We seem to be living 1968 all over again. In the long lead-up to Humanae Vitae, many Catholics, and virtually all the self-styled intelligentsia, assumed that Pope Paul VI would be swept along with the winds of change and endorse The Pill. Since Pope Francis announced the October 2014 meeting of an Extraordinary Synod to address “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” speculation has been rife about the impending revisions of Church doctrine regarding marriage and the family.
The world seems to be waiting for Pope Francis to don a Superman cape over his white cassock and boldly vanquish major ecclesial “No’s”–to same-sex “marriage,” to cohabitation, to divorce and “remarriage.”
And yet, like 1968, the world will be in for a shock when the Church’s teachings are reaffirmed, not relegated to a trashheap. The just-released Instrumentum Laboris– a summary of the responses received from bishops throughout the world in preparation for the Extraordinary Synod–will put to rest much of the speculation.
The world’s bishops have taken stock of today’s cultural landscape with respect to marriage and the family and have found a serious lack of understanding–and therefore, living–of the Church’s teaching. It comes as no surprise to those in the trenches, (or even to those who just pick up a newspaper occasionally). We’ve all seen headlines about the legalization of same-sex “marriage.” We’ve all observed a blasé attitude toward marriage among family, friends, neighbors or colleagues, attitudes that non-judgmentally condone contraception, cohabitation and divorce. But for the Church’s hierarchy to acknowledge the difference between the faith and how it’s lived is an important admission.
There are plenty of questions regarding who might be to blame–Are parents catechizing their children? Were the parents ever formed? Are priests preaching or advising properly in confession? Are bishops promoting defense of the family as a priority? Are marriage preparation programs adequate?
The tone of the document, however, is not to find a scapegoat; it is to acknowledge that something must be done. The victims of our marriage-destructive culture are many and are identified in the document–children of divorce, single mothers, spouses remaining faithful to wedding vows though separated, abused women and children, those living in canonically irregular situations and so forth. The document reveals that the bishops are aware of the grave challenges now facing the world and of the way these challenges converge and relate to the family, the fundamental cell of society.
It is easy to stare at a laundry list of societal ills and feel overwhelmed by all that needs to change for a culture of life and a civilization of love to flourish. Yet, the bishops instead make frequent appeals to the value of a couple’s witness as a key point in fostering an authentic pastoral response–
While Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body is only explicitly mentioned twice within the document (once as the “catechesis on human love” and once as “theology of the body”), the language and values of his work permeate the suggestions of the bishops. Concepts like the gift of self, the domestic church, the need for an adequate anthropology, seeing marriage as a vocation, and the image of the Trinity within the family are stressed throughout.
Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II described the deepest roots of the culture of death with a poetic flourish –
The Synod’sInstrumentum Laboris seems to agree. The topic of anthropology was raised in regard to same-sex attraction, contraception, sexual difference, and the nature of freedom. Many respondents noted the need “to make better known what was stated in Humanae Vitae and to propose a coherent anthropological vision in revitalized language, not only in pre-marriage preparation but also in instructional courses on love in general” (No. 128).
There is a particular universality to an understanding of the true nature of the human person. Bishops from various countries mentioned the struggles of their nation or continent, some differing from others. For the West, there is same-sex “marriage.” For Eastern Europe, there is secularist damage left in the wake of Communism. African bishops noted the challenge of polygamy. Each of these situations, though perhaps unique to a particular continent or area of the world, would be better explained by a culturally-engaging articulation of the understanding of the human person.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Extraordinary Synod does not aim to destroy 2,000 years of Church teaching on marriage and family. Rather, as the Instrumentum Laborisasserts, “To come to some idea of how to respond to the new demands in the People of God, the following three main areas are under discussion in the Church: how the Gospel of the Family can be preached in the present-day; how the Church’s pastoral care program for the family might better respond to the new challenges today; how to assist parents in developing a mentality of openness to life and in upbringing their children” (No. 158).
Reading the summary of the world’s bishops’ thoughts on marriage and the family is enlightening, encouraging (because of the beauty of truth) and dejecting (because of the widespread rejection of such truth). It is also promising, knowing that such a crucial issue of our time will be dealt with in an “extraordinary” way.
Perhaps, above all, it is overwhelming. How will the bishops respond to the myriad of issues detailed in the document? How can the wealth of the Church’s teaching–so much of it promulgated in the last two pontificates–be articulated in such a way that the world will listen and embrace it? Where to start?
And so the Instrumentum Laboris ends with the only way one can begin: by turning to the Trinity, through the Holy Family, begging with trust for a renewal of marriage and the family in our day.
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Curriculum Director at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC.