Taking stock of where things stand and what still needs to be addressed in October 2015
Many of my students have asked me what I thought about the Extraordinary Synod, now that it is over. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but it felt incomplete to me, or perhaps it’s better to say it felt "unbalanced." Some things I expected to see discussed didn’t make it onto the table, and others seemed to take on greater importance than they deserve.
Now, this is not a criticism per se. It is not the purpose of the synod to assemble some kind of representative list of the issues facing the family. And it is perfectly reasonable for the Synod Fathers to address matters they are inspired to take up. But still, as Katrina Fernandez soulfully pointed out in her blog post picked up by Time Magazine, some difficulties of real significance were overlooked, or received the merest of cursory treatments.
My readers will know that I have defended Francis’s approach on these pages and elsewhere. And I am profoundly grateful for the conversation initiated by the Synod because the shape of the human family is in complete disarray and only the Church has anything like the promise of a strategy. But a credible strategy, pastoral or otherwise, requires an honest accounting of where we are on the battlefield of human history.
So, in the spirit of taking stock, here are a dozen things for next fall’s agenda that outline our losses on that battlefield most poignantly.
1. Lowest-low fertility.Below replacement-level fertility has persisted in the West for several decades and shows no sign of reversing. The trend is creeping into the East and the South and many nations with traditionally high fertility have experienced declines more precipitous than believed possible. "Be fruitful and multiply" was the first command to the human family. One would imagine that below-replacement fertility is a pretty big problem.
2. Divorce. Forget about divorce-and-remarriage problems. Let’s talk more about divorce. Divorce is no longer a live policy issue in most nations – although Leo XIII and Pius XI devoted entire encyclicals to the dangers posed to the "wealth of nations" by divorce. It may be that western society has moved on – but the Church should not move on.
3. Retreat from marriage. The age at first marriage in the United States has crept upwards steadily for both men and women, reaching nearly thirty for men. While the Synod did address the problem of cohabitation, we need to confront head on what has brought about the retreat from marriage. A single line in the first draft of the doc said “Simply to live together is often a choice based on a overall attitude, opposed to anything institutional and definitive.” This deserves a lot of attention.
4. Contraception.The entire world remains basically unconvinced that contraception is a really bad idea. Now, if we really believe what we teach about this, we ought to be standing on our heads trying to get people to understand. If instead we spend most of our time talking about things that are probably secondary effects of the contraception problem anyway, we risk giving the impression that we don’t really believe what we teach about contraception. In that case, governments might have a hard time believing that this is a deep matter of conscience for us.
5. Abortion. There are millions and millions of legal abortions each year and increasingly fewer ways for Catholics and people of good will to oppose abortion in a meaningful way. In that light, the abortion problem has become almost exclusively an evangelical one. Why does this not represent one of the most formidable pastoral challenges to the family?
6. Plight of children who suffer from fragile families.