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Pope Francis has rebooted the debate on family and sexual mores

By John L. Allen Jr.

ROME — When Pope Francis arrived in the Philippines Jan. 15, both his mind and his heart were focused on the people he was coming to see. His primary motive was to comfort the survivors of an almost apocalyptic 2013 super-typhoon, but he also knew the entire nation would be ecstatic that the pope — any pope, really — was in town.

The Philippines — 81% Catholic — arguably represent the greatest home court advantage for a pope on the face of the planet, and Francis wanted to return the favor.

Yet popes, like politicians, tend to craft their messages for multiple audiences. Although Francis’ principal concentration may have been on the Filipinos who defied a tropical storm to turn out in the millions, he simultaneously seemed to be speaking to a much smaller group, one that wasn’t even physically present.

In effect, Francis appeared to be talking to the roughly 300 bishops and other Church leaders who will make up the next Synod of Bishops on the Family in October.

One way to read what the pope was trying to accomplish is as a reboot of the synod debate, reassuring conservatives that whatever happens in October, the basics of Catholic teaching on sexuality and the family are not at risk.

Let’s start with a premise: In his heart of hearts, Pope Francis would like to see some accommodation made for Catholics who divorce and then remarry outside the Church, and who are thus barred from Communion.

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