Thursday, July 3, 2014

Synod on the Family

The Vatican’s General  Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops released on June 26, 2014, a summary of  input concerning the pastoral challenges facing families in preparation for an Extraordinary Synod  to be held in October. The document is described as instrumentum laboris, a “working document.”  

A Preparatory Document issued in November, 2013, posed questions to allow “particular Churches to participate actively in the preparation of the Extraordinary Synod.” Bishops from around the world were invited to send their experiences and opinions about the social and spiritual crises of families and to suggest how the Church can better respond to them and to new family-related situations “requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care.”

The summary of the world-wide consultation (the instrumentum laboris) has been given to the members of the upcoming Synod “to define the ‘staus quaestionis’ and to collect the bishops’ experiences and proposals in proclaiming and living the Gospel of the Family in a credible manner.” A second meeting, the Ordinary General Assembly in 2015, will focus on “working guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family” according to the Preparatory Document of November, 2013.

World-wide Consultation

The committee charged with developing the instrumentum laboris  faced the mammoth task of collating observations and recommendations from dioceses all over the world, input which on occasion offered culturally-based and sometimes conflicting conclusions.

The document notes, for example, that “the responses indicate that in Europe and across America a very high number of persons are separated, divorced or divorced and remarried; the number is much lower in Africa and Asia” (paragraph 86).

In the discussion about natural law (a concept often quoted in Church teaching) the feedback from the bishops indicates “large scale perplexity surrounding the concept of natural law” and affirms that “the concept of natural law turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible” (20, 21).

The summary says that “several Episcopal conferences in Africa, Oceania and East Asia, mention that, in some regions, polygamy is to be considered ‘natural,’ as well as a husband’s divorcing his wife because she is unable to bear children –and, in some cases, unable to bear sons” (25).

The survey results garnered from the preparatory document of November, 2013, confirm that the Catholic Church is truly worldwide and multi-cultural.

Difficult Situations

In addressing the question of same-sex unions or marriages the instrumentum laboris explains that in some cultures homosexuality is prohibited by civil law, while in other cultures homosexual behavior is not punished but simply tolerated, and still other cultures have introduced legislation to recognize civil unions of homosexuals (110-112).

The input from Catholic bishops insists that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions” but “according to the teaching of the Church, men and women with homosexual tendencies ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided’” (110).

Of special concern to many is the question of admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to the sacraments. In Europe and in some Latin American and Asian settings, “the prevailing tendency among some of the clergy is to resolve the issue by simply complying with the request for access to the sacraments” (93).

A significant number of responses recommended consideration of  “the practice of some Orthodox Churches, which, in their opinion, opens the way for a second or third marriage of a penitential character” (95). It was noted that “in some cases, Catholics in countries with a major number of Orthodox Christians remarry in the Orthodox Church following their customary ritual and then ask to receive Communion in the Catholic Church” (96).

Long List of Challenges

I cannot in this blog touch on all the elements under consideration for the October 2014 Extraordinary Synod based on the instrumentum laboris. The Vatican’s English translation of the document is 48 pages long. Other areas of concern include communication (64), abortion (65), sexual violence (66), trafficking (67), drug abuse (68), migration (72), pedophilia (75), impact of war (77), cohabitation (81), and more.

My reading of the document leads me to believe that the Bishops will be tempted to initiate a large number of new programs and/or promote existing ministries for the support of family life. Among the recommendations are: 1) formation of the clergy in presenting better homilies; 2) ongoing catechesis of the families; 3) using language which is accessible to all, especially in liturgy; 4) parish programs to support married life; 5) ministry to those in irregular marriages; 6) more pastoral approach to the marriage “annulment” process; 7) programs to offer spiritual care for single, homosexual people; 8) programs to promote openness to life; 9) formation-aid to assist parents in the education of their children; and several more.

I suspect that genuine, effective response will require more than implementation of new programs. Talking about the challenges must be only a start. Development of programs can help. But true pastoral response to the need of today’s families will require conversion both in the thinking of the hierarchy and  in the lives of the faithful.

One element I do not detect in the instrumentum laboris is the need for a review and self-analysis of Church discipline and teaching to render them more pastoral in meeting the challenges of the modern family.

Cardinal Kasper’s Input

In February of 2014 Pope Francis called together an extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals, and part of their agenda included an address by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. His topic, The Gospel of the Family, was clearly preparatory for the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family.

Cardinal Kasper caused a stir when he questioned how the Church could best respond to Catholics who have divorced and remarried without a Church “annulment.” He acknowledged that the Church cannot propose a solution that is contrary to the words of Jesus, but also acknowledged the  wideness of God's mercy and asked “how the Church can conform to the indissoluble cohesiveness of fidelity and mercy in its pastoral practice with civilly remarried, divorced people.”

He recalled the address of Pope Francis to the Roman Rota on January 24, 2014,  in which the Holy Father emphasized that the juridical and the pastoral dimensions are not in opposition to each other. “Mercy does not exclude justice,” Kasper said, emphasizing that  “pastoral care and mercy are not contradictory to justice.”

He reminded the bishops about the response he found in his study of the Church Fathers where “in individual local churches there existed the customary law, according to which Christians, who were living in a second relationship during the lifetime of the first partner, had available to them, after a period of penance, admittedly no second ship –no second marriage—but indeed a plank of salvation through participation in communion. Origen reports on this custom and describes it as ‘not unreasonable.’”

Concluding his address, Kasper noted that “we may not limit the discussion to the situation of the divorced and remarried or to many other difficult pastoral situations that have been mentioned in this context. We must begin positively, discovering and proclaiming again the gospel of the family….families are the test case for pastoral care and the most serious test case for the new evangelization.”

Kasper did not provide the answer to the questions he raised, but he raised the questions in response to the problems and needs faced by families today. It is his hope that the “forthcoming Synod, guided by God’s Spirit and after consideration of all points of view, can point out a good path that all can endorse” (The Gospel of the Family by Cardinal Walter Kasper, Paulist Press, 2014, p.p. 52-53).


As I read the instrumentum laboris, as I reflect on Cardinal Kasper’s Consistory Address on the family, as I recall the hundreds of responses we received in our archdiocese when Archbishop Schnurr chose to consult with his Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and with the faithful of the Archdiocese by means of the online survey, and when I think of the challenges to the family I see in our parishes, I am more than convinced that we must (all of us) pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the bishops when they gather in Synod.

Pope Francis has asked the faithful to pray to the Holy Family, and he composed this prayer for our use:

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love, to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth, may families never again experience violence, rejection and division; may all who have been hurt or scandalized find ready comfort and healing. 

Holy Family of Nazareth, may the approaching Synod of Bishops make us once more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, and its beauty in God’s plan. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, graciously hear our prayer.

Let us pray.

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