Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times’ Henry Chu took a long look at a synod called by Pope Francis this week, scheduled for the fall, that will review Catholic practices on the family structure.  The meeting of the bishops will tackle some of the most controversial topics inside and outside the Catholic Church, mainly focusing on the family structure and how to adapt to rapidly-changing norms while keeping fidelity with the faith. The meeting follows a period of feedback in dioceses across the world on lay attitudes on these issues:

Hardly anyone expects the pope to propose sweeping changes to Catholic doctrine at the synod in October despite widespread criticism that the modern world has left the church behind. Indeed, Francis has unequivocally upheld heterosexual marriage and procreation as God’s established, sanctified ideal.

But liberal reformers have been excited by the Vatican’s shift in tone under Francis. His remark regarding gays, “Who am I to judge?” has gone viral, as has his warning to the church not to obsess over “small-minded rules” and contentious subjects such as abortion.

So, although Francis almost certainly will not call for ditching the church’s policy of denying communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried, his emphasis on pastoral care and compassion could offer local priests a work-around, with greater flexibility to address individual circumstances. That would fit with the pope’s vision of the church as a “field hospital” that triages people’s spiritual wounds rather than aggravates them.

Likewise, Thavis said, Francis has hinted that same-sex unions, though not “marriage,” could serve a practical purpose, if not a sacred one, by legally protecting the children of such relationships. This month, in an event that made headlines, the infant daughter of a lesbian couple was baptized in a cathedral in Francis’ native Argentina, apparently with the Holy See’s tacit assent.

“When he was cardinal in Buenos Aires, he really had a go at priests who wouldn’t baptize the children of single mothers,” said Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Tablet, a Catholic weekly in Britain. “He takes it back to a human place. It’s more about the person than about sticking to the letter. He’s willing to find a way through things.”

But analysts warn that Francis’ global popularity could fuel inflated expectations of the changes he is able, or wants, to deliver.

That’s the risk of polling the dioceses, too, but it’s a calculated risk that’s offset by the familiar consistency in church teachings and practice. The very act of asking implies change, and people who participate in such surveys may well think that they have a good idea of how those surveys will turn out and expect the Vatican to change to satisfy the thrust of lay practice. If nothing at all changes, then the risk will be that the disappointment will create a backlash that could be worse than the status quo ante.

It seems clear, though, that the Vatican anticipates making some changes. Pope Francis has expressed his ambition to see the church become a paramedic of mercy more than a public scold, but he has also insisted that the truths of the Catholic Church won’t be up for debate or modification either. That still leaves a relatively wide area of practices that could be modified to encourage more engagement from the laity in the parishes and especially at Mass. But the core teachings on issues raised by Chu won’t change as much as the church’s critics will want:

Nobody at the Vatican will be surprised to learn that vast numbers of Catholics disobey its ban on premarital sex and birth control, or that some are in gay partnerships. Setting down those realities irrefutably on paper, however, could strengthen a bid by Francis to soften the church’s official line and put pressure on bishops inclined to resist, including some in the United States and many in Asia and Africa, conservative areas where the church has been growing.

Softening may occur on how the church deals with those struggling in these areas, but don’t expect “the official line” to move much, if at all. Outside of sacramental marriage, the teaching that all should observe chastity directly relates to Old and New Testament Scripture, and the teaching on marriage and divorce come directly from Jesus Christ. No Pope is going to overrule Jesus, no matter what the laity may want.

In fact, this part made me laugh out loud:

Hardly anyone expects the pope to propose sweeping changes to Catholic doctrine at the synod in October despite widespread criticism that the modern world has left the church behind.

Well, no one who understands the role of the Pontiff and the bishops would expect any changes to “Catholic doctrine,” sweeping or otherwise. There may be some changes to practice, which evolves according to need, but never to doctrine. Those potential changes may be to backing civil protections for gay unions in order to defend their dignity — especially in Africa, where recent laws have begun persecuting gays — and crafting a more welcoming message for children of divorced-and-remarried parents.

Another practice that could get a review in the October synod may be the celibacy of priests in the Latin Rite. David Gibson writes at the Jesuit journal America that Francis has indicated a willingness to reconsider the thousand-year practice of priestly celibacy, based on his actions in Argentina and his support for national bishops conferences, where the issue has percolated as the numbers of priests have declined:

As then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Francis commented that while he was in favor of retaining celibacy “for now,” it was a matter of church law and tradition, not doctrine: “It is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.”

More recently, Francis’ secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, echoed those views in comments last fall when he said that celibacy “is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition.”

So is optional celibacy a real possibility under Francis? “I think the topic is open for discussion,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter.

There are at least three reasons why Francis may be amenable to the debate:

• One, while a married priesthood is often seen as part of the “liberal” agenda for reform that includes ordaining women priests and overturning teachings on homosexuality and birth control, it’s not. In fact, church officials across the spectrum periodically raise the option of married priests — while keeping celibacy as the norm — but they often do so in private.

• Two, because celibacy is a matter of law and tradition, not doctrine or dogma, it can be debated or even changed without signaling that the entire edifice of church teaching is about to crumble. Such a reform would be a pragmatic way of addressing a pastoral problem, and it has received a boost from none other than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a favorite of conservatives, who allowed some married Anglican clergy to become Catholic priests.

• Three, Francis has framed the celibacy reform as one that should emerge from a local context, which reinforces his goal of decentralizing power and authority in the church. Celibacy could be a useful means of solving a problem while promoting collegiality and the idea of organic change in Catholicism.

“If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons … not so much as a universal option,” as Francis said in 2010 remarks on the issue, three years before he was pope.

Many of the rites within the Catholic Church allow for married priests, and converts from other faith communities already serve in the Latin Rite. But that’s no slam-dunk either, as Fr. Dwight Longenecker — himself a married Anglican convert — explained earlier this week. It’s a matter of economics in one sense, but also a matter of the impact on family life and the focus on priests in parishes:

The real elephant in the room is one which Pascal Emmanuel doesn’t mention, and which I haven’t heard anyone else mention.

It’s (cue screams of shock and horror) Humanae Vitae. The question of whether a married man with a family can have the time to be a priest and whether the Catholic Church can afford it is altered tremendously when you remember that a Catholic priest who is a young fertile man with a young fertile wife will be obliged to be an example to his flock and live according to the teachings of the church. That means no artificial contraception. That will probably mean not just a professional wife with the standard suburban 2.5 children, but a happy brood of young Catholics.

Now that changes the picture no? Is the parish willing to support that kind of Catholic priest? Are they ready to build bigger rectories, pay for orthodontics, Catholic school and college? The big brood reduces father’s availability and the possibility that mother will go out to work to bring added income.

Are American Catholics are willing to accept such a challenge positively with faith and amazingly joyful generosity?

Technically, all young and fertile Catholics are obliged to live according to the teachings of the church, but his point is well taken. The family issue goes farther than that, though. Diocesan priests get paid a decent wage, a little more than the average household income for Americans, but they work constantly. The priests in our diocese often work 70-80 hours a week or more, and are frequently called to perform duties outside of their residences. It would be difficult for married priests to keep up with both parish and family responsibilities, if not impossible.

There could be a solution to that, though. Currently, married men can become “permanent” deacons after age 35, and are generally encouraged to wait until children are older, if not out of the house. (They are also expected to remain celibate if their wives predecease them.) If the church decided to open the priesthood for married men, they could set the minimum age higher and discern on current family obligations as a prerequisite.

At any rate, the synod and its follow-up next year should be fascinating — as will the debate before, between, and afterward will no doubt be.