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The Upcoming Synod on the Family: How the Media Keeps Getting It Wrong

The Upcoming Synod on the Family How the Media Keeps Getting it Wrong Marcin Mazur

UK Catholic/Marcin Mazur

Susan E. Wills - published on 05/22/14

It's not going to be the panacea some liberal Catholics are hoping for.

Work continues apace for the October 2014 Extraordinary Synod–dubbed the "Synod on Family and Sex" by MotherJones. Reading other media outlets, you might think it's going to be the Synod on Letting Divorced and Remarried Catholics Receive Communion. Or the Synod on “Marriage Equality” for the purpose of reconfiguring marriage to suit any combination of the six or seven recognized genders.

Others would like it to become the Synod on Changing the Church’s Teaching on (“Repressive”) Sexual Morality.

Fortunately, the theme of the upcoming Synod offers a clue to its real purpose and direction: “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” Not quite as progressive and sexy as modernizing Church doctrines and sacramental life to conform to the sorry state of today's world.

Confusion is understandable though, given a lot of wishful thinking by commentators and even a few prelates.

A recap of what’s happened so far may help provide context.

On October 8, 2013, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will convene an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to take place October 5–19, 2014. As explained at a November 5 press conference led by Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, the objective of this meeting is “to ascertain the status questions and to gather testimonies and proposals from the Bishops.” An Ordinary General Assembly will then take place in 2015, to find “working approaches for the pastoral [care] of the human person and the family,” he explained.

The questions to which Archbishop Baldisseri referred are contained in the lineamenta (preparatory document) released on October 25. Bishops worldwide were asked to survey their flock and report back on 39 questions concerning the following topics: how the teachings of the Church on marriage and family are known, received and observed in their particular Church; what pastoral approaches are being used to convey the teachings on marriage and family and to minister to Catholics in difficult marital situations; the local reality and current and recommended pastoral approaches to the issues of same-sex unions, the education of children in irregular marriages and the understanding, acceptance and practice of openness to life.

The questions themselves reveal the Church’s keen awareness of the problems faced today by Catholics and others in a culture that largely denies the existence of universal moral norms. Forget universal. Western culture denies just about all moral standards other than radical relativism and non-judgmentalism. And this has left individuals alone in their struggle to understand themselves and "life," or alone to web- or channel-surf, as the case may be.

It's fashionable to blame "abysmal" catechesis for the current state of confusion on the nature of marriage and family. It is true that issuing beautiful pastoral statements–I'm thinking of the USCCB's Faithful for Life: A Moral Reflection (1995) and Married Love and the Gift of Life (2006)–that are read by few people, is inadequate to counteract the pull of 24/7 news and entertainment that present a very different view of marriage, family and sexuality.

There was a time when religion, culture, education, government and parents in the West generally held a Christian worldview and mutually supported eachother in teaching (and enforcing) common norms. Households were large and multi-generational. Aunts and uncles and their families lived nearby, forming a safety net of love and support and serving as additional role models for marriage and family.

The process of family breakdown began long ago. In The Human Person According to John Paul II, Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield describes the effects of three revolutions in the past 150 years. The Industrial Revolution removed fathers from their homes to work long hours in factories, instead of working side-by-side with their children, teaching their trade.

The Feminist/Sexual Revolution of the 1960s allowed many women to leave their homes and children for most of the day, with positive and not very positive results.

The Technology Revolution created an expectation of instant gratification–whether the latest app, gadget or objectified girlfriend–I'm entitled to what and I want it want NOW.

The Internet can also isolate people in virtual worlds, effectively shutting down family communication, as any parent of teenagers has discovered.

In separating sex from procreation (albeit not very effectively), the pill and subsequent forms of birth control have also separated sex from a lifelong mutual investment in the well-being of one's beloved and in the babies who are a living sign of that love.

Indeed, some diocesan reports that have been published online make painful reading, at least as to the status quo–rising rates of cohabitation, children born to single mothers and absent dads, and divorced and remarried couples with blended families, all raise significant pastoral challenges.

Synod officials met May 12-13 to analyze and edit the first draft of the instrumentum laboris (working document) for the October Synod. They have announced that the final draft will be sent to bishops this summer.

