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Allen: Balancing mercy, doctrine in the church

Pope Francis prays at Israel's separation barrier on

Pope Francis prays at Israel's separation barrier on May 25, 2014, after he made an unscheduled stop at the security wall in this photo released by the Vatican press office. Photo Credit: AFP / Osservatore Romano

If you are not Catholic, and even if you are, you could be forgiven for not knowing that a remarkable event is unfolding in Rome.

Pope Francis has convened an "extraordinary synod of bishops" and laypeople, only the third gathering of its kind in history. The topic of discussion is marriage and family, which sounds tame enough.

But the churchmen and their guests will spend the two-week meeting delving into all that marriage and family entail in the modern era -- which requires addressing issues considered increasingly acceptable in society but still taboo among Catholics -- like premarital sex, divorce and same-sex marriage.

During his remarks, the pope called for openness among participants. His desire was to create an environment where all attendees are free to "speak boldly" without censure or fear.

That is extraordinary. Imagine getting such a reception during a political debate.

And early reports from the synod suggest that attendees are taking the pontiff at his word. While the Vatican is releasing only limited information about what the bishops are saying, it is more readily sharing commentary by the 12 married couples that also are taking part in the discussions.

One couple relayed the struggles faced by their devout Catholic friends with a gay son; another couple described the hurdles they confronted trying to start a fellowship organization that would cater to couples in "irregular situations," such as divorced and remarried partners who did not seek an annulment or unmarried couples who are living together.

Those issues may not seem like a big deal to many in contemporary society, but how to address them in a manner that is both charitable and faithful to church doctrine will require the courage of the prophet Daniel and the grace of, well, Jesus Christ himself.

There is no doubt that the church teaches some difficult truths about life and the nature of man, many of which are unwelcome in a culture that is increasingly self-indulgent and secular. But many people stay in the church not because what it teaches is easy. Quite the contrary. They come prepared to carry a cross.

Many progressive Catholics, inspired by Francis' pastoral nature and candid remarks ("Who am I to judge?"), were encouraged that his papacy might signal a dramatic shift in church doctrine. And what better place to begin the transformation than with a gathering to address one of the most debated church teachings -- the indissolubility of marriage.

But no such shifting will occur. "What's being discussed at this synod are not doctrinal issues, but the practical ones," said Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo. The bishops seem aware that divorce often means an abandoned spouse and vulnerable children.

That core doctrines are off the table should not surprise, nor disappoint, any Catholic.

After all, doctrine is, by definition, immovable. There is danger in the attempt by some to "soften" teachings that have endured for millennia -- because of their likely ripple effect.

As Louise Mensch, a divorced and remarried Catholic who willingly abides by church teaching not to receive Holy Communion, explains in the British publication The Spectator: "Theologically, the Church is like a giant tower in Jenga; pull out one brick and you topple all the others." The church has endured for so long because it is unchanging. Still, it has much to learn about how to better relay its sometimes challenging teachings in a culture whose moral thermostat is no longer set to automatically be receptive to the teaching that marriage is for life, period.

That is what this synod is intended to accomplish.

And taking on this task with open minds and hearts is truly extraordinary.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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