Pope Francis has called for an extraordinary meeting of the Synod of Bishops.
It’s only the third such meeting that’s taken place.
The topic Pope Francis feels urgently needs to be addressed is the family.
Some are have hopes—or fears—that the bishops will overturn traditional Catholic teachings or practices about the family.
Now a new document sheds light on what we should expect.
Here are 12 things to know and share . . .
1) In broad terms, what’s going to happen?
The pope and a select group of bishops from around the world will meet in an extraordinary synod from October 5-19, 2014.
The theme for this meeting is “The pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelization.”
Based on what happens at this synod, a synod already scheduled for 2015, will take up the subject of the family again,
So we’re about to see two synods deal with the subject of the family, two years in a row.
At the synods, the bishops will make various proposals, which will be submitted to the pope for his consideration.
He will make the final decisions about what, if anything, will be done on a practical level.
2) What tells us that he feels that this situation is urgent?
The first thing is that the 2014 synod is an extraordinary session—only the third such extraordinary meeting of the synod that’s been called.
The second is that the next synod, in 2015, will address the same subject.
And the third is that they’re re-jiggering how the synod itself works. According to Bishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of the synod, “the synodal methodology is under general revision at present.”
He further stated:
[T]he idea is that of transforming the synodal Institution into a real and effective tool for communion, through which the collegiality hoped for by the Vatican Council II is expressed and achieved.
Indeed, with this aim it is the Holy Father's wish to strengthen also the activity of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in order that it may adequately perform its mission of promoting episcopal collegiality, cum Petro and sub Petro [Latin, “with Peter” and “under Peter”], in the governance of the Universal Church.
This leads not only to changes to the synodal process of both a structural and methodological nature, but also to the functional adaptation of the General Secretariat, including of course the reconstitution of the physical spaces of its seat.
In other words, the Pope feels so strongly about this, that they’re doing all this at a time when they’re fundamentally re-designing the synod of bishops and how it works.
3) Why would Pope Francis feel the need to address the subject of the family and evangelization so urgently?
It’s obvious that the family is in crisis in many places in the world today, and that this is linked to the transmission of the faith.
Often, the decline of faith has been blamed for the crisis in the family, but some evidence suggests that it’s the other way around—that the crisis in the family is contributing to the decline of faith.
If this is correct, then finding a way to strengthen the family could be key to the project of evangelization.
4) Should we hope—or fear—that the synod will result in changes to the Church’s teaching about the family?
Not according to Archbishop Bruno Forte, the special secretary of the synod. He stated:
“It is not, therefore, a matter of debating doctrinal questions, which have in any case been clarified by the Magisterium recently … the invitation deriving from this for all the Church is to listen to the problems and expectations of many families today, manifesting her closeness and credibly proposing God's mercy and the beauty of responding to His call”.
5) Do we know what specifically will be discussed at the 2014 synod?
Yes. We got our first, more detailed look at this with the release of the “preparatory document” for the synod.
This document is basically a questionnaire that is sent out to bishops to gather feedback before the synod begins.
The results of the questionnaire will then be summarized in a “working document” that will be presented to the synod fathers as a guide for discussions.
6) What will the general topics of discussion be?
According to the preparatory document, they will be likely to include:
1. The Diffusion of the Teachings on the Family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium
2. Marriage according to the Natural Law
3. The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelisation
4. Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations
5. On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex
6. The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages
7. The Openness of the Married Couple to Life
8. The Relationship Between the Family and the Person
9. Other Challenges and Proposals
These are the headings under which the preparatory document organizes its questions.
For purposes of discerning what the Holy See is thinking, the most significant are the first eight. The last is simply a final, open-ended question intended to let the bishops propose anything else they think ought to be discussed at the synod.
7) Do the questions asked suggest that a change in the Church’s teachings is likely?
No. For example, the questions under heading one are all about whether people understand the Church’s teachings, whether they accept them, and what local churches are doing to teach them properly.
We get questions like:
a) Describe how the Catholic Church’s teachings on the value of the family contained in the Bible, Gaudium et spes, Familiaris consortio and other documents of the post-conciliar Magisterium is understood by people today? What formation is given to our people on the Church’s teaching on family life?
b) In those cases where the Church's teaching is known, is it accepted fully or are there difficulties in putting it into practice? If so, what are they?
c) How widespread is the Church's teaching in pastoral programmes at the national, diocesan and parish levels? What catechesis is done on the family?
The fact that we’ve got a whole set of questions (under heading two) concerning marriage and natural law (which is immutable) also does not point in the direction of a change in teaching.
8) Do the questions suggest possible changes in the Church’s practice?
Some of them suggest minor changes intended to strengthen things the Church is already doing.
For example, under heading three, we read:
a) What experiences have emerged in recent decades regarding marriage preparation? What efforts are there to stimulate the task of evangelisation of the couple and of the family? How can an awareness of the family as the "domestic Church" be promoted?
b) How successful have you been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture?
c) In the current generational crisis, how have Christian families been able to fulfill their vocation of transmitting the faith?
Of particular note here is (b), which could lead to a renewed emphasis on family prayer.
9) Do any questions suggest larger shifts in Church practice?
One of them, in particular, does. Under heading four we read:
f ) Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognizing a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved? If yes, what form would it take?
This question opens the door to a discussion of whether a simplified annulment procedure would be beneficial.
It does not suggest that the Church’s teachings regarding the indissolubility of marriage would change, but it could result in a change in how these are handled administratively.
This is a source of particular concern in many developing countries, including those of Latin America, that often do not have fully staffed tribunal systems and that can allow cases of nullity to languish for years without a resolution.
10) What do the questions suggest about homosexual unions?
Early on, under heading two, there is the question:
b) Is the idea of the natural law in the union between a man and a woman commonly accepted as such by the baptized in general?
Later, under heading five, we read:
a) Is there a law in your country recognizing civil unions for people of the same-sex and equating it in some way to marriage?
b) What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union?
c) What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?
d) In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?
11) Are there any indications on what the Synod may do regarding the subject of contraception?
Under heading seven, we read:
a) What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae vitae on responsible parenthood? Are they aware of how morally to evaluate the different methods of family planning? Could any insights be suggested in this regard pastorally?
b) Is this moral teaching accepted? What aspects pose the most difficulties in a large majority of couple’s accepting this teaching?
c) What natural methods are promoted by the particular Churches to help spouses put into practice the teachings of Humanae vitae?
f) How can a more open attitude towards having children be fostered? How can an increase in births be promoted?
These questions signal a desire to promote the teaching of the Church on contraception, not a weakening of it.
12) What other subjects come up in the questions?
A major one is pastoral care. This comes up in a variety of contexts.
For example, there is a whole section (heading six) devoted to helping children in irregular family situations.
We also saw, already, questions about how to pastorally help the divorced and remarried, those in same-sex unions, and the children living in such situations.
Heading eight also deals with pastoral care, in this case in the kind of situations that can crop up in any family, not just in irregular unions. It includes questions like:
b) What critical situations in the family today can obstruct a person’s encounter with Christ?
c) To what extent do the many crisis of faith which people can experience affect family life?
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