October 6, 2014 / 2:11 PM / 5 years ago

Pope, opening Catholic gathering, tells bishops to speak frankly

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Monday opened a Roman Catholic assembly that will discuss marriage, gay couples, birth control and other moral issues, telling his bishops to speak frankly and not be afraid of upsetting him.

Pope Francis looks on as he leads the synod of bishops in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican October 6, 2014. REUTERS/Claudio Peri/Pool

After a ceremonial opening on Sunday, some 200 bishops from around the world sat with the pope in a Vatican hall to begin the working sessions of the two-week synod, which is centered on the theme of the family and could help define Francis’ papacy.

“One basic, general condition (for the synod) is this: speak clearly. Let no one say: ‘I can’t say that. What will people think of me?,” he told the bishops.

He said the leaders of the 1.2 billion-member Church should not hold back their opinions on any topic, however delicate, “out of respect for the pope or because the pope might think otherwise.” He added: “That is not good”.

The meeting, preceded by public clashes between progressives and conservatives, is seen as a test case for the pontiff’s vision of a Church he wants to be closer to the poor and suffering and not obsessed by issues such as homosexuality, abortion and contraception.

No immediate changes are expected to result from the synod, though it will prepare the way for a larger gathering of Catholic clerics next year, which will present the pope with suggestions that some Catholics hope could lead to changes in issues related to the family and sexual morality.

The synod is the first since Francis was elected 19 months ago with a mandate to turn around an institution hit by declining membership in many countries and scandals including the sexual abuse of children by priests.

The meetings are taking place behind closed doors and the Vatican does not plan to release texts or written summaries of individual interventions, or disclose who said what.

The Vatican, which will hold daily briefings, says this is to encourage free debate. Reporters have contested the decision, saying there will be less independent information available to the media than in previous synods.

To prepare for the meeting, the Church took a worldwide survey on family issues that showed that many Catholics ignored Church teachings on birth control, sex before marriage and acceptance of homosexuality.

The clash between progressives and conservatives in the run-up to the meeting has centered on the issue of whether the Church should modify teachings that deny communion to Catholics who have divorced and then remarried in civil services.

For Catholics, a second marriage without an often lengthy Church annulment of the first amounts to adultery and anyone remarried in a civil ceremony cannot receive communion at Mass unless they refrain from sexual relations with a new partner.

In a sermon on Sunday, the pope called for an end to in-fighting, saying the synod was “not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent”.

Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Crispian Balmer

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