The Words of the Lineamenta: A Layman’s Perspective

Many key words–including "repentance" and "conversion" and "fatherhood"–are hardly used, while many passages are so vague as to be nearly useless

My diocese was one of the dioceses that offered laymen the opportunity to respond to the Lineamenta, the pending document prepared after the October 2014 session of the Synod on the Family and which is the working document for the upcoming session in October 2015.

The last part of the Lineamenta is a series of questions. Several were hard to comprehend or, at least, hard to respond to. For instance, Question 25 asks in part, “how can the conditions be created so that each family might do as God wills?” How’s that for a general question? Just as broad is Question 42, which asks, “How can the care and respect of children be promoted?” And what parent would ever disagree with the statement in Question 45 that “fulfilling their educational mission is not always easy for parents”? And how about Question 43 for a cosmic social question: “Are people aware of the grave consequences of demographic change?”

Much has been written about the Lineamanta’s sections on homosexuality and divorce. This article chooses to focus on some other words and phrases in the document. In the Lineamenta are certain words that are presented as some kind of solution or principle that apparently allows Catholics to act upon them.

For instance, the most prevalent word in the document is “accompany”. It is a concept that is never defined, but it is clearly something different from leading, directing, or evangelizing. In speaking of “accompanying” separated, divorced and not remarried, divorced and remarried, and single parent families (and not just Catholics), the Lineamenta says that accompaniment must be “reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life,” quoting Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium. And, “without detracting from the evangelical ideal,” there is the “need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur,” again quoting Evangelii Gaudium. The “art of accompaniment,” an art brought forth by Pope Francis, is the dominant word and the dominant theme of the Synod document.

Similar language describes another apparently new role for the Church. It is said that the Church must act “as church” by “going beyond proclaiming God’s Word and pointing out extreme situations.” Acting “as church” is further explained in another section as assisting “couples in their emotive maturation and affective development through fostering dialogue, virtue, and trust in the merciful love of God.” But no proclaiming or preaching.

Other words and themes are significant. The phrase “natural marriage” is mentioned four times in the Lineamenta. Early on, the sacrament of Marriage is said to have been built on “natural marriage” at the Creation. Later, citing Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, the document of the Council having to do with relations with non-Christian religions, the Lineamenta states that Vatican II expressed an “appreciation for natural marriage and the valid elements present in other religions and cultures.” But the cited section in Nostra Aetate says that we must recognize “what is true and holy” in other religions but says nothing about marriage. Likewise, the same passage cites a section of John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio, wherein that pope says that “inter-religious dialogue is part of the Church’s evangelizing mission” in the context of “the conviction that “the Church is the ordinary means of salvation.” It does not mention marriage.

The Synod document is apparently drawing a comparison between ecumenical relations with non-Christian religions and “ecumenical”—so to speak—relations with non-sacramental or “natural” marriage, which includes every variation or approximation of marriage, including civil marriages and “even co-habitation.” This is a “new aspect of family ministry,” the “new element in today’s pastoral activity,” “the new pastoral course based on the present reality of weaknesses with the family.” So, is Vatican II’s recognition of truths in other religions now extended to recognition of different forms of “marriage”?

It goes on to say that a stable, legally recognized, affectionate, responsible, and child-centered relationship is a candidate for eventual sacramental marriage. And so it is. But isn’t such a virtuous relationship more characteristic of persons already married? It does not seem to have much to do with the present-day reality of transient relationships and co-habitation.

The word “repentance” occurs once in the document. “By looking at the sinner with love, Jesus leads the person to repentance and conversion.” Likewise, preaching occurs once. “In preaching about the family, the Church is a sign of contradiction.” “Forgiveness” occurs sparingly and always in the context of forgiving others, never in the context of any person needing forgiveness. “Moral” is mentioned only twice, in the discussion of those divorced and remarried who have “moral obligations towards children” and in one of the three citations of Humane Vitae which is said to highlight “the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births”

Conversion” is included sparingly and never as a transformative event or radical change of heart and life. Citing Familiaris Consortio, the Lineamenta speaks of an “ongoing conversion” which is “dynamic” and “advances gradually.” Familiaris Consortio, however, goes to say that the process of conversion is brought about by “concretely in steps which lead us ever forward,” in the context of “continuous, permanent conversion.” The Lineamenta stays with the process.

And, again, in the only passage in the Lieneamenta wherein “repentance” is included, it is said that Jesus leads a person “to repentance and conversion by “looking at the sinner with love.” That is, the document does not say that Jesus leads the sinner by preaching or teaching. And that is the only place in the Lineamenta where the word “sinner” is used, with “sin” and “sinful” occurring fewer than ten times. Later, it is said that “merciful love” which tells “the truth in love” is an “invitation to conversion.” But both “proclaiming a merely theoretical message” and “merely presenting a set of rules” are declared to be impediments to conversion because they are not “connected” to people’s “real problems” and needs

In one of several passages that are either too general or uncertain in their intent, it is stated that there is a need for a “pastoral conversion” for the sake of creating “conditions” that promote the family. And, last, it is asked how the “Christian community” can help the civilly married and those cohabiting to set upon a “path of growth and conversion.”

For a synod called to address Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization, “evangelization” is not mentioned that often. When it is mentioned, the mention is “evangelization” as a theme and activity but without content.

The passages on evangelization are frequently examples of the kind of broad and obvious statements already referred to. “Pastors ought to identify elements that can foster evangelization and human and spiritual growth.” And so they should. “Proclaiming the Gospel of the Family is urgently needed in the work of evangelization.” Indeed. “Evangelizing is the shared responsibility of all God’s people.” Yes.

But one passage on evangelization is quite clear: “Evangelization needs to denounce with clarity cultural, social, political and economic factors, such as the excessive importance given to market logic, that prevent authentic family life and lead to discrimination, poverty, exclusion, and violence.” This economic version of evangelization is the only place in the Lineamenta where any person or idea is condemned or “denounced.”

Although there are more than twenty references to the “synod fathers,” that is, the authors of the Lineamenta, there are only three references to actual “fathers” of families. Two of those three refer to both father and mother jointly. Only one refers to fatherhood exclusively and that is to refer to the problem of fathers who are “absent from their families.” “Mother” is treated in the same manner. Besides the Church as “mother” and the same reference to mother and father together, there is only one independent reference to “motherhood,” and that is to defend motherhood when it “is often penalized rather than esteemed.”

In two other passages, the bloodless terms “maternity” and “paternity” are used as in the sense of “parenthood.” There are numerous passages and analyses referring to the problems of raising and bringing up of children today, but only two short passages directly referring to the “education” of children.

What is completely lacking in the Lineamenta is any self-criticism or confession of or by the Church. The synod fathers never call themselves to task for any problems in marriage and the family in the Church or in the contemporary world. By contrast, economics and politics are several times identified and criticized as causes of family problems.


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About Thomas R. Ascik 12 Articles
Thomas R. Ascik writes from Asheville, North Carolina.