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Synod on the Family: A Preview of Coming Attractions

WEB Changes in Marriage/Family Practice that Church will Consider in October

Avanguard Photography CC

Karee Santos - published on 07/02/14

Better catechesis, marriage prep and the annulment process take center stage.

The recently released working document for this October’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family presents a remarkably candid view of the troubles besetting Catholic marriages and families today.

Young people are frequently afraid to commit. Marriage preparation is often seen as a useless obligation. Ignorance of Church teaching is widespread. Few understand that using contraception is sinful. Many parents show limited interest in the religious education of their children. But there are bright spots. In contrast to the near universal confusion over contraception, most Catholics realize that abortion is a serious sin. The faithful also expressed both a strong desire to know Sacred Scripture better and a deep devotion to the Holy Family.

The working document (or instrumentum laboris) summarizes the vast number of answers to the questions posed in the Synod’s Preparatory Document issued on November 5, 2013. In drafting the working document, the Synod Council considered both official responses from the bishops and also observations by parishes, lay movements, academic institutions, along with Catholic and non-Catholic specialists on marriage and family life. The tone and scope of the working document demonstrate Pope Francis’ commitment to listening to others as the necessary first step in any dialogue. Pastoral dialogue, the Pope stated in The Joy of the Gospel, must be founded on "a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear."

Although touching on hot-button issues like same-sex unions and reception of the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, the bulk of the working document focuses on improving pastoral care through changes to annulment procedures and marriage preparation, encouraging openness to life, and better communication of Church teaching. Pope Francis has strongly criticized attempts to reduce the purpose of the Synod to a discussion of reception of the Eucharist by divorced and remarried Catholics, emphasizing that the Synod has a much broader scope.

Deacon Dodge of the Cathedral of the Madeleine probably spoke for many observers when he remarked, “I was both surprised and gratified, given all the media hype even within the U.S. Catholic media about this question [of pastoral care for the divorced and remarried], that it wasn’t dealt with more” by the working document. “While acknowledging the suffering of those who cannot receive communion because of their remarried status,” he added, “the Instrumentum does not lean heavily towards making accommodations for [them] … to start receiving communion.” Jesus’ clear pronouncements on the indissolubility of marriage make this issue “no mere pastoral concession” but one that “goes to quite fundamental theological matters,” he explained.

Annulments and Marriage Prep

The most significant area of consensus among the bishops concerned the Church’s annulments process. “Very many responses … request streamlining the procedure for marriage annulments,” stated the working document. Changes could take two forms. One would be a formal amendment to the canon law, which could take several years. But other changes could be made by the Pope alone in a document called a motu proprio. “Amending canon law is done with some regularity via a motu proprio,” most recently by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, Deacon Dodge explained. Aldean Hendrickson, canon lawyer and Director of the Tribunal of the Diocese of New Ulm agreed, adding "Even so, the most the Synod itself can do is recommend or strongly urge certain changes."

The Synod appears open to exploring lack of faith as a ground for an annulment. Unfortunately, that conflicts with what the working document states is the common practice of warmly welcoming non-practicing Catholics who request marriage in the Church. There would seem little point in warmly welcoming people to a sacrament that appears invalid from the get-go. Deacon Dodge suggested that there should be at least a well-founded hope that the couple would practice the Catholic religion before they can marry in the Church. But Tribunal Director Hendrickson cautioned that "personal faith is a very difficult thing to measure, especially for a tribunal some years after the fact. … Instead of worrying how many marriages might be foundering due to lack of faith, we need to be finding ways in the Spirit to ignite the fire of faith in marriages."

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CatholicismMarriageSynod on the Family
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