The pontiff with a penchant for surprises is making new waves by launching a survey of his flock on issues facing modern families — from gay marriage to divorce.
Very specific questions are being sent to parishes around the globe in preparation for next year's synod of bishops, a grassroots effort that experts say is unprecedented.
"It's fascinating," said Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College.
"It's pretty astonishing," agreed Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the gay Catholic organization DignityUSA.
Vatican watchers say Francis' polling attempt is extraordinary on two levels: first, because it seeks input from rank-and-file Roman Catholics and second, because it touches on issues that might have been considered off-limits in past papacies.
The document sent to every nation's conference of bishops notes that the ancient church and its members are grappling with "concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago."
Same-sex unions, mixed marriages, single-parent families and surrogate mothers are all mentioned in the prelude to a list of questions that get into the nitty-gritty of 21st century life:
- "What pastoral attention can be given to people who live in these types of [same-sex] 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?"
- "Do [the divorced and remarried] feel marginalized or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments?"
- "In cases where non-practicing Catholics or declared non-believers request the celebration of marriage, describe how this pastoral challenge is dealt with."
The Argentine Jesuit elected to the throne of St. Peter in March has drawn widespread praise — and some scattered criticism from conservatives — for his comments about gays, women, atheists and priestly celibacy.
There is nothing in the questionnaire that says he is planning any big changes, and a senior Vatican official said Tuesday that the church remains "loyal to the vision of the family where a man and a woman join together and procreate children."
But Fordham University theology chair Terrence Tilley said the questionnaire does suggest the church might tweak some policies that don't involve doctrine — such as denying the sacraments to Catholics who have divorced and remarried or opening the church to gay couples that want to raise adopted children Catholic.
"I think it demonstrates a grounding in the practical realities of the world," Duddy-Burke said, though she cautioned that the real test is if the Vatican agrees to hear from a diverse range of families at the actual synod.
Groome said it "remains to be seen" if the polling will translate into any action, but he's impressed nonetheless.
"To my knowledge, it's the first time in the history of the magisterium have genuinely attempted to consult the laity," he said.
"At least he's started the conversation," Groome said.
"All of these things have been closed issues and you could be fired for even talking about them.
Raising these questions and polling people — it at least signals something other than a closed mind.
You have to thank God for small mercies."