpoint: it is doesn’t address possible doctrinal inconsistencies.

Though this third standpoint may look like it only requires a pastoral response to find ways to act in a merciful and inclusive manner, the very idea that the church should be merciful and inclusive in a pastoral sense may require a reconsideration of doctrinal assumptions.

Effectively, the third standpoint could be claiming that the church is teaching the right thing according to one set of right reasons (such as natural law), but that the church may be doing the wrong thing according to another set of right reasons (Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful; Luke 6:36). Which reasons should hold sway and how the conflict should be resolved are doctrinal issues that will have practical consequences.

So, the kind of radical change to church doctrine that the second standpoint advocates seems unlikely. And yet, because the pastoral reforms of the third standpoint can bring implicit doctrinal tensions to the fore, they may also open a door to deeper discussions about doctrinal reform. And this is a conversation in which Australian Catholics seem to want to be heard.

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