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.
|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.
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.
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.
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?
◗ 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.
Next month’s gathering of bishops is the first of three key events in the upcoming 13 months that will focus on the family.
Extraordinary Synod of Bishops
Theme: “The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization”
Dates: Oct. 5-19
Where: Vatican City
Agenda: According to the instrumentum laboris — the gathering’s preparatory document —the purpose of the synod is “to define the status quaestionis (“current situation”) and to collect the bishops’ experiences and proposals in proclaiming and living the Gospel of the Family in a credible manner.” The instrumentum laboris states the synod “will thoroughly examine and analyze the information, testimonies and recommendations received from the particular Churches in order to respond to the new challenges of the family.”
World Meeting of Families
Theme: “Love is our mission: The family fully alive”
Dates: Sept. 22-27, 2015
Agenda: The website for the World Meeting of Families (worldmeeting2015.org) states there will be daily Mass, devotions, keynote addresses and multiple breakout sessions.
Ordinary Synod of Bishops
Theme: “Jesus Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the family”
Dates: Oct. 4-25, 2015
Where: Vatican City
Agenda: The instrumentum laboris states that the ordinary synod will “reflect further on the points discussed so as to formulate appropriate pastoral guidelines” for the pastoral care of the person and the family.
|Crisis of faith
The bishops know that the Church is in the middle of a crisis of faith, and that its members need support. Challenges include:
Rejection of an openness to life: The bishops recognize that there have been severe inroads by secular culture into the embrace of life by many Catholics. They also know that it is not enough merely to condemn such ideologies. Instead, they will seek “to propose a coherent anthropological vision in revitalized language, not only in pre-marriage preparation but also in instructional courses on love in general.”
Divorce and separation:The bishops term these societal woes “the break-up and breakdown of families,” which are sometimes caused by poverty, single parenthood, de facto unions and homosexual unions, polygamy and, above all, abortion. Many bishops also come from regions where sexual promiscuity, incest, sex trafficking and the vile industry of “sex tourism” are systematically damaging family life.
Consumerism, individualism: In both the developed and the developing world, these are problems that encourage a culture “based on the senses and immediate gratification” and what Pope Francis refers to as a “throw away” mentality, a so-called “culture of waste” and a “culture of the moment.”
Work: Itself a good thing, work can impede the harmony, happiness and faith of the family when it is exhausting, demands excessive work hours, including Sundays, offers poor wages and denies human dignity. There are also the dangers of economic instability in the labor market, the need to travel great distances to work, and unhealthy and unsafe working conditions. The bishops will encourage dialogue with the State to offer decent jobs, just wages, sound fiscal policies that favor the family, and programs of assistance to families and children.
Cohabitation: This occurrence is especially prevalent, described as living together ad experimentum (“on an experimental basis”), with the unions mostly devoid of religious or civil recognition. It is epidemic in Europe and North America, but it is also increasingly common in Latin America, and the bishops will discuss the variety of factors that lead to the decision of a couple to live together, such as financial need, youth unemployment, a lack of housing and poor formation in the beauty and importance of sacramental marriage.
|Discussion of marriage
All of the bishops will arrive in Rome for the synod keenly aware that in every corner of the world the Church faces what are termed “difficult pastoral situations” — teen and single mothers, canonically irregular unions, cohabitation, same-sex unions and transmission of the Faith to children in those unions. The breakdown of the family has been accompanied by the wholesale redefinition both of marriage and gender identity.
Divorced and remarried:
There will be much discussion among the bishops at the synod about this pastoral crisis, which affects such large numbers of Catholics. There is the possibility of streamlining or reducing the frequently cumbersome and complex annulment process, but an exploratory survey found wide disagreement around the world on the best approach. Many bishops worry that there might be injustices and errors in some quick judicial fix and that it might give the impression that “the indissolubility of the sacrament is not respected” or “the mistaken idea that an annulment is simply ‘Catholic divorce.’” The bishops will certainly agree on the need for better pastoral training for those involved in any ministry to the divorced and separated, including those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment and therefore may not present themselves to receive the Eucharist.
Bishops everywhere oppose same-sex legislation, but they will also propose ways to find “balance between the Church’s teaching on the family and a respectful, non-judgmental attitude toward people living in such unions.” Related topics to be discussed are civil recognition of same-sex unions and providing helpful pastoral guidelines to fulfill the conditions needed to baptize the children of gay couples and insure the transmission of the Faith.
|Divorce rates around the World
Despite the teaching of the Church, traditionally Catholic countries have some of the highest divorce rates in the world.
| % Divorce Rate
| % Catholic
* — The Philippines, along with Vatican City, are the only two countries where divorce is illegal.
Sources: 2014 Catholic Almanac (OSV), U.N. Statistical Division, Eurostat, U.S. CDC
Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.