Pope Francis walking out of the Synod Hall after the final Synod meetings on October 24, 2015. (Alan Holdren/CNA)
For the English-speaking world, the Ordinary Synod on the Family just came to a formal end, two months after its actual end, with the release of its final report in our native tongue.
(This is the final report of the Synod Assembly to Pope Francis. The Pope is expected to issue his own document on this subject in 2016.)
The world was gleefully told by the enlightened—again and again and again—that it looked as if the Church was finally going to join the modern age by surrendering to the self-evident verities of the sexual revolution. Giddy at the prospects of Pope Francis’ supposed reforming spirit, the gay community’s leading magazine canonized the Holy Father as their “Person of the Year” before the Synod even started. While this chatter of reformation made the heterodox hopeful, it made the orthodox anxious. But all that is over now and there’s a very good reason that you’ve not been blasted with the news of the synod’s conclusions. It not only dashed the hopes of those who hoped the Church would jettison its historic and biblical teaching on sexual ethics, it blew them to hell.
Every serious Christian—Protestant and Catholic—should read the final report. It strikes a precise and biblically serious note. It is deeply pastoral and theologically rigorous. Not one note of it equivocates. It establishes our understanding of the sacredness of marriage and family as both a private and public necessity on Christ’s words in Mark 10 and Matthew 19, which of course point us back to the first two chapters of Genesis as the starting authority on this matter. Neither Christ nor the Church will permit a view of the creation narrative as a quaint bible story that smart people no longer believe. It is, as Leon Kass held, the beginning of wisdom. Established upon this proper foundation, even a dull reader will easily pick up that the drafters have gone to great effort to make certain no one can miss the truth that both the marital union and the family itself are established between, and only between, male and female. It does so right out of the gate. In the first chapter, the Synod Fathers declare:
“Today, a very important cultural challenge is posed by ‘gender’ ideology which denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without gender differences, thereby removing the anthropological foundation of the family.”
They continue the warning:
“This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative guidelines which promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological differences between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, which can also change over time.”
This radically invalidates our understanding of what it means to be human because “according to our faith, the difference between the sexes bears in itself the image and likeness of God” (section 8). According to the Fathers, to erase the unique and mysterious distinction between male and female is to challenge the unique complementarity of our Triune God. To even consider doing so is anathema. Thus Pope Francis is quoted from his April 15, 2015 General Audience, “The removal of the difference […] is the problem, not the solution.”
Picking up on Pope Francis’ recent environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, the Synod Fathers ask us to equally consider the environment of the “family, which is part of a significant human ecology [and therefore] should be adequately protected” from its erosion caused by both neglect and redefinition. They command us to “contribute in a specific manner to promoting ecology” as we “learn the meaning of the body and the language of love from the difference between man and woman and we collaborate in the divine plan of God, the creator.” Male and female as revealed in the family are a revelation in creation of God the creator Himself, just as God the creator is revealed in the creation and union of the man and the woman as Genesis 1:26-27 unambiguously proclaims to all.
It is clear from this small sampling of the report’s many affirmations of the unique and irreplaceable virtue of the natural family, that any hope for even a wink at the possibility of the so-called same-sex family is beyond any possible consideration. However, the document makes an important distinction between the same-sex attracted person and same-sex sexual relationships—something few in the public discussion (inside and outside of the Church) are unfortunately able to make. For many, the person is the act and the act is the person. This of course is intolerable because it reduces the wonder and fullness of the person to a sexual identity. While the Synod Fathers state in no uncertain terms that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in anyway similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage” they hold with equally strong conviction that “the Church reiterates that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his/her dignity and received with respect…” Note the use of the word “reiterate” here. This is not a new idea for the Christian. Graciously accepting the same-sex attracted individual as a person with dignity, even as they carry the burden of a disordered sexuality just like everyone else does is as old as the conviction that marriage and family are established in the naturally ordered and divinely ordained foundation of male and female. The Church has embraced me in my miserable state. It can do the same for anyone—gay, straight or otherwise. It just won’t allow us to remain there. It offers something better.
