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Synod on the Family: A Preview of Coming Attractions

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

Like the annulments process, marriage preparation also seems in need of an overhaul. Whereas the bishops appear happy with the state of marriage preparation and proud of efforts to provide more information over longer periods of time, couples generally don’t like longer programs and are largely indifferent to the information presented. As a supplement to pre-Cana programs, the Synod will likely consider a push for marriage education starting at a younger age as well as more support programs for the already-married.

Many of these supplemental types of marriage education were already recommended by the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1996. These recommendations, however, have been largely ignored by dioceses in the U.S. Deacon Dodge stresses the scarcity of resources for marriage preparation as the likely reason. “Our diocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life has a staff of one part-time person,” he noted. Even if a post-synodal exhortation strongly recommended expanding current programs, Deacon Dodge does not think it’s possible for most dioceses to follow through. Peter McFadden, pre-Cana instructor and president of Creative Marriages, Inc., agrees that there will be challenges at the parish level implementing any Vatican recommendations because of the need to rely on volunteers.

There’s a real danger that documents resulting from the Synod “will be well-received, but go unheeded” because of practical and financial difficulties, according to Deacon Dodge. Nevertheless, “any effort to put focus on what the Church can do to help couples succeed in marriage is an effort not wasted,” said McFadden.

Openness to Life

The working document provided some much-needed clarity on the issue of contraception. While acknowledging that many Catholics see nothing wrong with using contraception, the document nonetheless praised the Church’s long-standing stance against it, particularly as expressed in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The working document went so far as to describe Humanae Vitae as “prophetic,” words which Pope Francis has used before to refer to the genius of Pope Paul VI. The working document thus clearly indicated that the Synod “will neither ignore nor attempt to change the teachings” on this hot-button issue, according to Deacon Dodge.

“I like that the Instrumentum [section on openness to life] recommends the dissemination of Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching on theology of the body,” added Deacon Dodge. Prior to the working document, commentators such as Fr. Landry expressed unease that the Synod would disregard the seminal thought of Pope St. John Paul II on marriage, sexuality, and the family. The working document should allay such concerns by its frequent mention of the Theology of the Body and other themes expounded on by the John Paul II. Moreover, the document’s entire character bears the stamp of St. John Paul’s perspective on the importance of being created male and female, particularly in relation to troubling developments like gender theory, the idea that gender is a social construct rather than a biological reality.

Spreading the Word

One of the main concerns expressed in the working document was the Church’s need to communicate its teachings on marriage and family life to the faithful more clearly. This October’s Synod deals not just with the family but with the evangelization of the family. The survey responses revealed that most Catholics have not read the papal encyclicals of the last several decades, and the message contained in those documents just isn’t getting through.

Pre-Cana instructor McFadden is “encouraged to see the Church taking a more comprehensive approach” to sharing its wisdom on these issues. A lot of engaged couples are “naïve on their wedding day” and “underestimate how involved marriage really is,” stated McFadden. “There’s a need for on-going formation” starting in high school and continuing for years after the couple gets married, he added.

We can’t expect laypeople to educate themselves by reading the original Church documents, noted Deacon Dodge. Evangelization is the responsibility of those of us who know — whether we are clergy or laity — to spread the message to those who don’t know. Regardless of what formal changes might result from the Synod, it should serve as a call to action to all of us to spread the good news.

Karee Santos is a happily married mother of six. She and her husband began teaching marriage preparation and enrichment classes in New York City in 2003. Karee has authored numerous articles on marriage and family for the National Catholic Register, Faith & Family magazine, and various Catholic websites. She also founded the online Catholic marriage support community Can We Cana?.

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