Vatican City (AFP) – The Vatican on Tuesday launched an unprecedented worldwide consultation on modern families including same-sex couples as part of Pope Francis's drive to reform the Catholic Church.
A questionnaire has been sent to bishops around the world asking them for detailed information about the "many new situations requiring the Church's attention and pastoral care".
"Concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago have arisen today as a result of different situations, from the widespread practice of cohabitation… to same-sex unions," it said.
Religious watchers said the 39 questions were unusual because of their non-judgemental, practical nature in what could be a signal of greater openness and increased pastoral care regardless of a believer's background.
Referring to gay couples, one questions asks: "What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?"
"In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?"
On remarried divorcees, who under the current rules are not allowed to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic church, the questionnaire asks: "Do they feel marginalised or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments?"
On divorce and separated couples in general, it asks: "How do you deal with this situation in appropriate pastoral programmes?"
The initiative is part of preparations for a synod of bishops next year and another in 2015 that the Vatican said will formulate "working guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family".
Lorenzo Baldisseri, head of the synod of bishops, told reporters that the meeting's theme "reflects very well the pastoral zeal with which the Holy Father wishes to approach the proclamation of the Gospel to the family in today's world".
He said the consultation also showed Francis, who has said the Catholic Church is too "Vatican-centric", wanted more "collegiality".
Cardinal Peter Erdo, president of the Council of the Bishops' Conferences of Europe, referred in particular to the increase in cohabiting Catholic couples who do not intend to marry, saying "the phenomenon requires a deepened reflection."
Archbishop Bruno Forte, special secretary of the synod, said "the Church has to better its understanding, it is not a static body. We do not have the answers ready, but we cannot behave like an ostrich, with its head in the sand."
Vatican expert Marco Politi, who writes for the Italian weekly L'Espresso, told AFP that "it is hugely significant that the Church, instead of presenting its 'truth' on families, civil unions and homosexuality from on high, wants to hear about the experience of the local faithful."
"What's interesting is how bishops are going about gathering the information. Some bishops are taking Francis's drive further forward, while others are putting on the brakes," he said.
In England, for example, the questionnaire is available online so individuals can express their opinions directly, while bishops elsewhere "believe their role is to filter the answers", he added.
Pope Francis has shown a more open style since being elected in March and a desire to bring the Catholic Church more in touch with the lives of ordinary people, although experts say he is unlikely to bring about major changes in doctrine.
Francis has said priests should baptise children even when the parents are not married and, when asked recently about his views on gays, he replied: "If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?"