The thing that is most striking when one reads the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document that will be used at the upcoming bishops’ Synod on the Family in October, is not a specific detail, aspect, or problem (for example the administration of the sacraments to remarried divorcees or the attitude one should take towards same-sex unions). What is striking is the bigger picture that it presents. This time, the working document the Synodal Fathers will be using as a reference is a portrait of the real experiences of faithful as well as of the perception the faithful have of the changes that have taken place in their respective societies regarding issues linked to sexuality, marriage, and family life.
Those who feared and condemned the idea that the questionnaire containing the 39 questions would act as a survey on Church teaching, had their minds set at rest. The document is balanced in all three sections. For example, it underlines the problems in presenting natural law and its pillars because the expression “natural law” is “highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible.” In many cases, what becomes established in civil law, is increasingly “accepted as morally right” in people’s minds. So one great task of the Synod will be to reflect on how to proclaim the Gospel and the Church’s teaching in these new contexts.
Interestingly, the document also emphasizes the risk of forgetting that the family is “the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another.” Hence the need to present an attractive vision of the family as “a source of the essential virtues for a life in community.” The document stresses that “a key point in fostering an authentic, incisive pastoral program for the family seems ultimately to rest on a couple’s witness of life, a witness which is consistent with not only Christian teaching on the family but also the beauty and joy which permits the Gospel message to be embraced in marriage and lived as a family.” This attitude is in clear contrast with the attitudes of those who spend their lives condemning, damning and putting the world under a doctrinal examination. It is also in contrast with the lax attitude taken by those for whom anything goes.
The document points out the wrong, moralistic perception of those who see “the ideal of living as a family is viewed as unattainable and frustrating, instead of as a possible means for learning how to respond to one’s vocation and mission.”
The analysis the document gives of the “critical situations within the family” is also interesting: violence and abuse, the “dependence” on media and social networks that monopolize a family’s time, the pressures linked to work rhythms, migration phenomena, poverty, consumerism and the mentality of “having a child at any cost” [Note: leading to a search for solutions like in vitro fertilization, etc.] The reference to the Church’s “weaken[ed]” “moral credibility” especially in North America and Northern Europe as a result of the sex abuse scandals — notably clerical paedophilia — is significant.
One great problem is what approach to take toward people in difficult or irregular family situations. Chapter III, which is on difficult pastoral situations, contains a section on “Pastoral Care in Difficult Situations.” “Real pastoral attention,” the Instrumentum Laboris reads, “is urgently needed to care for these people and bring them healing so that they might continue their journey with the entire ecclesial community. The mercy of God does not provide a temporary cover-up of personal misdeeds, but rather radically opens lives to reconciliation, which brings new trust and serenity through true inward renewal. The pastoral care of families… has a mission to recall the great vocation of love to which each person is called and to help a person live up to the dignity of that calling.”
Regarding cohabitation, the document says: “Among the circumstances which lead couples to choose cohabitation, the responses mention: inadequate policies of support for the family; financial need; youth unemployment; and a lack of housing.” As far as de facto unions are concerned, the document says it is essential to help young people “overcome an overly romantic idea that love is only an intense feeling towards each other and teach them that it is, instead, a personal response to another person as part of a joint project of life.”
Regarding situations of “canonical irregularity,” the document recognizes that “a rather large number of people give no thought to their irregular situation,” therefore “no one requests access to Holy Communion nor the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance.”
But great suffering is endured by many who feel marginalized and frustrated because they are unable to take communion due to their family situation. The document points out that some bishops’ conferences have signalled that “the Church needs to equip herself with pastoral means which provide the possibility of her more widely exercising mercy, clemency and indulgence towards new unions.” Individuals and couples need to be guided with “patience and understanding.” The Church “must explain to these people that their not being able to celebrate the sacraments does not mean that they are excluded from the Christian life and a relationship with God.”
Another element of the text that is worth noting, is the reference to the tendency — predominantly in Europe and in some Latin American countries — to resolve questions by trusting in some accommodating priest. The document shows how frequent these case-by-case approaches are, even among those who present themselves as inflexible in public but are then willing to make significant exceptions in the confessional. As far as remarried divorcees are concerned, the need to streamline the marriage annulment process along the lines of what Benedict XVI proposed appears fundamental. This should not fuel the idea of a form of “Catholic divorce” coming to pass [Note: because streamlining the annulment process does not mean abandoning the conviction that a valid marriage cannot be ended; it simply means streamling the present often lengthy and painful process leading to the recognition that a valid marriage did not ever exist.]
All agree that the catechesis that prepares faithful for marriage is essentially inadequate. The validity of many marriages is questionable if couples do not live their lives in the faith.
The approach towards the issue of “same-sex unions” and the laws that recognize said unions is especially significant. The Instrumentum Laboris explains that the two contrasting attitudes — an inflexible one on the one hand and an accommodating one on the other — make it difficult to develop an “effective pastoral program for the family.” There needs to be a distinction “between those who have made a personal, and often painful, choice and live that choice discreetly so as not to give scandal to others, and those whose behavior promotes and actively — often aggressively — calls attention to it.”
“Some responses recommend not using phrases such as ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian’ or ‘homosexual’ to define a person’s identity,” the document says. It adds that there is no consensus in the Church “on the specific way of receiving persons in these unions.” There is also a paragraph on the adoption of children by same-sex couples. These children should not be discriminated against when it comes to baptism and Christian initiation, the document says, although the Church’s opposition to adoption by these types of couples is unanimous.
Finally, another part of the document that is worth noting is the bit dedicated to the reception and current pertinence of Humanae Vitae. It says that abortion is widely perceived by the faithful to be a serious sin but a perception that contraception as a means of birth control is not a grave sin, is now widespread.
The document reflects the spirit of the new pontificate and perhaps for the first time provides a summary of the real situation, the real lives, of parishes across the five continents. It is the outcome of an extensive and joint effort. It gives the real picture without skipping the reality of the failure, or at any rate the difficulty, of proclaiming the faith.
No one can tell what will happen in October when the bishop members of the next Synod meet in the Vatican. This is just the beginning of a deep reflection on the family, which will only come to an end in October 2015, when the second Synod on the Family is held.