And why this means the synod is unlikely to make major changes on hot-button issues
While Pope St. John Paul II was called the Pope of the Family, Pope Francis is called the Pope of the Poor. So why did the Pope of the Poor choose marriage and family as the focus of his papacy’s first synod of bishops, scheduled to start this Sunday, October 5, in Rome? Because stronger marriages and families may actually help cure people of both economic and spiritual poverty.
The Economic Dimension of Marriage
Marriage is an economic institution as well as a religious and social one, and statistics show families with intact marriages fare better economically than those without. "Over a third of single-parent families with children are poor, compared to only seven percent of married families," reported the Heritage Foundation in 2012. "Overall, children in married families are 82 percent less likely to be poor than are children of single parents," it continued. "And income aside, children raised by two parents are less likely to have behavioral problems, be asthmatic or hungry; they are more likely to achieve at school and so on," stated a 2014 article from The New York Times Magazine.
It’s not clear whether poverty leads to lower marriage rates, or whether marriage protects against poverty, but the two are clearly interrelated. Pope Francis has spoken compassionately of the plight of unemployed youth, and the USCCB has drawn a clear connection between youth unemployment and the unwillingness to commit to marriage. It is hard for a pro-marriage culture to flourish under conditions of economic distress.
But can the Church, and particularly the Synod on the Family, do anything to ameliorate the situation? "Religious communities, which have provided a significant source of community support for marriage, bear some responsibility for trends like the decline in marriage rates," according to W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project. Churches have particularly failed to articulate a message that appeals to lower-income working class men, he noted. Pope Francis’s warm and approachable style may be able to overcome that problem, and the upcoming Synod on the Family grants him the perfect opportunity to do it.
A Great Teaching Moment for the Church
The Synod presents "a great teaching moment for the Church," stated Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J., professor of philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. The young Catholics whom Fr. Koterski regularly encounters have a "highly favorable" opinion of Pope Francis as "a friendly guy," but they have "no appreciation of more significant questions," he said. What Catholics in the pews need from the Synod is a "pro-marriage message" that gives "strong encouragement for each person to respect the sanctity of marriage," he added.
Catholics everywhere could benefit from the Synod’s providing "sound catechesis that will not just discourage young people from doing the wrong thing, but encourage them to live rightly," agreed Deacon Scott Dodge of.the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah. People need confidence that the Church can help them enter into marriages that not only start healthy and strong, but that stay that way.
Unfortunately, the Synod runs the risk of being derailed by more hyped-up issues like annulment reforms and Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. These issues "have the potential to bog the meetings down in circular and fruitless hubbub," complained Aldean Hendrickson, Director of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal of New Ulm, Minnesota. Adding to the risk of derailment is the Synod’s "new working methodology," which "render[s] the process more dynamic and participatory," according to
Nonetheless, the Synod is "not a debating society," remarked Fr. Koterski, and we won’t be seeing "freestyle British parliamentary debate." Each item on the agenda "gets a limited amount of time before they have to move on to the next topic," he explained. This will ideally keep the bishops’ attention focused on the more foundational issues like whether people are choosing to get married at all, particularly within the Church, and what reasons they have to stay married.
Doctrinal Change on Hot-Button Issues is Unlikely
The hot-button issues that have garnered the most media attention, moreover, are unlikely to result in the Synod’s recommending radical doctrinal change. In all likelihood, "there will be two Synods: the Synod of the Media, and the Synod as it is actually unfolding in Rome," stated Anthony St. Louis-Sanchez, judge of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal of Colorado Springs. "I expect that many of these hot-button issues in the media will be relatively uncontroversial in the actual Synod. For example, cohabitation and same-sex marriage … are clearly contrary to Catholic moral doctrine. The work of the Synod is not to normalize these situations and make them acceptable for Catholics," he added.
With respect to Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, "I think the consensus of Cardinals participating in the Extraordinary Synod" favors "upholding Church teaching without compromise," predicted Deacon Dodge. From a canon law standpoint, "there is no logical way to allow divorced and remarried persons to receive Communion, as a universal norm," agreed St. Louis-Sanchez.
Annulment reform will probably proceed in parallel with the Synod, since Pope Francis already established a commission for that purpose on August 2, 2014. Fr. Koterski praised Pope Francis’s action as "responsible," noting "this is how the work gets done." According to Tribunal Director Hendrickson, "No matter how much [annulment reform] was discussed in the Synod it would have then had to be referred to a smaller group to hash out the details. So I think [Pope Francis] has simply … shortened the loop." The creation of the commission for annulment reform might even "take the spotlight off communion for the civilly divorced and remarried at the Synod," since annulment reform is the best way to regularize their situations, theorized Deacon Dodge.
There is no need to worry about annulment reforms so extreme that they would amount to an evisceration of doctrine, opined Fr. Koterski, since he doesn’t "foresee that the Pope is going to suggest the bishops encourage adultery." If the Synod recommends otherwise, "I’ll have to come back and eat my words," Fr. Koterski promised. "But I have every reason to have confidence that Pope Francis will continue to be a faithful son of the Church," he stated, meaning that he does not anticipate sweeping doctrinal change resulting from the Synod.
Hope that Life is not Empty, and Holiness is not Impossible
The real challenge of the Synod is not to alter the Church’s position but to explain it to a world that no longer embraces or even understands it. Regardless of their financial situation, many people are sunk in a kind of spiritual poverty, where life seems empty of meaning, and a search for holiness in the midst of married and family life seems to be both futile and foolish. What Pope Francis’s warm words and grand public gestures do, even when they are misunderstood, is to give people hope that life is not empty and holiness is not impossible.
"I certainly hope that, cutting through all the hyped-up questions that the media and the public have latched onto, the bishops can fruitfully reflect upon the sad crisis the family is in right now …, and that they can hear the inspiration of the Spirit to initiate real renewal of spiritual and pastoral support of families," said Hendrickson. "While, on a human level, I am very nervous about the coming weeks, when I remember to do so, I breathe deeply and remind myself that the Church is not only a human institution, and that we are looked after" by the Holy Spirit, he concluded.
Karee Santosis the co-author, together with her husband Manuel P. Santos, M.D., of a Catholic marriage advice book forthcoming from Ave Maria Press in 2016. She and her husband began teaching marriage preparation and enrichment classes in New York City in 2003. Karee has written 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?.