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Pope Francis's family synod: 5 questions answered

On Sunday, Pope Francis opens a two-week meeting that seeks to make Catholic teachings on family life — marriage, sex, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality — relevant to today's Catholic families. 

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    A family take a 'selfie' in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014.
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Pope Francis on Sunday opens a two-week meeting of bishops and cardinals from around the world aimed at making the church's teaching on family life — marriage, sex, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality — relevant to today's Catholic families. The pre-synod debate has been dominated by mudslinging between liberals and conservatives over divorce and remarriage, but there are many more issues up for discussion.

Here are five things to know about the synod.

What's on the table?

Last year, Vatican officials sent out a 39-point questionnaire to bishops' conferences across the globe asking for frank input from clergy and lay Catholics on a host of hot-button issues like pre-marital sex, contraception, and gay unions. They got it.

In a brutally honest compilation of the data released in June, the Vatican conceded that the vast majority of Catholics reject church teaching on sex and contraception as intrusive and irrelevant. It said the church had to do a better job ministering to gays in civil unions and legal marriages and to children being raised in such families.

It blamed pastors for failing to adequately preach church teaching and said a "new language" was necessary to convey the church's message. The findings are to form the basis of the discussion.

Who's coming to Rome?

In all, 191 synod "fathers" are taking part: Most are presidents of national bishops' conferences, others were named by Francis, and still others are taking part thanks to the Vatican positions they hold. Sixty-one are cardinals, the rest are bishops, patriarchs, or priests.

Given that the issue at hand is Catholic families, Francis also invited 12 ordinary Catholics, members of families, to participate. The selected couples as introduced by the Vatican appear to be some of the model Catholic families that the Vatican often showcases: One couple from the US is prominent in promoting natural family planning, a natural birth control method endorsed by the church that involves monitoring a woman's cycle to avoid intercourse when she's most likely to conceive.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter, said it remains to be seen if these hand-picked lay Catholics will represent the views of the great majority of ordinary Catholics to bishops. "Certainly any who think natural family planning is the church's great gift to the laity will not," he said.

What will the public see?

Technically, the synod is a closed-door affair, with only the opening session broadcast and a final written message published. Press conferences are scheduled throughout.

In past synods, the Vatican published written summaries of bishops' remarks to the meetings and provided daily briefings about the general themes discussed.

This time around, however, the Vatican appears to be clamping down on the dissemination of such detailed information to encourage frank and spontaneous discussion. No written summaries are being provided.

What's happening on the sidelines?

As occurs during any big Vatican meeting, church reform groups are descending on Rome in hopes of influencing the debate or at least grabbing some airtime while attention on the Vatican is high. A prominent reform group, We Are Church, hosted advocates for women's ordination and an end to priestly celibacy.

The US-based Catholic gay rights group New Ways Ministry is also here, encouraged by the fact that pastoral care for families headed by same-sex couples is a top area of discussion. The European Forum of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual Christian Groups is hosting several events around Rome. Across the ocean, the Human Rights Campaign — the largest LGBT advocacy group in the US — is hosting a two-week, seven-city faith vigil "to send a message of acceptance while bishops meet."

On the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, a group of conservative legal scholars and policy makers wrote to the synod asking it to endorse the creation of networks of faithful married couples who could serve as support groups and mentors in parishes. Voice of the Family, which counts several pro-life groups as members, warned that while the synod could reinforce traditional church teaching, it also "risks confusing Catholics and non-Catholics worldwide on Catholic teaching on sexuality, family, and life."

How does it end?

The synod technically ends on Sunday, Oct. 19 with the beatification of Pope Paul VI, the third 20th century pope that Francis will elevate this year, following the dual canonizations of Saints John Paul II and John XXIII in April. Paul is best known for having overseen the completion of the Second Vatican Council ("Vatican II"), which helped bring the Catholic Church into the modern world.

Perhaps more important in this context, Paul also wrote Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical which enshrined the church's opposition to artificial contraception. The actual work of the synod will wrap up a day earlier when the bishops put the final touches on their "message" or final statement about what they have achieved. This is only phase one of the process, however. Bishops will reconvene in October 2015, to put forward formal proposals for Francis to consider in a future document.

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