Synod on the family: A primer

In an interview with the Radio Catedral (the radio station of the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro) during his visit to Brazil for World Youth Day in July 2013, Pope Francis said, “Not only would I say that the family is important for the evangelization of the new world, the family is important — and it is necessary — for the survival of humanity. Without the family, the cultural survival of the human race would be at risk.”

In the course of his long years of pastoral ministry, Pope Francis has witnessed the worst conditions imaginable for families in the favelas (slums) of Argentina and across Latin America. He has also seen affluent families torn apart by materialism and spiritual despair in the midst of wealth and plenty.

With Francis’ announcement, then, in the fall of 2013 that he would convoke an extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family to be held in Rome from Oct. 5-19, the pope declared his commitment to providing the Church with a blueprint for proclaiming the Gospel of the Family in the 21st century.

Here’s an overview.

What is the Synod of Bishops?

The Synod of Bishops was born in 1965 as a result of the Second Vatican Council and the desire of Pope Paul VI both to foster collegiality in the Church and to recognize the universal and global dimensions of the Catholic faith in the middle of the century. His intention was, as its charter declared, “to encourage close union and valued assistance between the Sovereign Pontiff and the bishops of the entire world; to insure that direct and real information is provided on questions and situations touching upon the internal action of the Church and its necessary activity in the world of today; to facilitate agreement on essential points of doctrine and on methods of procedure in the life of the Church.”

A permanent structure that has consultative but no legislative authority, the synod takes its direction and agenda from the pope who appoints its main leaders — or relators — and names as well the general secretary, currently Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri. The appointments are important as the general secretary carries out the pontiff’s vision for its structure and how the sessions will proceed. The majority of the remaining members, bishops from around the world, are elected by regional episcopal conferences.

Most of the synods since the first in 1967 have been termed “ordinary,” that is, held according to a regular schedule and taking up long determined topics of concern. There have been 13 ordinary synods in all, the last one being held in October 2012 on the New Evangelization. There are also the special synods with targeted agendas, such as the ones for Africa in 1994 and 2009, the Americas in 1997, Asia in 1998 and the Middle East in 2010. The meeting this October will be only the third extraordinary synod. The two previous ones — held in 1969 and 1985 — looked at the relationship of bishops and priests and the implementation of the Second Vatican Council (on its 20th anniversary), respectively.

As the name implies, “extraordinary” synods are summoned to deal with what the pope considers some urgent matter of concern. Typically, the number of participants is smaller — perhaps no more than 200 — meaning its work is more streamlined and can be more effective. In the case of this synod, the bishops will be joined by many lay experts on family life and marriage, in addition to the usual cardinals, heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences and officials from various Vatican offices.

This is also the second synod to gather on the important subject of the family. The first was held in 1980 by Pope St. John Paul II. As a result of its work, he published the apostolic exhortation on the Christian Family in the Modern World, Familiaris Consortio, in November 1981, one of the most influential teachings of his remarkable pontificate.

Pope Francis and the synod

The upcoming synod is one of the most eagerly anticipated in many years, and its preparations have been imbued with the personality and papal style of Pope Francis. Attention has focused not just on the content of the upcoming synod but also its deliberations and internal structure.

“We are moving toward a somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage. ... “The Church is a mother, and she must travel this path of mercy. And find a form of mercy for all.” — Pope Francis, during his inflight interview after last year’s World Youth Day in Brazil.

Pope Francis has been aware of the many and long standing criticisms that the synod’s work has been too scripted and far too unwieldy and that the final statements tend not to reflect the actual concerns of the participants. Pope Francis wants all of that to change. He has called for the bishops to share openly and for the synod itself to be both more transparent and a more prominent instrument of dialogue and collaboration among the bishops. To drive home its growing importance, Francis named its general secretary, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, a cardinal in February — the first general secretary to be given such a high profile.

Francis was also engaged in the whole preparatory phase. Usually, synod officials work on the plans for the gathering and then meet with the pope in the apostolic palace to present their ideas. This time, Pope Francis chose to meet with the synod’s general secretariat in their offices near the Vatican and took an active part in the two days of preparatory discussions held just before the official announcement.

Synod preparations

Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, speaks at the Vatican on June 26. CNS photo

In all, 90 percent of the world’s episcopal conferences and 800 Catholic organizations responded to a worldwide survey sent out by the Vatican to gauge the faithful’s reception and understanding of Church teaching. The resulting summaries, drafted by bishops’ conferences and submitted to the general secretariat, formed the basis of the 75-page instrumentum laboris — the synod’s preparatory document — issued June 26.

The document was strikingly global, looking at the family in all of its dimensions and in diverse geographical and cultural settings.

