If I could sum up in one sentence what is contained in the Synod on Family Life’s mid-term report - as presented by the Synod’s General Reporter Cardinal Erdo - I would say: ‘Imitating the loving gaze of Christ to appreciate the difficulties experienced by many people and recognising the need to offer them companionship, in the hope that together we may experience the joy of the Gospel of the family.’
There are numerous reports circulating about the document, many of which are suggesting a significant change in tone with the possibility of changes in Church doctrine. While there is no real possibility of the latter it is fair to say that there is a change in tone. The tone is definitely more understanding with a focus on healing rather than condemnation, all the while adhering to traditional Church teaching.
Perhaps we should firstly set out the context of this report. To give it its proper title, relation post disceptationem, the document seeks to summarise the discussions held at the Synod thus far. The document will be agreed by the Synod in the days ahead and the intention is then that the document, which contains a number of reflections on the discussions, will be used to ‘raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches’ in the year between now and the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which will take place in October 2015.
The document covers many interesting topics around the central consideration of the synod; that of the family. Divorce, homosexuality and contraception are but a few of the issues discussed and there are interesting reflections on all of these topics. In this article we will consider the main points arising from the mid-term report and try to make sense of what is actually being said rather than going down the road of an over excitable tabloid reporter with the sole of intention of producing a headline grabbing story suggesting a sea change in Church doctrine.
Not to Condemn, but to Heal
In fleshing out the general theme of greater understanding, we can perhaps start with Cardinal Erdo’s opening comment when he spoke of how Jesus Christ, ‘the Truth, became incarnate in human fragility not to condemn it, but to heal it.’ He used the example of how Jesus taught that marriage was indissoluble but still showed understanding of those who didn’t live up to this ideal. The crux of this is that we must work to help others to be healed and accompany them on their journey with the hope that they will come to full appreciation and acceptance of the Gospel of the family.
Indeed, one outcome of the first week’s discussions is to urgently address the need to more effectively proclaim the Gospel of the family. The report states that the ‘Church has to carry this out with the tenderness of a mother and the clarity of a teacher’ and always bearing in mind the mercy of Christ. It encourages all the faithful to spread this Good News stating ‘Evangelising is the shared responsibility of all God’s people, each according to his or her own ministry or charism. Without the joyous testimonies of spouses and families, the announcement [of the Good News], even if correct, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words that is a characteristic of our society.’
The report makes it clear that in proclaiming the Gospel of the family we must make known that it is a ‘joy that fills the hearts and lives, because in Christ we are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness’. We are also encouraged to proclaim in a language that is meaningful and avoid simply ‘presenting a set of regulations’. Rather, we are invited to put forward values that will address people’s real problems.
The Threat of Individualism
A significant threat expressed in the report is the threat of ‘exasperated individualism’ which the Synod suggests ‘distorts family bonds’. This, according to the Synod, leads to isolation of the various components which make up the family unit which in turn leads to the ‘prevalence of an idea of the subject formed according to his or her own wishes, which are assumed as absolute’. In a nutshell, there is a significant threat posed by narcissism and the modern ideal of individualism and selfishness. This, the Synod suggests, is central to the modern day break up of the family unit.
In order to tackle this problem the Church, through this report, suggests a two pronged approach in supporting people in their search for God. Firstly, it suggests making the teachings of the Church better known. And secondly, this teaching should be accompanied by mercy. In making this point the report refers to Jesus who ‘looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God’.
To be fair, this direction isn’t out of sync with current Church teaching though the benefit of reemphasising it at this time is obvious.
Marriage between One Man and One Woman
In turning to marriage the report refers to Jesus’ reaffirmation of the indissoluble union between a man and a woman. It then states ‘God consecrates love between spouses and confirms its indissolubility, offering them help in living in fidelity and openness to life. Therefore, the gaze of the Church turns not only to the couple, but to the family’. Here we see the important link between marriage and the family.
The Synod did, however, acknowledge that new forms of union exist in our world and while the Church expresses ‘the value and consistency of natural marriage’ some members of the Synod have raised the possibility of ‘recognising positive elements in the imperfect forms’ of other unions. For those who are in other forms of union, such as civil marriage or cohabitation, the report states that ‘the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings’. So, while Church doctrine on Christian marriage between one man and one woman isn’t going to change, the Church must increase its understanding of alternative forms of union and seek to find positives from them. Indeed the Synod goes further to state that the Church must ‘accept the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation’ while taking into account due differences between them and natural marriage. However, this acceptance and understanding is always accompanied with the goal to bring such unions to the sacrament of marriage in the Church.
The report states: ‘Indeed, when a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterised by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage’.
So, while the Church will likely continue to recognise only one form of union, the faithful must appreciate those other forms of union where the qualities of stability, deep affection, strength in unity, and a responsible attitude with regard to children are present.
Marriage and Cohabitation
In considering the importance of marriage, the Synod focused on the Church becoming more deeply involved in Christian marriages, especially those in their infancy. It suggests a greater involvement of the whole Christian community with respect to marriage preparation, including pastoral accompaniment in the form of more experienced couples. It also suggests the importance of couples being ‘encouraged towards a fundamental welcome of the great gift of children’ and the importance of ‘family spirituality and prayer’.
Further, the report suggests a move (where it doesn’t already exist) toward more ‘meaningful liturgies, devotional practices and the Eucharist celebrated for families’.
While cohabitation remains an issue for the Church, the report sets out a clear understanding of the difficulties faced by couples such as financial difficulties. While many couples simply reject the idea of Christian marriage, others wish for it but simply cannot afford to have it for one reason or another. The Synod suggests pastoral accompaniment for such couples must start with the positive aspect that they desire a Christian marriage.
