Catholics urged to join in papal debate

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The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has called on members of the church to engage with a worldwide survey launched by Pope Francis on issues like gay rights and contraception.

The Pope has written to Bishops’ Conferences in countries around the world, asking them to gauge the attitudes of Catholics towards issues raised by modern lifestyles, some of which have previously been deemed too controversial to debate. The results will be discussed at a synod of bishops in October next year.

The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, said it was important for the church to “listen” to the experiences of people grappling with the “messy realities” of modern life.

But he stopped short of suggesting that the survey might lead to changes in controversial aspects of the church’s teaching, such as the ban on the use of contraception, saying it was too early to predict the outcome of the process.

Asked whether changes are likely, the Archbishop told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “There is a big difference between a policy and a teaching. The job of government is to help us to be good citizens together; the job of a teaching church is to help us to follow Christ, and they are rather different. They overlap but there are quite distinct differences between them.”

He added: “I think it’s important first of all that we listen. If we hear things that are difficult and challenging, that’s fine. That’s part of it.

“What then? I think these are the challenges the Pope expects. One, on the one hand, is how well is the vision of Christian understood? How can we better unfold it, understand it more deeply, pay attention to each other as we struggle to understand it? And on the other hand, how do we accompany one another?

“He says people are walking away from the church today, their hearts are downcast and they are disappointed. Go and walk with them, go and accompany them and let the journey take its shape.”

Asked what the point of the survey would be if it did not lead to change, he replied: “Because we are in the church together, we respect each other, we want to love each other, we want to accompany each other.”