Scripture and Tradition
The authors of the report are careful to clearly state on what authority these truths are established. They are clearly founded in the authority and clarity of Scripture where marriage is central in the God’s actions through His salvific history. You cannot understand His story if you do not understand how God’s very Trinitarian nature serves as an icon for the human family and marriage, how marriage is an imperfect picture of the regal relationship between Christ and His beloved Church, as well as what the whole story is and has been moving toward: the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb. They also establish this in the life and incarnation of Christ himself; born into a family, given an earthly mother and father, as God desires for every child.
The Synod also establishes these beautiful biblical realities in the traditions and recent teachings of the Church. Starting with Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (see sections 47-52), they point us to the bold and consistent teachings of the most recent popes: Blessed Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae; Pope St. John Paull II in his many writings, particularly his Theology of the Body and Familiaris Consortio; and Pope Benedict XVI who proclaimed in Caritas in Veritate:
“…States are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and woman, the primary vital cell of society, and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs, while respecting its essentially relational character.”
They end of course, with the teachings of Pope Francis who laments that “marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will”, sadly producing many types of counterfeit unions under the ruse of progress. Included is the statement Francis made to those assembled at International Colloquium on the Complementarity Between Man and Woman held in late 2014 at the Vatican: That every child has “the right be grow up in a family with a father and a mother.” The Synod Fathers want the reader to know that their conclusions in this document are consistent with both past and recent proclamations of the Church. They serve a continuity and fidelity.
The Goods of Marriage and Family
The report does not just highlight the importance of male and female as the foundation for marriage, sexuality and the family. It distinguishes and praises the often criticized virtue of large families as a personal and social good. It honors the way families protect against the cancer of loneliness and isolation of the human soul, even for those who are not direct members of a family. They call out the power of families to uniquely care for the elderly, the widowed, the orphaned, those with special needs, those with terminal illnesses and the education of children. The Synod Fathers recognize that no other social institution comes close to rivaling the family in meeting these very real needs that every community must face.
New Pathologies of Family Life
The report masterfully addresses the unique threats that have arisen in roughly the past two decades that degrade the integrity of too many families: internet pornography, post-traumatic stress disorder of parents and spouses serving in foreign wars, the increasing coarseness of popular culture, and the intrusion of technology upon the haven of the home, even though they do correctly recognize the value of email and some social media to facilitate increased connection between family members who live far apart. They strongly denounce the State’s policies and financial coercion to become complicit in the regime of contraception, sterilization, abortion, reproductive technologies that reduce male and female to mere sperm and egg as well as the acceptance of same-sex marriage and parenting. Any state far exceeds its bounds when it applies any sort of pressure upon its citizen’s to participate in such things, even indirectly.
The Eucharist and the Divorced
In his excellent overview of the Synod’s inner politics, George Weigel explains that “the final report says not a single word about admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion, absent a decree of nullity.” The subject is not substantively discussed while the clear and historic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage gets clear and repeated attention.
Throughout the document, the statements are bold and clear, making it impossible for anyone to misread their intent. It is a wonderful catechesis on what the Church holds regarding these things in the midst of the current age. Taken with Pope St. John Paul’s Famlilaris Consortio, Christians have two very strong biblical and practical statements on what a Christian understanding and practice of sexuality, family and marriage are in a pastoral sense, the first from 1981, the second from today.
While not perfect, the document is a great gift to the Church around the world as it seeks to faithfully navigate its way forward in the current challenges of our day. Or better yet, as it serves as a fixed and faithful lighthouse guiding those who are seeking to navigate this trying and difficult age in fidelity to Christ.
Let us conclude with this wonderful summary statement from the Synod Fathers…
“Quite appropriately, we can use a Christocentric hermeneutic to understand the natural properties of marriage, which make up the goods of the spouses, namely, union, openness to life, fidelity and indissolubility. …We maintain that these forms—still based on the true and stable relationship of a man and woman—are ordered to the Sacrament of Matrimony.”