Separation and Divorce
Another significant issue is the separated, divorced, and the divorced who have remarried. Firstly, the Synod has set out that ‘Each damaged family first of all should be listened to with respect and love, becoming companions on the journey as Christ did with the disciples on the road to Emmaus’. It suggests such accompaniment must be at a steady and reassuring pace which reflects our ‘closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life’. It also states reassuringly that ‘What needs to be respected above all is the suffering of those who have endured separation and divorce unjustly’ and emphasises the need to avoid children becoming an ‘object’ to be fought over.
With respect to nullity a number of propositions were put forward by members of the Synod. Among those put forward was the suggestion that the administrative responsibility for annulments could be under Diocesan Bishops and a proposed ‘summary process’ in the case of clear nullity. All proposals will, of course, be considered in the months ahead but the report did state that in all cases with respect to annulment, the principal consideration is ‘ascertaining the truth over the validity of the obstacle’.
The report states that ‘Divorced people who have not remarried should be invited to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their state’. It then goes on to consider those who have been through divorce and remarried, saying such a situation ‘demands a careful discernment and an accompaniment full of respect, avoiding any language or behaviour that might make them feel discriminated against’. In a reassurance to Catholic tradition the report then states: ‘For the Christian community looking after them [those who are divorced and remarried] is not a weakening of its faith and its testimony to the indissolubility of marriage, but rather it expresses precisely its charity in its caring’. The suggestion here is that Church doctrine will not change on this issue but there is an undoubted call for the Church to provide respectful accompaniment and care to those affected.
In terms of divorced and remarried people sharing in the sacraments, the Synod members were in disagreement with a number of views being put forward. However, the report suggests that ‘fruit of discernment’ could be applied on a case-by-case basis ‘according to the law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances’. The aim here would appear to be to provide the support necessary to allow divorced and remarried faithful to grow in holiness over time with the possibility of future participation in the sacraments. This, however, is not set in stone and the report suggests that a greater theological study may be undertaken to consider this issue in more detail.
Homosexuality is a subject well known to the Catholic Church, particularly in recent times with the advent of same-sex marriage. However, before we set out the views of the Synod on this topic it is important to note that the Church has not given (nor will it give) any indication that doctrine is about to change on this issue. Indeed the Synod has stated that ‘The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman’. However, the report does state that ‘Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community’ and begs a number of questions to the Catholic faithful about how welcoming we are to people with same-sex attraction without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony. The report also seeks to take positives from same-sex unions while clearly stating there are moral problems connected to such unions. It states: ‘Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners’.
The Synod’s discussions on homosexuality are perhaps worthy of the largest slice of our attention. While there is no movement away from Church doctrine which states homosexuality as being ‘disordered’, there is a clear attempt to accentuate the potential positives which could be brought to bear by same-sex unions. While it does not condone homosexual acts (as such acts close the sexual act to the gift of life), the Church appears to be acknowledging the support through sacrifice given by one partner to the other in same-sex unions.
Perhaps this is a useful juncture to reinforce the Church’s views on homosexuality. While homosexual acts are sinful there is no sin in same-sex attraction. The Church believes such tendencies towards same-sex attraction are a trial in the same way a single person lives a trial by being called to live a chaste life.
The report then tackles the matter of children living with same-sex couples, stating that ‘The Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasising that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority’. This is perhaps a suggestion that the sacraments will not be denied to children who live with same-sex couples.
Contraception is a matter of great significance to the Church as the Church teaches that ‘being open to life is an intrinsic requirement of married love’. Contraception in any form is therefore deemed to be contrary to the Will of God as it closes off the possibility of receiving God-given life. With this in mind the Synod suggests that ‘what is required is a realistic language that is able to start from listening to people and acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional opening to life as that which human life requires to be lived to its fullest’. The report then continues, ‘it is on this base that we can rest an appropriate teaching regarding natural methods’. The Synod then reinforces the message of Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae which ‘underlines the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control’.
Sadly, I have already witnessed a considerable degree of misreporting on this section of the report. It must be clear that the dignity of the person refers to humanity. In this sense, the person we are speaking about is a potential new life. So, birth control must be morally evaluated with the ideal of openness to new life at the core of any considerations. It is not, as some media outlets have suggested, a call for the Church to respect the dignity of individuals using forms of birth control. Contraception, in all its forms, will continue to be rejected by the Church. The Church does, however, allow for Natural Family Planning as this method does not close off the possibility of life. While it allows a couple to plan for pregnancy (and the Church allows for a certain degree of sensible planning with respect to the creation of new life) it is a method which is always open to the possibility of a child. It never closes off that possibility and that is why the Synod has suggested that it should be taught more widely.
And so there we have it; the mid-term report of the Synod of Bishops on Family Life 2014. The Synod will continue for a few more days and will then leave the issues raised to be considered by local Churches and faithful ahead of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which will take place in October 2015.
While we need to take these matters into our hearts and minds and ponder them, no decisions will be made until October of next year at the earliest. There is, therefore, a lot of work still to be done and the initial excitement surrounding this report must be balanced with patience and appreciation for the long process being embarked upon. However, that does not mean we cannot start to implement the spirit of understanding which runs throughout the report. This spirit of understanding must fuel our work in the months ahead and, while we must continue to adhere to the beautiful teachings of the Church, our desire to enlighten the world to Truth should be accompanied by a tone of mercy and compassion.
As the report concludes: ‘the guidance of the Holy Spirit will lead us to find roads of truth and mercy for all’. Amen.
To read the full report, click here: http://www.news.va/en/news/synod-on-family-midterm-report-presented-2015-syno