Reading the whole report, the bishops had good reason to express genuine dismay at the present state of affairs of the family, but they also spoke of trusting the Holy Family and the teachings of the Church. As the instrumentum declared: “The proclamation of the Gospel of the Family is an integral part of the mission of the Church, since the revelation of God sheds light on the relationship between a man and a woman, their love for each other and the fruitfulness of their relationship. In these times, a widespread cultural, social and spiritual crisis is posing a challenge in the Church’s work of evangelizing the family, the vital nucleus of society and the ecclesial community.”


The survey revealed that families in all situations are at risk, and that the Church has all too often failed to foster the Faith properly in members, to create supportive parishes and better marriage preparation to help couples avoid the mistaken belief of an insurmountable gulf between the ideal of a Christian family and some harsh reality — a perceived obstacle that leads to a crisis in faith.

Open debate

Typical of this papacy, there has been intense — often unreliable — media reporting on what Pope Francis intends for the synod. Rumors circulated almost immediately after the initial announcement that the synod would change Church teachings on contraception, abortion and especially on marriage and divorce. These have been dismissed repeatedly, but the public academic debates among prominent cardinals regarding pastoral practice only fed the false narrative of disagreement among the leaders of the Church on key matters of doctrine.

Francis has allowed this freewheeling debate among the cardinals. When, for example, there was a fiery reaction in February among cardinals and theologians to a speech on the divorced and remarried given by noted German theologian and former Vatican official Cardinal Walter Kasper, Pope Francis told Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily newspaper, “I would have been more worried if there hadn’t been an intense discussion in the consistory, because it would have been useless. The cardinals knew that they could say what they wanted, and they presented different points of view, which are always enriching. Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow. That doesn’t frighten me. What’s more, I look for it.”

Vatican watchers and many bishops will be paying close attention to the daily conduct of the synod to see if it will, in fact, be more open and whether the traditionally ponderous speeches, termed interventions, create a more collaborative atmosphere.

Vatican questionnaire

Media frenzy and misinterpretations were especially apparent during the first stages of preparations last year. No better example of that could be found than the list of 39 questions sent by the synod’s general secretariat to the world’s bishops to assess the current levels of knowledge and acceptance of the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family and various cultural obstacles to their adherence.

Cardinal Erdö

In part because of false media expectations regarding Pope Francis and the heavy emphasis by some publications and bloggers on Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried, many of the faithful were given the impression that the 39 questions were a poll by the Vatican on whether the Church should change teachings on divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception. The wild speculation was rejected by the Vatican, especially by Baldisseri and Cardinal Peter Erdö, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in Hungary, the relator general, or chief moderator for the synod. Erdö stressed that the Church does not make decisions based on public opinion. Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, the special secretary of the extraordinary synod, added that “the doctrine of the Church is not up for discussion,” but the Synod would look to improve the “pastoral application” of Church teachings.

A final definitive answer about prospective changes to abortion and contraception was given with the Vatican declaration that the closing Mass of the Synod on Oct. 19 would also celebrate the beatification of Pope Paul VI, the author of the famed 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) that reaffirmed the Church’s teachings on contraception.

Far less reported was the seriousness with which many bishops and episcopal conferences took the questionnaire. The survey questions were distributed to parishes and across diocesan offices, and individual Catholics were encouraged to send their own responses directly to the Vatican.

Questions from the survey

◗ In those cases where the Church’s teaching [on the family] is known, is it accepted fully or are there difficulties in putting it into practice? If so, what are they?

◗ Is the idea of the natural law in the union between a man and a woman commonly accepted as such by the baptized in general?

Prayer for the synod
prayer for the synod
Click image to view the prayer for the synod. Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock

◗ How can an awareness of the family as the “domestic Church” be promoted?

◗ What questions do divorced and remarried people pose to the Church concerning the sacraments of the Eucharist and of reconciliation? Among those persons who find themselves in these situations, how many ask for these sacraments?

◗ Is there a law in your country recognizing civil unions for people of the same sex and equating it in some way with marriage?

◗ How do the particular churches attempt to meet the needs of the parents [of children in irregular marriages] to provide them with a Christian education?

◗ How can a more open attitude toward having children be fostered?

◗ What critical situations in the family today can obstruct a person’s encounter with Christ?

What comes next?

The preliminary conclusions of the extraordinary synod will serve as the basis of the ordinary synod’s working document, and the bishops there will formulate practical pastoral guidelines moving forward.

Francis’ closing homily for the extraordinary synod on Oct. 19 will give important indications as to the general direction of the synod, especially as he beatifies Pope Paul VI at the same time. Between the two synods comes the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia next September, and Pope Francis is expected to attend. His teachings there will also forecast the labors of the bishops at the ordinary synod.

The two synods will then be the source for Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, a meditation on the work of the bishops. Much like Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, after the 1980 synod on the family, Francis’ exhortation will be a guidepost for the Church moving forward in the new century.

Upcoming Events
Next month’s gathering of bishops is the first of three key events in the upcoming 13 months that will focus on the family.

Crisis of faith
pro life
Discussion of marriage
Divorce rates around the World

Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.