The Vatican synod on the family will confront a hostile culture, reinforce teaching . . .
At a time when the definition of marriage and family is being distorted almost daily, The Vatican is about to convene a synod on the family that many hope will bring clarity to a culture in confusion.
Pope Francis blesses a child during his visit to Assisi on Oct. 4, 2013
The Oct. 5-19 extraordinary synod will discuss “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization” in preparation for a family-themed ordinary synod of bishops in 2015 that will produce working guidelines.
The 150 participants of the extraordinary synod will include the presidents of bishops’ conferences and heads of Eastern Catholic churches, along with Vatican officials, according to Catholic News Service.
In calling an extraordinary synod to prepare for an ordinary synod, Pope Francis is sending a signal about the importance of the family, said San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ subcommittee for the promotion and defense of marriage. “I think this indicates what a high priority this is for [him].”
Indeed, the Pope told a worldwide charismatic gathering in June that the devil is trying to destroy the family, and he urged families to be “strong in the face of this crisis.”
In the months leading up to the October synod in Rome, some reports have cast Pope Francis as an agent of change. The Los Angeles Times, for example, said contraception, cohabitation, divorce, remarriage and same-sex unions will be “put up for debate” at the synod by “a man who appears determined to push boundaries and effect change.” The story went on to say that the synod could “herald a new approach by the Church to the sensitive topics.”
However, the idea that the synod will change Church’s teaching on marriage or any other essential truth is simply wrong, said Brian Brown, president and co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, and a member of Legatus’ Philadelphia Chapter.
“On the issue of marriage as the union of man and woman,” Brown said, “Pope Francis has repeatedly been strong.” Catholics should reject reports that the core truths of the faith are going to be redefined, he said. Rather, “the synod is an opportunity to reassert the beauty, hope, the love that is the natural family,” Brown added.
“Church teaching can’t change,” Archbishop Cordileone told Legatus magazine. “Otherwise, we’re into that dictatorship of relativism.” Church discipline could be modified, he said, but even there he expressed caution because certain disciplines have evolved over the centuries and are deeply intertwined with Church teaching and theology.
Although the U.S. news media have focused on a few issues like same-sex unions and the treatment of divorced Catholics, the synod’s preparatory document lists multiple topics for discussion. These include mixed or interreligious marriages, the single-parent family, polygamy, a culture of non-commitment affecting the view of marriage as permanent, forms of feminism that are hostile to the Church, an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood, and new interpretations of what is considered a human right.
“With a topic like the family, this synod could go in a hundred different directions,” said John Thavis, former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service and author of The Vatican Diaries. Thavis pointed out that discussions will be limited by the two-week time period, although the 2015 general synod will provide for follow- through.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone
“I think what Pope Francis has in mind is that what happens this fall will be taken back to local church communities for further discussion and refinement,” Thavis said. This would be similar, he added, to what happened during the Second Vatican Council during which cardinals returned to their home dioceses for continued work on questions discussed in the Council sessions; they then went back to Rome to make decisions.
Thavis said the pope typically issues a post-synodal document in which he reworks the meeting’s final propositions, giving him a kind of last word on the deliberations.
Divorced, remarried Catholics
Based on remarks Pope Francis and some leading cardinals have made, the synod will likely take up the issue of divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the Church.
According to Catholic News Service, retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper told the world’s cardinals in February that he believes the Church needs to find a way to offer “healing, strength and salvation” to remarried Catholics who want to make their new marriages work — and want to do so within the Church with the graces of the Eucharist.
Cardinal Kasper made the remarks after Pope Francis asked him to introduce a discussion by the cardinals on family life. The cardinal proposed offering a “life raft” in the form of Communion to those who have sinned by remarrying and suggested that in certain cases the Church could tolerate, but not accept such second unions.
“I think Francis sees this almost as a test case of how much space can be created for pastoral flexibility without going against Church doctrine,” Thavis said. “I think he sees it as a difficult area, but has thrown it down as a challenge.”
However, Archbishop Cordileone said, “I don’t know how allowing them to go to Communion would be a life raft.” A life raft, he continued, would be offering divorced Catholics moral and emotional support and a sense of belonging. As for the Church tolerating second marriages, he said, “we already do that. [Divorced and remarried Catholics] are still members of the Church. They are not excommunicated and are still part of the family. Because of the irregularity of their situation, they are not allowed to receive Communion, but we don’t kick them out of the Church.”
The life raft
Rose Sweet, a Catholic speaker and author of several books on divorce and the annulment process, said the Church is able to offer healing, strength and salvation to divorced Catholics in irregular marriages, but she doesn’t believe that would be accomplished by offering them Communion.
“The teachings are that marriage, if valid, is unbreakable, and somebody who has remarried outside the Church is no longer in full communion with the Church. To receive that public or even private act of Communion would be disingenuous. It would be a lie.”
Sweet said Catholics who cannot go to Communion are not being deprived of their baptismal graces and can still have spiritual communion with Christ. The life raft the Church can offer them, she said, is a two-section one: the teachings of Christ and parish/diocesan programs that help divorced Catholics through the annulment process.
Sweet said she would like to see the Church modify its disciplines, not its teachings, to provide a more pastoral treatment for divorced Catholics. One way would be to make more advocates available to help divorced Catholics through the annulment process. Because the system is overburdened with the machinery of bureaucracy, Sweet said, the average person in a failed marriage seeking help from the Church can go through several years of the process without having anyone to help or explain things.
Thavis said streamlining the annulment process would not involve doctrinal issues. The idea of finding ways to readmit divorced Catholics to the sacraments has been brought up in past synods, he said, but never with any resolution.
Regardless of the issues it takes up, NOM’s Brian Brown sees the synod as an opportunity for the Church to make clear the truth about marriage and the great good it does for society.
“To be pastoral is not to go with the times,” he said. “Nothing has changed on that front. It wouldn’t have been right for the Church to embrace what was going on in Rome in the early periods of the Church or any culture that clearly contradicts the truth. It’s a misunderstanding to think that pastoral means to fit in; to be pastoral is to stand up for the truth in and out of season.”
JUDY ROBERTS is Legatus magazine’s staff writer.