VATICAN CITY — The Synod of Bishops’ June 27 instrumentum laboris (working document) for the upcoming Synod on Marriage and the Family contained no doctrinal surprises, but it noted that neither the faithful nor the Church’s ministers are fully aware of the teaching of the Church.
Participants at the synod will use this document to prepare for the Oct. 5-16 gathering. Divided into three parts and based on the responses to the 38-question questionnaire sent to bishops’ conferences all over the world, the instrumentum laboris is a snapshot about the realities Catholics face in society today.
“The synod will represent an analysis of the pastoral and social situation,” said Cardinal Peter Erdo, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and general relator for the synod, on June 26. “It is the first stage of a wider process. After this extraordinary synod, there will be another one, which will provide a more in-depth reflection on how to address the numerous challenges to families and, at the same time, how to evaluate the family as the active subject of evangelization.”
Education is the first issue the synod fathers have to address. According to the instrumentum laboris, the documents on the magisterium of the family issued after the Second Vatican Council (that is, elaborating on the new approach provided by the Council) “do not seem to have taken a foothold in the faithful’s mentality” (11). The information underscores that “some responses clearly state that the faithful have no knowledge of these documents, while others mention that they are viewed, especially by laypeople with prior preparation, as rather ‘exclusive’ or ‘limited to a few’ and require some effort to take them and study them.” The problem is “that, oftentimes, people without due preparation find difficulty reading these documents.”
Connected to the faithful’s lack of formation is the formation of the clergy. The synod’s paper said that in the judgment of some of the faithful, clergy “are not sufficiently familiar with the documentation on marriage and the family, nor do they seem to have the resources for development in these areas” (12). The shepherds “sometimes feel so unsuited and ill-prepared to treat issues regarding sexuality, fertility and procreation that they often choose to remain silent.”
The responses from the questionnaire also voice “a certain dissatisfaction with some members of the clergy who appear indifferent to moral teachings. Their divergence from Church doctrine leads to confusion among the people of God.”
Paragraphs 20-30 deal with natural law and its relation to the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life. The text states, “In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible.”
In addition, the document said, “The responses very often stress the need for a family ministry, which provides systematic and ongoing formation on the value of marriage as a vocation and the rediscovery of parenting (fatherhood and motherhood) as a gift” (49).
Msgr. Livio Melina, the president of the John Paul II Institute in Rome, told the Register June 27 that “the instrumentum laboris’ emphasis on the importance of formation recalls that the pastoral care of the family must be founded on truth.”
‘Difficult Pastoral Situations’
Part 2 of the instrumentum laboris focuses on the central challenges facing today’s families: the fatherlessness that “causes major imbalances in households and uncertainty” in sexual identity in children (64); the breakup and breakdown of families, “the first and foremost being a couple’s divorce and separation” (65); sexual violence, trafficking and exploitation of children (66-67); and the dependence on media and social networks that “can be a real impediment to dialogue among family members” (68).
Other critical challenges are migration, poverty, consumerism, wars, the approach to illness (especially HIV/AIDS) and the diversity of religion among married couples.
All of these challenges lead to “difficult pastoral situations,” addressed in the third part of the working document.
“From every part of the world, the responses note an increasing number of couples who live together ad experimentum (on an experimental basis) in unions that have not been religiously or civilly recognized nor officially registered in any way” (81).
The issue of same-sex “marriage” is also discussed. The document states that “the responses are clearly opposed to legislation that would allow the adoption of children by persons in a same-sex union, because they see a risk to the integral good of the child, who has the right to have a mother and father, as pointed out recently by Pope Francis (‘Address to Members of the International Catholic Child Bureau (BICE),’ April 11, 2014 ).”
Divorce and Remarriage
In discussing the issue of pastoral care for civilly divorced-and-remarried Catholics, the working document notes the “very high numbers” of “separated, divorced or divorced-and-remarried” Catholics in Europe and the United States, whereas the number is lower in Africa and Asia. It went on to focus on pastoral care for children of separated/divorced couples.
In the case of the accessibility to the sacraments for people who are living in canonical irregularity (divorced-and-remarried people), the document again said the real focus should be on education, since “those living in such canonically irregular situations display various attitudes, ranging from their being entirely unaware of their irregular situation to their consciously enduring the difficulties created by their irregular situation” (89).
The document stresses the need for mercy and pastoral care for those who truly suffer in their irregular conditions and also highlights the requests of some of the faithful, especially in North America and Europe, for “streamlining the procedure for marriage annulments. In this regard, they see a need to investigate the question of the relationship between faith and the sacrament of matrimony, as suggested by Pope Benedict XVI on several occasions.”
Bishop Bruno Forte, bishop of Chieti-Vasto and secretary of the synod, pointed out during a June 26 press conference, “The medicine of mercy doesn’t have the goal to approve of shipwrecks, but the goal to provide the castaways the needed welcome, care and support.” If this is not understood, he added, “what the synod will say or state on the situation of divorced, divorced-and-remarried, cohabitating couples, de facto unions or same-sex unions will be misunderstood.”
Knowledge of Church teaching regarding contraception was also addressed in the instrumentum laboris.
“A vast majority of responses” in the questionnaire “emphasize how the moral evaluation of the different methods of birth control is commonly perceived today as an intrusion in the intimate life of the couple and an encroachment on the autonomy of conscience” (123).
Msgr. Melina stressed that “after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae and the crisis caused by the reception of this document within the ecclesiastical community, there has been too much focus on casuistry,” and this is the reason why “there was the inability of developing, receiving and understanding all the richness and the novelty which the theology of the body of St. John Paul II offered to the Church.”
Andrea Gagliarducci is the Vatican observer for Catholic News Agency. He writes from Rome.