Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary, relator for the October extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, speaks with Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, synod general secretary, at the conclusion of a press conference at the Vatican Jun e 26. The working document for the synod scheduled to start in October was released during the press conference. (CNS photo/Massimiliano Migliorato, Catholic Press Photo)
Last week the
Vatican released the Instrumentum Laboris
for the upcoming General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. This “working
document” is a summary of the results of the consultation with the faithful and
clergy on the pastoral challenges facing the family in the context of
evangelisation. The text is divided into
three parts addressing the eight major subject areas of the original set of
questions which was sent to dioceses throughout the world.
The document runs for some 44 pages, and
will be the starting point for discussion when the bishops gather at the Vatican
in October. The following is an attempt to highlight excerpts from paragraphs
likely to be of particular interest to people in developed western countries
and scholars in the field of sacramental and moral theology.
The People of God’s
knowledge of conciliar and post-conciliar documents on the Magisterium of the
family seems to be rather wanting, though a certain knowledge of them is
clearly evident in those working in the field of theology. The documents,
however, do not seem to have taken a foothold in the faithful’s mentality.
Some observations attribute the responsibility for this lack of
knowledge to the clergy, who, in the judgment of some of the faithful, are not
sufficiently familiar with the documentation on marriage and the family, nor do
they seem to have the resources for development in these areas. Some
observations inferred that the clergy sometimes feel so unsuited and ill-prepared
to treat issues regarding sexuality, fertility and procreation that they often
choose to remain silent. Some responses also voice a certain dissatisfaction
with some members of the clergy who appear indifferent to some moral teachings.
Their divergence from Church doctrine leads to confusion among the People of
God. Consequently, some responses ask that the clergy be better prepared and
exercise a sense of responsibility in explaining the Word of God and presenting
the documents of the Church on marriage and the family.
A good number of episcopal conferences mention that, when the
teaching of the Church is clearly communicated in its authentic, human and
Christian beauty, it is enthusiastically received for the most part by the
faithful. When an overall view of marriage and the family is sufficiently set
forth according to tenets of the Christian faith, its truth, goodness and
beauty is clearly visible. Church teaching is more widely accepted, when the
faithful are engaged in a real journey of faith and are not just casually
curious in what might be the Church’s thinking in the matter of sexual
morality. On the other hand, many respondents confirmed that, even when the
Church's teaching about marriage and the family is known, many Christians have
difficulty accepting it in its entirety.
The observations rightly indicate the need for a greater
integration of a familial spirituality and moral teaching, which would lead to
a better understanding, even of the Church’s Magisterium, in the field of moral
issues related to the family.
Some episcopal conferences argue that the reason for much
resistance to the Church’s teaching on moral issues related to the family is a
want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on
a personal and communal level, for which no doctrinal presentation, no matter
how accurate, can substitute.
Many responses relate the critical importance of establishing
relations with academic centers which are adequately and properly prepared
doctrinally, spiritually and pastorally in family matters. Some respondents
speak of the fruitfulness at the international level between centres on
university campuses and dioceses even in outlying areas of the Church in
promoting qualified formative sessions on marriage and family. An often-cited
example in the responses is the collaboration with the Pontifical John Paul II
Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome which has several
locations around the globe. In this regard, various episcopal conferences
recall the importance of developing the insights of Pope St. John Paul II in
his “theology of the body” series, in which he proposes a fruitful approach to
the topics of family through existential and anthropological concerns and an
openness to the new demands emerging in our time.
Speaking of the acceptance of the Church’s teaching on marriage
and the family necessarily involves the subject of the natural law, which is
often quoted in the Church’s magisterial documents and poses difficulties
today. The large-scale perplexity surrounding the concept of the natural law
tends to affect some elements of Christian teaching on the subject of marriage
and the family.
In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of
natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly
problematic, if not completely incomprehensible. The expression is understood
in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all.
The responses and observations also show that the adjective
“natural” often is understood by people as meaning “spontaneous” or “what comes
naturally.” Today, people tend to place a high value on personal feelings and
emotions, aspects which appear “genuine” and “fundamental” and, therefore, to
be followed “simply according to one’s nature.” The underlying anthropological
concepts, on the one hand, look to an autonomy in human freedom which is not
necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things, and, on the
other hand, every human being’s aspiration to happiness, which is simply
understood as the realization of personal desires. Consequently, the natural
law is perceived as an outdated legacy. Today, in not only the West but increasingly
every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the
concept of nature. Evolution, biology and neuroscience, when confronted with
the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not “scientific.”
If some responses refer to a lack of proper understanding of the
natural law, several episcopal conferences in Africa, Oceania and East Asia,
mention that, in some regions, polygamy is to be considered “natural,” as well
as a husband’s divorcing his wife because she is unable to bear children and,
in some cases, unable to bear sons.
The language traditionally used in explaining the term “natural
law” should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to
people today in a more intelligible manner. In particular, the vast majority of
responses and an even greater part of the observations request that more
emphasis be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in
the conception of married life and the family, and recommend greater reference
to the Bible, its language and narratives. In this regard, respondents propose
bringing the issue to public discussion and developing the idea of biblical
inspiration and the “order in creation,” which could permit a re-reading of the
concept of the natural law in a more meaningful manner in today’s world (cf.
the idea of the law written in the human heart in Rm 1:19-21; 2:14-15).
Moreover, this proposal insists on using language which is accessible to all,
such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy. The recommendation
was also made to engage young people directly in these matters.
A number of responses focus on the image of the Trinity reflected
in the family…Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us.
When citing the various critical situations affecting the family,
the responses constantly allude to not only addictions to alcohol and drugs but
also pornography, at times used and shared within families, not to mention addictions
to gambling and video games, the Internet and social networks.
In this regard, [cohabitation, etc.] any possible response to this
situation through pastoral care must assist young people to 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, which reveals a great mystery and great promise. Such a
pastoral approach must include education in human love and emotions which
begins already in childhood, is reinforced in young couples in the early stages
of their engagement and puts the community and liturgical aspects in relief.
Some Church members who are cognizant that they are in an
irregular situation clearly suffer from the fact that they are unable to
receive the sacraments. Many feel frustrated and marginalized. Some wonder why
other sins can be forgiven and not theirs. Others cannot see how religious and
priests can receive a dispensation from their vows and priestly obligations so
they can marry, while divorced and remarried persons are unable to receive Holy
Communion. These questions highlight the necessity of providing suitable
formation and information in the matter. In other cases, persons do not
understand how their irregular situation can be a reason for their not being
able to receive the sacraments. Instead, they believe that the Church is at
fault in not permitting their irregular marriage situation…Moreover, responses
and observations from some episcopal conferences emphasize 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.
Some Church members in canonically irregular situations express a
desire to be received and guided by the Church, especially when they attempt to
understand the rationale of the Church’s teaching. These people recognize the
possibility of living in their situation, while relying on God’s mercy through
the Church. Still others, as indicated in the responses from some Euro-Atlantic
episcopal conferences, accept the duty to live in continence.
A good number of responses speak of the very many cases, especially
in Europe, America and some countries in Africa, where persons clearly ask to
receive the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. This happens primarily
when their children receive the sacraments. At times, they express a desire to
receive Communion to feel “legitimized” by the Church and to eliminate the
sense of exclusion or marginalization. In this regard, some recommend
considering the practice of some Orthodox Churches, which, in their opinion,
opens the way for a second or third marriage of a penitential character. In
light of this suggestion, countries having a major number of Orthodox
Christians noted that, from their experience, this practice does not reduce the
number of divorces. Others request clarification as to whether this solution is
based on doctrine or is merely a matter of discipline.
Very many responses, especially in Europe and North America
request streamlining the procedure for marriage annulments. In this regard,
they see a need to investigate the question of the relationship between faith
and the Sacrament of Matrimony, as suggested by Pope Benedict XVI, on several
occasions. In some cases, Catholics in countries with a major number of
Orthodox Christians remarry in the Orthodox Church following their customary ritual
and then ask to receive Communion in the Catholic Church. Finally, other
responses request clear indications on the procedure to follow in cases of a
mixed marriage, in which the Orthodox spouse has already been married and has
received permission for a second marriage in the Orthodox Church.
Many responses and observations call for theological study in
dialogue with the human sciences to develop a multi-faceted look at the
phenomenon of homosexuality. Others recommend collaborating with specific
entities, e.g., the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences and the
Pontifical Academy for Life, in thoroughly examining the anthropological and
theological aspects of human sexuality and the sexual difference between man
and woman in order to address the issue of gender ideology.
it seems that there is general agreement that many members of the laity are
ignorant of the Church’s teaching and that many clergy are not that much better
educated themselves and feel somewhat inadequate dealing with issues of an
intensely intimate nature. There is also
general agreement that declaring certain practices to be “contrary to the
natural law,” while this may be true as an ontological reality, is not a
helpful intellectual explanation for the many people who have not studied
philosophy and theology and who regard the word “natural” as synonymous with “spontaneous”
or following one’s inclinations. In countries
where the Gospel has only recently been preached a number of pre-Christian social
practices like polygamy are also regarded as “natural.”
affirms John Paul II’s theology of the body and the Trinitarian anthropology of
the family which has been strongly promoted by the international network of John
Paul II Institutes for Marriage and Family.
It also alludes
to what is described in theological circles as the “Kasper proposal” (as in
Cardinal Walter Kasper): to consider following Eastern Orthodox practices
regarding the gift of Communion for some categories of divorced and remarried
people. This is found in paragraph
95. Note that the paragraph flags the
issue of the relationship between doctrine and Church disciplines.
to the Kasper proposal, which is fraught with doctrinal problems (so much so
that its proponents try to get around the issue by driving a wedge between
doctrine on the one hand and pastoral discipline on the other), the major
intellectual proposals are that some consideration be given to ways of
explaining the Church’s teaching that don’t rely solely on the idiom of natural
law and that the ecclesial academies undertake a multifaceted analysis of the
phenomenon of homosexuality. This would
seem to include a consideration of the sociological and psychological
dimensions in addition to the standard moral dimensions. It is also probable that the synod fathers
will look at ways to better educate the clergy in the theology of the family
and various dimensions of the social sciences which are relevant to the
flourishing of family life, such as psychology and economics.
The need to
better understand the relationship between spirituality and moral theology is
also a recurring theme in the responses.
Social practices and human actions have their own internal logic which
is in turn linked to spiritual dispositions.
If people don’t have a developed spiritual life, if they don’t really
know Christ, or understand themselves as creatures in a divine work of art,
then they will probably have difficulty understanding why the Church opposes in
vitro fertilisation and the use of contraceptives.
addition to the standard list of pastoral problems such as alcoholism and
addiction to pornography is the impact of the Internet and iPhones on internal
family relationships. Not a lot has been
written about this in theology journals, though some work on the subject has
been done by Dr. Matthew Tan, who is currently at De Paul University. Dr. Tan’s work could be valuable in this
practical proposals are those relating to some kind of administrative reform of
the annulment process.
In short, the general thrust of the
recommendations appears to be better education for both clergy and laity, a
better interdisciplinary understanding of complex social phenomena so that it
is not only the moral dimension of a social practice that is the subject of
analysis and ecclesial interest, an overhaul of the annulment process so that
people don’t find themselves waiting for years to know whether or not they can
enter into a new union, and a deep analysis of the theological problems
associated with the pastoral care of those who divorce and remarry.