VATICAN CITY — As the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family gets under way at the Vatican, how relevant will be the last apostolic exhortation on the family, Pope St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (The Christian Family in the Modern World)?

In May this year, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, said in an interview that the Vatican wishes to “update” the document, the fruit of the 1980 Synod of Bishops’ deliberations.

In a later interview with the Register, he noted the “theme of the family, after more than 30 years, since the document Familiaris Consortio, needs to be looked at in a global sense, considering the often uncommon anthropological and social situations today.”

Some have interpreted his comments to suggest that the document has little relevance to today’s world, given the changes in social attitudes to many areas related to marriage, sexuality and the family.

But Stephan Kampowski, professor of philosophical anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, said it would be “unimaginable” that the bishops of today would “simply consider irrelevant what the bishops of 30 years ago considered good, important and necessary.”

Responding to calls to update the document, he acknowledged it did not address a number of issues that have become “real challenges” today, such as same-sex “marriage” and gender ideology. But he stressed this doesn’t “invalidate the substance of the document, which continues to be the ‘magna carta’ of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family.”

Critics have suggested that because the family is in a bigger crisis than ever, the approach of the document was ineffective and something new must be tried. But Kampowski responded by quoting this year’s synod’s instrumentum laboris (working document): “When the teaching of the Church is clearly communicated in its authentic, human and Christian beauty, it is enthusiastically received for the most part by the faithful” (13).

“If there is a problem with Familiaris Consortio, it is that in many places it has been implemented half-heartedly or not at all,” Kampowski argued. “Where its teachings have been followed, one can witness how these are bearing abundant fruit.”

Among its areas of guidance, Familiaris Consortio restates the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control, lists other threats to the family such as divorce, abortion and sterilization, and summarizes John Paul II’s theology of the body. It also discusses the responsibility and expectations of the family regarding the education of children, underlines the importance of the sacraments in family life, and strongly urges family prayer.

In an interview in March, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, the archbishop of Bologna, who was one of the consulters at the 1980 synod, said it is “simply not true to say that Familiaris Consortio comes out of a historical context that is completely alien to ours today.”

The document, he said, “taught us an approach to the questions of marriage and the family” and that using this approach, “we arrive at a teaching that, even today, remains a reference point that cannot be disregarded.”

Juan José Pérez-Soba, professor of pastoral theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, said its “great contribution” is its “global vision of marriage and family as pertaining to the most intimate core of the Gospel.” He said it tries to help people respond to today’s challenges to the family “by considering the call to love as the guiding thread of a progressive and personalized pastoral care,” and by placing “great importance on the grace and mercy that regenerate a person.”

While aware of the need for trained pastoral caregivers, especially priests, Pérez-Soba stressed that it “underlines the social dimension of the pastoral care of the family in its entirety.” All these are “great riches,” he continued, “contained in the exhortation that, however, still need to be discovered more fully.”

Underlining the continued relevance of John Paul II’s exhortation, Kampowski said that “true collegiality” among bishops and a “rightly understood sensus fidei” [sense of the faith] imply that it’s not just the opinions of today that are important, but those of past bishops and faithful.

“Given that Familiaris Consortio summarizes the results of the last synod on the family, it seems obvious that it should be the point of departure for the present Synod on the family and serve as guidepost for its deliberations.”

Both Kampowski and Pérez-Soba are authors of The Gospel of the Family, a newly published critical response to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s pre-synod proposal for allowing divorced-and-civilly remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist after a penitential period.

Looking at to the synod, Kampowski hopes it will encourage the family to be “ever more” the “fundamental resource for evangelization.” But he is concerned that it might view the Church’s teaching on marriage and family not as a strength but as an “obstacle to evangelization.”

Loosening some of the more demanding moral requirements, he warned, won’t attract more to the Church. Instead, as those denominations who have “ceded to the demands of our sex-saturated culture” have found, renouncing these demanding aspects have led to their further decline, “some being on the verge of extinction.”

Pérez-Soba hopes the synod won’t focus only on concrete problems but “open up to a wider vision of the vocation to love that corresponds to the deepest desire of the human heart” and thereby leads to conversion. The synod won’t change any doctrine, he said, and in the case of the divorced and civilly remarried, he said the first thing pastoral care needs to do “is to discover the truth of each situation.”

The path, therefore, has to be located “more in the lines of penance than those of communion,” he said, accompanying those concerned to come to a conversion.

He also said it is “equally important” to revise marriage preparation in a way that “combines juridical and pastoral aspects so as to help people to understand better the goods of justice that are at stake.”

Kampowski argued that admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to communion would overturn the Church’s teaching over the past two millennia, giving the “Church’s stamp of approval on forms of sexual intimacy outside of marriage”.

“Not even the Pope can change the fact that God made us this way: when man and woman become sexually intimate with each other, they bond and they get deeply wounded if they break up,” Kampowski explained. “Sex is for love and if love is true, it will want to say ‘forever,’ that is, to commit itself in an irrevocable promise that will also include sexual exclusivity.”

He said, “When Jesus says, ‘What God has joined let no man put asunder,’ (Mt 19), he does not impose an intolerable burden on us, but expresses a deep truth of our being, a truth about the good of the relationship between husband and wife.”

Cardinal Caffara, in his March interview with Zenit, said the most fundamental message of Familiaris Consortio is that the document affirms the Church’s supernatural sense of the faith, which “does not consist solely or necessarily in the consensus of the faithful.”

He said that Pope John Paul II directed his attention to the fundamental roots of the family.

“And it is from precisely this returning to the roots that Familiaris Consortio brings forth its magnificent teachings on marriage and the family,” he said. “And it did not ignore concrete situations. It spoke about divorce, living together outside of marriage and the problem of divorced and remarried people receiving communion.”

“To say Familiaris Consortio belongs to the past and has nothing more to say to us today amounts either to a caricature of the document, or reveals that the person making such an affirmation hasn’t read the document.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.