This week in Rome, the Vatican is holding its biggest meeting since 1985—an "extraordinary synod of bishops," only the third gathering of its kind in history. The 253 attendees include cardinals, bishops, theological experts, and a few dozen laypeople who are there to observe or testify.
And in large part, they're there to talk about sex.
The synod is focused on issues related to the family, which may or may not include discussions of divorce, priestly celibacy, contraception, abortion, and gay marriage. The point of the meeting isn't to make big doctrinal changes; if anything, those will come at a follow-up meeting of even more bishops in October 2015. This gathering is more about starting a conversation on subjects that have often been treated as taboo in the Catholic Church: In his opening remarks, Pope Francis urged the attendees to speak frankly and not consider any topic off-limits.
While the Vatican is keeping the proceedings closed to the press, there have already been a few splashy moments: On Monday, a married couple, Romano and Mavis Pirola, urged the Church to be more welcoming to gay couples. "The Church constantly faces the tension of upholding the truth while expressing compassion and mercy. Families face this tension all the time," they said.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, said that conversations among the bishops have focused on "the central role of sexuality and sexual intercourse in marriage. Now that's not what we bishops talk about, primarily," he noted with a wholesome, priestly laugh, but there has been "a recognition that it is central to the well-being of a marriage."
He spoke about the interventions that have been made by English-speaking bishops so far—speeches that essentially shape the direction of the proceedings. While he didn't name any of the bishops who spoke—Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the synod, has said the proceedings are being kept confidential to encourage honest, frank discussion—Nichols highlighted one intervention of particular interest.
As the Church's highest leaders turn their attention toward sex, marriage, and the family, there's one other aspect of this synod that's worth noting. Of the 191 Church officials in attendance, only one is a woman: Sister Margaret Muldoon, the superior general of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux.