The Instrumentum Laboris: Some highlights and what they will mean for the synod

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.

Paragraph 11:

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.

Paragraph 12:

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.

Paragraph 13:

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.

Paragraph 14:

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.

Paragraph 15:

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.

Paragraph 18:

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.

Paragraph 20:

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.

Paragraph 21:

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.

Paragraph 22:

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.”

Paragraph 25:

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.

Paragraph 30:

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.

Paragraph 35:

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.

Paragraph 68:

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.

Paragraph 85:

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.

Paragraph 92:

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.

Paragraph 94:

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.

Paragraph 95:

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.

Paragraph 96:

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.

Paragraph 117:

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.

In summary, 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.” 

The document 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.

In addition 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.

A novel 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 context.

The major 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.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Tracey Rowland 17 Articles
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a past Member of the International Theological Commission. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of several books, including Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), Catholic Theology (2017), The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (2017), Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (Angelico Press, 2019), and Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (T&T Clark, 2021).