Meetings this week between Pope Francis and his cardinals will deal with some of the thorniest issues facing the church, including the rejection by most Catholics of some of its core teaching on premarital sex, contraception, gays and divorce.
German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has called for "changes and openings" in the church's treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics, will give the keynote speech Thursday to the pope and cardinals attending a preparatory meeting for an October summit on family issues.
The cardinals are in town for a ceremony to formally install 19 new "princes of the church," the first batch named by Francis to join the group of churchmen who will elect his successor. The ceremony is the high point of an intensive week of meetings presided over by Francis that include the first proposals to put the Vatican's financial house in order.
Ahead of the consistory, cardinals will meet for two days behind closed doors to begin preparations for the October summit on family issues.
Francis scheduled the summit last year and took the unusual step of sending bishops around the world a questionnaire for ordinary Catholics to fill out about how they understand and practice church teaching on marriage, sex and other issues related to the family.
The results, at least those reported by bishops in Europe and the United States, have been eye-opening. Bishops themselves reported that the church's core teachings on sexual morals, birth control, homosexuality, marriage and divorce are rejected as unrealistic and outdated by the vast majority of Catholics, who nevertheless said they were active in parish life and considered their faith vitally important.
"On the matter of artificial contraception the responses might be characterized by the saying, `That train left the station long ago,'" Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, recently wrote on his blog, summarizing his survey's findings. "Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) suggests the rejection of church teaching on this subject."
German and Swiss bishops released similar survey results earlier this month. German bishops reported this: "The church's statements on premarital sexual relations, on homosexuality, on those divorced and remarried and on birth control ... are virtually never accepted, or are expressly rejected in the vast majority of cases."
The Swiss bishops went further, saying the church's very mission was being threatened by its insistence on such directives.
Kasper, who retired in 2010 after a decade as the Vatican's chief ecumenical officer, has for years held out hope that the Vatican might accommodate these remarried Catholics who are forbidden from participating fully in the church's sacraments unless they get an annulment.
"What is possible with God - namely forgiveness - we should be able to succeed within the church, too," he told Germany's Die Zeit in December.
Church teaching holds that unless that first marriage is annulled, or declared null and void by a church tribunal, Catholics who remarry cannot receive Communion because they are essentially living in sin and committing adultery. Such annulments are often impossible to get or can take years to process, a problem that has left generations of Catholics feeling shunned from their church.
Last year, the German diocese of Freiburg issued a set of guidelines explaining how such remarried Catholics could get around the rule. It said if certain criteria are met - if the spouses were trying to live according to the faith and acted with laudable motivation - they could receive Communion and other sacraments of the church.
The Vatican's chief doctrinal czar immediately shot down the initiative, insisting there is no way around the rule. Cardinal-elect Gerhard Mueller, like Kasper a German theologian, cited documents from popes past and his own office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in rejecting arguments that mercy should prevail over church rules or that people should follow their own consciences to decide if their first marriage was valid or not.
"It is not for the individuals concerned to decide on its validity, but rather for the church," he wrote in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.
But Kasper has said the issue can and should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Francis himself has made clear he wants to help these Catholics and that the annulment process itself must be reviewed because the church's tribunals currently are not able to deal with their caseload. He has said now was a "season of mercy."
Francis is a big fan of Kasper. During his first Sunday noon blessing as pope, Francis praised Kasper by name, saying he was a terrific theologian who had just written a great book on mercy.
American canon lawyer Edward Peters, who has written extensively on the American annulment process, said Monday that compromise is not possible on annulments themselves since that is the only way baptized Catholics can remarry. But in a blog post, he said the Vatican might consider some "process-smoothing provisions" that were approved for the U.S. church back in the 1970s, including the elimination of the mandatory appeal to Rome.