On June 26, the Vatican issued a working document, called an instrumentum laboris, for the October 2014 extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family that was announced by Pope Francis last year to deal with the pressing “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” The document sets the agenda for the discussions among the bishops who will gather in Rome, and rather than focusing exclusively on the issue of the divorced and remarried as many in the media had assumed, the bishops instead will confront a vast array of problems, challenges and concerns.
In November, the synod’s leadership under then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Lorenzo Baldisseri sent out 39 questions to the world’s episcopal conferences to assess the knowledge and acceptance of the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family and various cultural obstacles to their adherence. The responses informed the key topics for the synod, although some media outlets erroneously interpreted the questions as a way for the Vatican to poll Catholics on whether the Church should change her teachings on divorce and remarriage and sexual morality.
As with any working document for a synod, the 75-page instrumentum is very straightforward. The discussion of family life is presented in three parts: “Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World,” “The Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges” and “An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing.” Beneath the general sounding categories, the bishops’ agenda covers some of the most important and controversial challenges for the modern family, such as abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and divorced and remarried Catholics. The bishops are realistic in their assessment but not pessimistic.
The first part, for example, considers the Church’s teachings on God’s plan for marriage and the family, but it notes the diverse acceptance of Church teaching and some of the reasons for the difficulty in their acceptance among the faithful, most so on moral issues. Based on survey results, there is “a want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level,” as well as assorted conflicts and influences, from the mass media to the hedonistic culture caused by “selfish liberalization of morals” and what Pope Francis decries is a “‘culture of waste’ and a ‘culture of the moment.’”
The tone becomes even more sober in the second part, with its focus on pastoral challenges facing the family, “such as the crisis of faith, critical internal situations, external pressures and other problems.”
The bishops see the urgency of what they term the “crisis in faith and family.” This crisis entails “the break-up and breakdown of families,” the effect of long work hours and poor wages, violence and abuse, wars, migration, consumerism and individualism, and disparity of cult. Even more urgent are the “difficult pastoral situations” that touch on the thorniest and most controverted aspects of the Church’s encounter with modernity: cohabitation, separated and divorced couples, divorced and remarried Catholics — including how the Church handles marriage cases — teen and single mothers, canonically irregular situations, non-believers or non-practicing Catholics who wish to marry, same-sex unions and transmission of the Faith to children in those unions.
In speaking forthrightly about the whole situation of divorced and separated Catholics as well as the divorced and remarried, the instrumentum notes the various responses from around the world that better pastoral care is badly needed. And while much of the conversation in recent months has been about divorced and remarried Catholics, the document laments that more attention must be given to separated and divorced persons who have not remarried. “Oftentimes,” the document says, “these people seem to have the added suffering of not being given proper care by the Church and thus overlooked.”
Tied closely to divorce and remarriage are the many responses requesting that the canonical processing of marriage cases be streamlined.
At the same time, the instrumentum gives voice to those urging caution in streamlining or reducing the process. There is concern whether it is possible to deal with this matter through a judicial process only, that there might be injustices and errors, the possible impression that “the indissolubility of the sacrament is not respected” or “the mistaken idea that an annulment is simply ‘Catholic divorce.’” There is, nevertheless, a wide consensus for better pastoral training for those involved in any ministry to the divorced and separated.
On the issue of the shifting definition of marriage in modern society, the document declares that while every episcopal conference opposes same-sex legislation, the bishops also are striving to find “balance between the Church’s teaching on the family and a respectful, non-judgmental attitude towards people living in such unions.”
The withering impact of secularization and relativism as well as the failure to teach the Faith fully is seen powerfully in the third part of the instrumentum with its desire for Catholic couples to be open to life. Many couples today generally do not consider the use of contraceptive methods to be a sin, and the solutions rest in making Humanae Vitae better known, encouraging married couples to have children and promoting situations of work and prosperity that allow Catholics the sense of freedom to procreate.
Pope Francis wants the deliberations at the synod to be open and for the bishops to participate actively in discussions. The instrumentum, then, is not the end of deliberations but a diagnosis of the present situation with some clear directions based on the questions sent around the whole Church.
The survey was valuable, and it points to the need to preach the Gospel of the family in the present day, crafting a better response to the new challenges and assisting “parents in developing a mentality of openness to life.”
A reading of the instrumentum reveals no call for changing the teachings of the Church but making those teachings more faithful.
For very good reason, then, the extraordinary synod has been entrusted to the Holy Family, which “is to be contemplated in every family situation so as to draw light, strength and consolation.”
Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.