The extraordinary synod this year, followed by a larger ordinary synod next year, is not about the single, difficult pastoral problem of divorced and remarried Catholics, although that will certainly be an important topic.
“The synod on the family will surely deal with the whole range of issues facing the family today, not only this one issue of Communion for those who are divorced and remarried,” Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins told Our Sunday Visitor recently.
“I would imagine that the synod will spend most of its time on the broader issues affecting marriage and the family.”
The broader issues are crucial for the Church, because the family, founded on the Sacrament of Marriage, is an essential manifestation of the body of Christ.
Families have become a battleground for some of the most enduring and contentious issues of our time. Abortion, contraception, divorce, test-tube babies, rent-a womb babies and gay marriage may be the obvious stress fractures. But there are deeper forces at work that have atomized families into ever smaller units, set up families in opposition to the economy, called into question basic patterns of life that have been part of every civilization through history.
This deep change in culture has caught the Church by surprise. It never expected its teaching about love and children and duty and human connection would become unintelligible.
“The language by which the Church proposes the teaching seems to be a language not accessible to people,” Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle told Catholic News Service earlier this year. “So this is my hope. Not for change — how can you change biblical teachings? — but maybe a real, pastoral and evangelical concern for the Church. How do we present the good news of the family to this generation, with its limitations, with its greatness, with its unique experiences.”
Pope Francis has appointed Tagle as one of three presidents of the extraordinary synod. Along with Paris’s Cardinal Andre Vingt Trois and Brazilian Cardinal Raymundo Assis, Tagle will moderate the Oct. 5-19 discussions among almost 200 bishops and religious order superiors representing nearly every country in the world.
There will be a further 38 experts and 10 to 15 delegates from Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican and Baptist Churches also permitted to speak and participate in small group discussions. In total 253 people will make up the Synod Assembly.
This is in fact a synod in two parts. With the extraordinary synod this year and a larger ordinary synod next year on the same topic, it will be the most extensive consultation in terms of time, openness and the range of people consulted since the close of the Second Vatican Council in December 1965.
It also puts the world’s bishops in the driver’s seat.
“They’re asking us to submit our interventions a month ahead of time so that they will be able to order them in a way that corresponds to the structure itself of the instrumentum laboris,” Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops President Archbishop Paul-André Durocher told The Catholic Register.
“So what I have done is send a note to the bishops of Canada, asking them to share with me what their principal concerns are.”
Instead of bishops standing up and making individual five-minute speeches in random order, soon to be forgotten, this synod will tackle topics in a structured, ordered way, setting up substantial group discussions.
“There’s a double movement here. One of being attentive to the reality that is there — being able to read, to use the old language of the Second Vatican Council, the signs of the times — and to discern in that what is of the Spirit and what is not,” said Durocher.
When it comes to tackling the reality of family life, the bishops should not give in to an overly pessimistic view, said Nora Spink, sociologist and executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family. Young people, both inside and outside the Church, haven’t embraced an alien concept of marriage as being a semi-permanent living arrangement or a mere legal contract.
“Despite the fact that fewer and fewer of them are opting for marriage in either a legal commitment or going through a ceremony — either a legal commitment or a faith-based commitment — they are forming what they consider commitments for life. They are not rejecting the concept of partnering for life by choosing not to marry.”
Spink’s study of family formation tells her that the drop in the number of recorded, legal marriages is “not an indicator of a drop in that commitment.”
If fewer couples actually achieve a lifetime bond, it’s not because people have abandoned the ideal. But the ideal is now subject to harsher realities. We live longer, we have more options when things go bad and the economics of family life are stacked against many people.
“There’s one overarching element that needs to be taken into account, particularly in the developed world. That is, we are all living longer, which is a good thing,” Spink said.
“We need to recognize the complexity, the diversity and the reality of that new experience that couples and families have,” Spink said. “It means we will be caring for our seniors for a longer period of time. Our children are with us and depend on us for a longer period of time. It means that the interconnections across generations are more intense and more long term.”
The issues are endless. There are no simple answers, no neat formulas. Which is precisely why the Catholic Church needs to think long and hard about the family.
Durocher, the sole representative of the Canadian Church at the Synod, believes the Church must find new ways of talking about family to ordinary people.
“That dialogue between Church and culture needs to be broadened, I think. How to do that remains a huge challenge,” he said.
The culture isn’t just the image of families on television screens or in newspaper headlines. It’s also the entire economy from which people derive the money and material goods necessary to raise and educate children, and also their identity, status and sense of belonging.
“I would personally consider that there is a serious link with economic issues,” Durocher said. “Economic issues, but also the kind of image of human aspiration that underlies our economic system. In that sense there are fundamental issues about what it means to be fully human and where does our happiness truly lie.”
While various cardinals and theologians have been drawing the battle lines by publishing books and essays on the theology of marriage in the Church, Pope Francis has signalled what he believes by presiding over his first weddings as Pope.
“Families are the first place in which we are formed as persons and, at the same time, the bricks for building up of society,” Francis preached to 20 couples he wed in Rome in September.
“It is impossible to quantify the strength and depth of humanity contained in a family — mutual help, educational support, relationships developing as family members mature, the sharing of joys and difficulties.”
It was a standard, orthodox picture of family life we might hear from any decent pastor at a family wedding. What made this different was the couples the Pope invited to be wed on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.
Some of them had lived together for years without a Church wedding. Some of them brought their children with them. They weren’t virgins and products of perfect families.
“The cure which God offers the people applies also, in a particular way, to spouses who have become impatient on the way and who succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment,” said the Pope.
“To them too, God the Father gives His Son Jesus, not to condemn them but to save them. If they entrust themselves to Him, He will bring them healing by the merciful love which pours forth from the Cross, with the strength of His grace that renews and sets married couples and families once again on the right path.”