There’s been a lot of good going on in Rome this month, where the world’s bishops have gathered for a synod on family life at the Vatican. Many synod participants rightfully have called attention to the strong Catholic families in the Church. Despite the difficulties and challenges that inevitably make up their daily lives, such families work hard to remain faithful to Christ. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York wrote recently, there are many Catholics who “strive for virtue and fidelity” and who are looking to the Church for “support and encouragement, a warm sense of inclusion.”
We applaud these bishops, and we add our voice to theirs. The backbone of the U.S. and universal Church, Catholic families who live the Faith quietly each day deserve a multitude of accolades. As several bishops in one of the English-language working groups said at the end of the first week of the synod: “We need to underline the fact that many Christian families serve as a counter-witness to negative trends in the world by the way they faithfully live the Catholic vision of marriage and the family. These families need to be recognized, honored and encouraged.”
But, as we know, family life is not without its challenges, some of which are severe. The family is under attack from every angle. The result is that fewer couples are getting married in the Church and fewer children are being baptized. Divorce is widespread. Nontraditional families, including those with same-sex parents, are increasing in number, particularly in the West. The family synod, which ends Oct. 25, offers a unique opportunity to address some of these challenges head-on. With hundreds of bishops and dozens more auditors, including many married couples, the synod offers a forum to engage in the dialogue, encounter and exchange of thought on family life so valued by Pope Francis.
But this opportunity is in danger of being squandered. Reports from the synod are painting a picture of an individualistic, divided landscape that seems more political than ecclesiastical. Spurred on by a nonstop news cycle, reporters are on the prowl for stories, and many synod observers and participants are happy to oblige. Sometimes the results are informative and balanced. Too often, though, the media and their interviewees seem more concerned with drawing battle lines and strategizing individual advances than working together in search of the truth and the common good.
More than anything, what is lacking in the reports on the synod is clarity. Unnamed sources are liberally quoted. Contradictory information is released (see Page 4), and few clarifications are made. Observers are left with breathless stories of competing interests and narratives put forward by interest groups and agenda-setting press releases.
We recognize that the challenge facing the Vatican is real: It is difficult to strike a balance between maintaining transparency and, at the same time, providing an opportunity for free discussion unhindered by the glare of the world’s media spotlight. At the same time, a polarized synod combined with anecdotes of contradiction and confusion is feeding into a narrative of distrust. If attention does not remain on the task at-hand — on the pastoral care of the family — a great opportunity will have been lost.
After the freewheeling dialogue that Pope Francis has asked for, it will be critically important that Church leaders focus on what is truly important: How to strengthen and support the Catholic family in a time of great challenge and change.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor