1 of 2
Alessandra Tarantino, AP
Bishops, wearing purple skull caps, who will be elevated to cardinals in a ceremony Saturday, attend an extraordinary consistory in the Synod hall at the Vatican City, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Pope Francis opened the two-day meeting by urging his cardinals to find "intelligent, courageous" ways to help families under threat today without delving into case-by-case options to get around Catholic doctrine. He said the church must find ways to help families with pastoral care that is "full of love." (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

On Sunday, the Roman Catholic Church's Synod of Bishops will begin a two-week conference designed to investigate how church doctrine impacts families.

Although any decisions made during the sessions will only formally impact Catholics, a new letter to the synod from conservative intellectuals and religious leaders indicated the conference could potentially influence a larger debate over the institution of marriage.

The letter, addressed to the "Holy Father (Pope Francis), eminences and excellencies" of the Synod of Bishops, was sent directly to officials in Rome, as well as posted online. Titled "Commitment to Marriage," it applauds the Catholic Church's efforts to revisit and enliven its teachings on family relationships, referring to marriage and the family as "vehicles of salvation and as bulwarks of human society."

The conservative signatories — including Rick Warren of California's Saddleback Church and professors at high-profile American and international universities — emphasize the numerous ways marriage appears threatened in the contemporary world, citing high rates of divorce and cohabitation among unmarried people, among other concerns.

Crux, the Boston Globe's dedicated Catholic news site, noted that, while the letter does side-step specific issues like gay marriage, its message is clear: "Now is the wrong time to go soft (on established teachings.)" In other words, the letter calls for the synod to find new ways to strengthen established teachings rather than pave the way for dramatic changes.

"Overall, the thrust of the letter appears to be to suggest the synod's time would be better spent considering how to support couples striving to live church teaching on marriage, rather than debating amendments to that teaching," Crux reported.

Fourteen married couples were invited to join the synod, composing just 11 percent of the 253 total participants, America Magazine reported in early September. The pair from the U.S. are Jeffrey and Alice Heinzen. He serves as director of natural family planning in the diocese of La Crosse and she is a member of the natural family planning advisory board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The letter ended with several suggestions for discussion topics, including finding a way to incorporate research on the "social benefits of marriage" into seminary courses and sermons or paving a path to reconciliation for "married couples who are separated or have been divorced by civil courts."

Deseret News National's previous coverage of the upcoming synod explored the possibility that the conference will alter the church's current teachings on divorce and annulment, an adjustment that would impact American Catholics in particular. However, as Crux noted in its article, only the highest officials know for certain which topics will make the final agenda.

Email: [email protected] Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

You may also be interested in this story:

Catholic leaders' deliberations over divorce may have implications for American believers