…Experts say the Vatican’s Synod on the Family must defend traditional teaching while acting as a ‘field hospital’ in a sin-sick world
Family problems like divorce and fatherlessness have long concerned the Church. When bishops gather Oct. 4-25 in Rome for the ordinary synod on the family, they will discuss the difficulties they’re seeing in families around the world — and offer solutions to the Pope.
Although some Bishops and Secularists would like to see major doctrinal changes resulting from the Synod — like the approval of homosexual activity or the allowing of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communionv — the reality is that the Synod will certainly disappoint them.
Fr. Gerald Murray
One of the reasons many Catholics are anxious about this synod is because of the media circus and confusion that swirled around the Extraordinary Synod which met in Rome last October. What emerged was division among participants: On one side was a group of bishops who want Church doctrine to change on issues of homosexuality, contraception, and Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics; on the other side were bishops who want to uphold time-honored Church teachings on marriage and family.
“We are in the midst of a debate that will try to influence each side,” said Fox News contributor Fr. Gerald Murray. “Both sides have been going back and forth. However, I don’t believe there will be a change in Church teaching.”
German and Swiss bishops head the camp opposing Church teaching on the family, with de facto leader German Cardinal Walter Kasper.
“The German Church is the wealthiest one in the world because of a very peculiar tax system, so most German bishops agree with Kasper,” said Kishore Jayabalan, director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office.
In May, two-thirds of the German bishops voted to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics — and those living in homosexual unions — to continue employment in Church-run institutions.
Faithful Catholics look to U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke as their leader. Priests who found their vocation under Pope St. John Paul II, as well as bishops from Africa, Asia and the Middle East occupy this camp. They want Humanae Vitae (Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical opposing artificial birth control) and John Paul’s Theology of the Body to be better integrated into Catholics’ lives.
Pope Francis will use the synod’s final document to craft an apostolic exhortation on the family. Most believe that he will uphold Church teachings, while calling upon Catholics to be merciful towards struggling families.
Although no one knows the synod’s outcome, there are a myriad of opinions as to what the bishops will discuss.
“I would like to see efforts to strengthen family life, helping people face challenges like divorce, raising children in the faith, and preparing couples for marriage,” said Fr. Murray, pastor of Holy Family Parish in New York City. “I would like to see a clearer teaching on Humanae Vitae, not as a Catholic hang-up but as the key to cooperating with God’s plan for marriage and the family.”
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a delegate to the synod, told Legatus magazine that there is a great need for the Church to accompany those who are hurting.
“It’s not easy to live a good life,” he said. “For us to be that healing touch of Christ, we need to be a ‘field hospital.’ We have to be that light on the mountain, not a light hidden under a bushel.”
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz
Archbishop Kurtz says the Church needs to inspire witnesses — including single parents — to stand up and speak about the sacrifices they’ve made for their children and their marriages.
“They often say to me, ‘I don’t want my child to endure what I did alone,’” he said. “We need to call forth couples and families who can be mentors for others. There needs to be witnessing going on in neighborhoods, one family to another, even informally.”
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., said he “would like to see the synod identify cultural obstacles that make it difficult to live out marriage — and give couples the tools to navigate them. There are all kinds of wonderful tools for couples. I think that families can get overwhelmed, distracted and lose hope.”
Jayabalan said the synod fathers need to talk about the state of marriage in the wake of the sexual revolution.
“They should go back to Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Humanae Vitae: What do we need to do to practically to teach this again?” said Jayabalan. “They should also find ways for married couples to give their testimonies.”
Many dioceses and individual bishops are already working on creative solutions to the problems families face. For example, the Pittsburgh diocese announced recently that it would stop charging a fee to begin the annulment process. In the Archdiocese of Louisville, it’s been free for 15 years. The Diocese of Lincoln waives the fee if necessary and asks for a donation when possible.
Bishop Conley’s Lincoln diocese is also working on a tribunal outreach.
“Oftentimes, in the process of annulments, we wait for couples to come to us,” said Bishop Conley. “The idea now is to present a positive message and go out and find couples that are outside the Church. The idea is to offer them a remedy to look at the Church again. We will also have someone shepherd them through the annulment process. It will be a person-to-person ministry.”
The Lincoln diocese is also looking for ways to speed up the process.
Bishop James Conley
Bishop Conley published a pastoral letter on contraception in 2014 called “Language of Love,” which re-presents Humanae Vitae in a way that people can understand today.
“It reaches out in a pastoral way,” he said. “The whole issue of contraception is at the heart of so many struggles.”
In terms of the New Evangelization for families, some dioceses, notably Lincoln and Denver, are leading the way with online resources to help struggling families — articles, webinars, audio links, blogs, and links to organizations devoted to helping couples and families.
Proponents of the Catholic Church’s teachings on the family want to encourage those faced with difficulties.
“What I would like to see at the Synod is the rich treasure of the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage re-presented in a robust way,” said Bishop Conley. “I know that there are all kinds of struggles, but we cannot lower the bar on our teaching.”
Archbishop Kurtz concurred. “We cannot turn away from the great gift of marriage as a union of one man and one woman who are open to new life. We need to be true to the dignity of every person.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.
Ordinary Synod: An advisory body to the Pope that considers issues of the Universal Church or specific to a certain geographical area. Meetings are held at fixed intervals.
Extraordinary Synod: A special synod that is held to deal with urgent matters. Only three have been held since the Second Vatican Council.