So far, so good. Nothing controversial here.

The confusion arises out of the spin certain journalists are trying to put on the meeting, as well as some unfortunate viewpoints expressed by a handful of bishops. 

MotherJones, for example, called the preparatory survey of Catholics a “canny tactic to defuse dissent over potential reforms” and to “strengthen a bid by Francis to soften the Church’s official line and put pressure on bishops inclined to resist.”

L.A. Times reporter Henry Chu, in an article bearing the uninformed title “Vatican to debate teachings on divorce, birth control, gay unions,” wrote that “although Francis almost certainly will not call for ditching the church’s policy [policy?!] of denying communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried, his emphasis on pastoral care and compassion could offer local priests a work-around, with greater flexibility to address individual circumstances.”

What exactly would that entail? Avoiding scandal by giving them the Eucharist in the sacristy?

The most serious confusion has been sown by German Cardinal Walter Kasper and several of his confreres who apparently do seek debate and change, and have attempted, it seems, to be the necessary catalysts thereof.

Cardinal Kasper told an interviewer that Pope Francis asserted in a private conversation that “half of marriages today are invalid.” (Pope Francis could not be reached for comment.) Likely, the Pope was repeating a comment he made on a plane returning from World Youth Day, in which he attributed such assessment to his Argentine predecessor, Cardinal Quarracino. The Holy Father was making the point that the pastoral care of marriage is at times deficient and needs to improve when young, immature people are marrying without, perhaps, realizing they are making a life-long commitment.

What is the Cardinal's point, exactly? Marriages freely entered into are presumed valid by the Church until proven otherwise by a competent tribunal. 

The good Cardinal also delivered a stem-winder of a keynote address at a “Secret Consistory” in February of this year, no longer secret thanks to Marco Tosatti for La Stampa. "Kasper's doctrine" or "Kasper's theorem," as it was called by other bishops present, was not well received. A work-around to permit divorced and remarried Catholics access to the Eucharist was seen as a “frontal assault” on the theology of sacramental marriage, penitence and the Most Holy Eucharist. Other than that …. 

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was one of the many who spoke up. He also took to the airwaves the following Monday to remind everyone that he is the German Cardinal who speaks for the Church on matters of doctrine, not Cardinal Kasper.

Most recently, Archbishop Baldisseri has tried to tamp down the speculation that doctrines will be overturned. In an email interview with Catholic News Agency, he quoted St. John XXIII's inaugural speech at the Second Vatican Council:

authentic doctrine should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.

In an article he wrote for l'Osservatore Romano last February, Cardinal Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, offered insights into Pope Francis' approach to evangelization. His observations should put to rest any fears that the Holy Father intends to rewrite doctrine.

To paraphrase Cardinal Burke: Reminding people regularly about the content of the Church's moral teaching has not been effective in transforming their lives. Many Catholics reject her teachings and leave the Church on the pretext that they disapprove of this or that teaching–against contraception, against divorce and so forth.

In order to convert the minds of disaffected Catholics to the Church's moral teachings, Pope Francis believes that one must create a space where they can "come to understand the immeasurable love of Christ, alive for us in the Church, [then] they will be able to resolve whatever has been troubling them about the Church … and her teaching." How true is that!

The Cardinal continues, speaking of Pope Francis, "he concentrates his attention on inviting all to nurture an intimate relationship, indeed communion, with Christ, within which the non-negotiable truths, inscribed by God upon every human heart, become ever more evident and are generously embraced."

A final reason for hope that great good can come of the Synod on the Family: A number of bishops, for example, Vienna's Cardinal Christopher Schoenborn, have noted that "it is clear that the majority of Catholics' 'desires, hopes and expectations coincide more than you'd expect with what the Bible and the Church affirm in matters of matrimony and family life.' "

By finding new ways to appeal to the innate human desire and hope for lifelong mutually self-giving love, what develops from the Synod may, when implemented, measurably strengthen marriages and families around the world.

Susan E. Wills, JD, LLM left law practice to join the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, where she served for 20 years as Asst. Dir. for Education and Outreach until her retirement in 2013. She now serves as Aleteia's English edtion Spirituality Editor. 

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