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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Catholics should not expect quick changes in Church rules against divorce, contraception and gay marriage even if most of them express dissenting views in a global survey, Vatican officials said on Tuesday.
The Vatican has sent a 39-question survey to dioceses around the world before an extraordinary meeting of bishops, known as a synod, on the theme of the family, scheduled for October 2014.
For the first time in preparation for such a meeting, the Vatican has asked bishops to share the survey widely with parish priests and for them to seek the views of their parishioners.
The questions touch on themes such as homosexual marriage, artificial birth control and how Catholics who have divorced and re-married should be treated in the 1.2 billion-member Church.
"We don't have a desire to re-open all the discussion on Catholic doctrine," the synod's Hungarian coordinator, Cardinal Peter Erdo, told a news conference called to present the survey.
"It is not a question of public opinion," he said, adding that the synod would discuss how to find solutions to difficult pastoral situations "within the doctrine that we already have".
The questionnaire, however, tackles once-taboo issues such as how to include adopted children of gay couples in the Church.
It also has sections on "unions of persons of the same sex", "the education of children in irregular marriages" and "the openness of the married couple to life".
A leaked copy of the survey was published last week by the National Catholic Reporter in the United States, touching off speculation on whether it could lead to changes in Church rules.
But Vatican officials made clear that change, if any, would come slowly and that it would be for Pope Francis to decide what to do with the survey results and the synod's deliberations.
"The synod does not make decisions based on the majority of public opinion. That is not how it works," Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte, who will be the synod's secretary-general, said.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake for the synod to ignore the results if "a large part of public opinion feels a certain way", he said. "We will have to reflect, pray and (the pope) will shed light on it."
Popes traditionally use the findings of synods, which are held at the Vatican, to write their own documents, or apostolic exhortations, on a given subject, in this case the family.
The Church teaches that homosexuals should be treated with respect but does not approve of gay marriage. It says homosexual tendencies are not sinful but homosexual acts are.
Without indicating any change in these teachings, Francis has said the Church should be more merciful toward gays and less judgmental, especially if they are "persons of good will and searching for God".
The survey's questions on gay marriages asks about the local church's attitude towards "people who have chosen to live in these types of union" and towards governments that allow it.
The questions show a concern for how better to prepare young people for marriage, the effectiveness of natural birth control methods, and how to support the "journey of faith" of divorced and remarried people who are excluded from the sacraments.
Editing by Alistair Lyon