The Vatican is taking the unusual step of conducting a worldwide survey on how Roman Catholic parishes deal with sensitive issues such as birth control, divorce and gay marriage, seeking input before a major meeting on family issues that Pope Francis plans to hold next year.
The poll was sent in mid-October to every national conference of bishops, with a request from the Vatican coordinator, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, to "share it immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received."
But Catholics should not expect quick changes in church rules, even if most of them express dissenting views in the survey, Vatican officials said Tuesday.
"We don't have a desire to reopen all the discussion on Catholic doctrine," the meeting's Hungarian coordinator, Cardinal Peter Erdo, said at a news conference. "It is not a question of public opinion." He said that the synod, or meeting, would discuss how to find solutions to difficult pastoral situations "within the doctrine that we already have."
The survey nonetheless reflects the pope's pledges to move away from what he called a "Vatican-centric" approach to one that involves local church leaders more in decision-making.
The introduction to the survey lays out a broad list of concerns that the document says "were unheard of until a few years ago," including single-parent families, polygamy, interfaith marriages and "forms of feminism hostile to the church." Surrogate motherhood is lamented in the document as "wombs for hire," and the survey cites as a new challenge "same-sex unions between persons who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children."
The church teaches that gays and lesbians should be treated with respect but does not approve of gay marriage. It says homosexual tendencies are not sinful but homosexual acts are.
Among the questions are whether gay marriage is recognized in the respondent's country and how priests minister to same-sex couples, including how churches can respond when gays seek a religious education or Holy Communion for their children.
The poll also asks parishioners "how is God's mercy proclaimed" to separated, divorced and remarried couples; seeks their opinions on the pastoral care of men and women who live together outside of marriage; and asks them whether they believe married men and women tend to follow church teaching barring the use of artificial contraception.
A leaked copy of the survey was published last week by the National Catholic Reporter in the United States, touching off speculation about whether it could lead to changes in church rules.
The poll's findings will help set the agenda for an extraordinary synod of the presidents of national bishop conferences in October 2014.
Pope Francis has said the church needs to do a better job preparing young people for marriage, lamenting that newlyweds seem to think marriage isn't a lifelong commitment but just a "provisional" one. He has also said the church process for annulling marriages isn't working and must be reviewed.
The pontiff's emphasis on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy and boosting the participation of local church leaders and laypeople has led people to wonder how far-reaching his changes will be.
The pope has urged pastors to focus on being merciful and welcoming rather than emphasize only such divisive issues as abortion, gay marriage and contraception. At the same time, he has made clear his support for traditional marriage and opposition to abortion.
The introduction to the survey extensively quotes former popes and Catholic catechism on marriage being the union of a man and a woman for the purposes of having children.
Al Jazeera and wire services