A midpoint report from this month's Synod of Bishops reveals that Catholic leaders are considering more conciliatory language toward gays and lesbians, divorced and remarried Catholics, and couples who live together before getting married.
Meeting with nearly 200 senior prelates and several dozen lay experts and observers at the Vatican, Pope Francis has deliberately engineered a lively discussion of issues concerning marriage and family life. This assembly, and a follow-up summit in 2015, will help shape the pontiff's legacy.
Reporters and commentators are producing a flurry of analysis mostly centered on the question of whether the synod portends a change in substance or merely a change in tone. Such is the abiding question of Francis' papacy.
Yet through these lively debates in Catholic life runs a theme that is as old as the Reformation: the role of individual conscience.
The conflict between conscience and authority is the pre-eminent battle underlying the synod's debates. Even the dramatic turn from language such as "living in sin" and "intrinsically disordered" is a tacit nod to conscience over authority.
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If there is a common thread among issues as diverse as contraception, divorce, premarital sex and homosexuality, it may be the limits of the church's authority over Catholics' behavior and consciences.
Protestant denominations vary in how much they have abandoned traditional teaching on these matters. Evangelicals have mostly accommodated birth control and divorce, but not premarital or gay sex. Mainline Protestants rarely enforce what weak prohibitions on premarital sex remain, and are more rapidly accepting gays and lesbians in the life and ministry of their churches.
The Catholic church, of course, is against all these things. Built on a consistent ethic of life, strong demands for economic justice and a framework of natural law, the church's moral vision is, for many, more compelling than conservative Protestants' selective literalism. But even the church's significant authority is insufficient to bind its adherents' consciences to the fullness of its teaching.
This conflict manifests vividly in debates over worthiness to receive Communion, which, as certain pro-choice Catholic politicians will attest, can seem more like carrots and sticks than bread and wine.
The hallmark Protestant idea of priesthood of all believers allows the individual -- whose relationship with God is unmediated -- to determine his or her fitness to receive the sacrament. The Catholic church, meanwhile, retains a few layers of priestly and catechetical scrutiny.
Last week at the synod, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris worried that couples "do not believe that the use of contraceptive methods is a sin and therefore they tend not to speak of them in confession and so they receive Communion untroubled." Perhaps because married women might think it inappropriate to be questioned about contraception by a cadre of celibate men.
Either way, confessors tend not to press the issue, and no one pulls married couples out of the Communion line. Few believe a solid majority of Catholic women or their husbands will burn in hell for using artificial contraceptives.
In the case of cohabitating couples, there is little the church can do. Marriage preparation classes acknowledge its sinfulness, but priests and bishops cannot afford to turn away half of what is already a declining number of couples seeking marriage in the church. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops advises that priests can point couples toward a holier union by "supporting the couple's plans for the future rather than chastising them for the past."
Yet even for Catholics whose relationships put them in a perpetual state of mortal sin, individual conscience and church authority are often in fierce tension. In practice, LGBT Catholics often rely on their own consciences in determining whether they will go forward for Communion. In some locales, it is common enough for partnered gays and lesbians to receive Communion that it only makes news when they are turned away.
Enforcement of sacramental exclusion tends to fall most frequently and publicly on divorced Catholics who have remarried without seeking an annulment.
It seems uneven that perpetrators of heinous crimes -- including Catholic inmates on death row -- may receive Communion in prison (so long as they are not divorced and remarried) while civilly remarried Catholics are deemed unworthy to receive Communion for the rest of their lives regardless of how decently and ethically they live.
While homosexuality and remarriage are grabbing headlines, it is actually contraception that may be most relevant. Acceptance of contraception was decisive, with most Catholics' attitudes barely running behind Protestants'. It largely explains the slow-but-sure Christian elevation of conscience over authority.
As a Protestant, I can live in the tension between wishing for compassion toward LGBT people and grace for remarried Catholics on the one hand, and an abiding sympathy for the Catholic church's comprehensive moral vision on the other.
The Catholic church is a humane bulwark against a destructively permissive and pornographic culture where everything is commodified and nothing is sacred. To that end, perhaps it would be better if more Catholics submitted to church teaching.
But on some level, I remain grateful that Rome has no authority over my conscience. The trouble for the church is that a lot of Catholics think like I do.
[Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf.]