Pope St. John Paul II's Synod on the Family and Ours
Last week, the Holy See Press Office released the texts of the thirteen relazioni (or, reports) of the circuli minores. These are the minutes of the one German, two Spanish, three French, three Italian, and four English language small groups convened to discuss the synodal Instrumentum Laboris. Before the end of the three-week-long synodal assembly, these reports will be submitted to the Commissione per l’Elaborazione della Relazione finale (i.e., the commission tasked with preparing the final report to be submitted to the Holy Father).
At this juncture, it is unknown whether their report will find expression in a post-synodal declaration of Pope Francis. The possibility remains that the synodal assembly itself will issue a document. Regardless, it is clear that the minutes offer an important barometer reading of the synodal discussion thus far, marking off some of the pressure points to be probed next week.
Circulus Anglicus ‘C’s report, prepared by rapporteur Archbishop Mark Benedict Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia and moderated by Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Ireland, is striking. In pertinent part, it states
We also considered certain phrases which have become commonplace in Church documents, among them “the Gospel of the family” and “the domestic Church”. These were vivid and illuminating formulations when they first appeared, but in the meantime they have become clichés, which are less clear in their meaning than they are usually assumed to be. We felt that it may be a good thing if they were given a rest and if we chose instead to use a language which was more accessible to those unfamiliar with our particular speak. In general and especially when speaking of marriage and the family, it was felt that we needed to beware of a kind of Church speak of which we are barely conscious.
Read from one perspective, the report seems innocuous. Even St. Thomas Aquinas characterized the teacher as one capable of making oneself understood. Clear and accessible language is praiseworthy. However, from another vantage point, the abandonment of Christo-ecclesial theological language in preference for more experiential and subjective language proves deeply problematic.
To understand why, one needs to take a step back in time. As some 270 bishops, 18 families, 24 experts, 51 auditors, and 14 fraternal delegates meet in congress with Pope Francis this month to discern the “Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World,” one would do well to recall the Synod of 1980.
Between September 26 and October 25, 1980, Pope St. John Paul II presided over the Fifth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. On November 22, 1981, he promulgated his second Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, entitled in Latin Familiaris Consortio.
In the Introduction to Familiaris Consortio, the pope stated that the synodal assembly “held in Rome from September 26 to October 25, 1980 … was a natural continuation of the two preceding” episcopal congresses: The Third and Fourth Ordinary General Assemblies of the Synods of Bishops on “Evangelization in the Modern World” and “Catechesis in Our Time,” respectively. These congresses were convened from September 27 until October 26, 1974 and then from September 30 until October 29, 1977. As such, they were convoked by the blessed Pope Paul VI who promulgated his final encyclical letter Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968. His successor, St. John Paul II, continued his work with the synodal assembly on the “Christian Family.”
This historical context reveals a certain theological trajectory, connecting Pope Paul VI’s reflections in Humanae Vitae to the synodal assemblies on Evangelization and Catechesis, concluding with Pope St. John Paul II’s exhortation on the Christian Family.
Such a trajectory addresses a pressing pastoral problem – i.e., the artificial regulation of birth – by way of sustained synodal reflection on catechesis, evangelization, and the magisterial affirmation of the ‘Gospel of the Family’ proclaimed by the ‘Domestic Church.’ That trajectory flatly contradicts the methodology proposed by Circulus Anglicus ‘C’.
All this is reflected in the 1981 post-synodal document itself, which aims to announce that “the Christian family, in fact, is the first community called to announce the Gospel to the human person during growth and to bring him or her, through a progressive education and catechesis, to full human and Christian maturity” (FC, n. 2). In this way, it constitutes a ‘Domestic Church.’ Familiaris Consortio gives voice to this theology of the family across four distinct parts.
The fulcrum of the text – the third part on ‘The Role of the Christian Family’ – affirms that it is the God of Life who calls and orders the family, thus it “finds in the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what it is, but also its mission, what it can and should do.” God supplies the language of the family, not subjective human experience. In God alone, the family discovers the task uniquely its own.
The pope continues, therefore “The role that God calls the family to perform in history derives from what the family is; its role represents the dynamic and existential development of what it is.” Its own nature compels it to “go back to the ‘beginning’ of God’s creative act, if it is to attain self-knowledge and self-realization in accordance with the inner truth not only of what it is but also of what it does in history” (FC, n. 17). To round out the point, in order for it to be itself – to realize itself in history – the family must meditate on its theological significance. That contemplation prepares it to undertake its mission in the world.
For, what the Christian family is called to do is to announce the Gospel of Love. As St. John Paul II noted, “Looking at it in such a way as to reach its very roots, we must say that the essence and role of the family are in the final analysis specified by love.” He adds that “Hence the family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride” (FC, n. 17).
An earlier section that concludes the second part of the document, the ‘Pope of the Family’ affirms that “The communion between God and His people finds its definitive fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom who loves and gives Himself as the Savior of humanity, uniting it to Himself as His body” Indeed, “He reveals the original truth of marriage, the truth of the ‘beginning,’ and, freeing man from his hardness of heart, He makes man capable of realizing this truth in its entirety” (FC, n. 13). Christ himself is the revelation of the family, which realizes itself only by proclaiming his Gospel.
Therefore, Familiaris Consortio doesn’t derive its teaching from human discourse isolated from the Christian mystery. It learns instead to speak the language of Christ. That language -- especially when it is spoken with what Pope Francis terms 'apostolic courage' -- is never cliche. It is always clarifying. Christ alone clarifies the human experience, deepening it in the light of the mystery of God. The family can discern both its identity and mission only by returning to its origins in God, clarified in the light of Christ’s Gospel.
Competent pastoral care will not favor experiential and subjective language against clear grounding in the reality of the family, rooted in Christ and the Church. Rather, it will assist families to realize their potential by helping them to scrutinize their theological significance.
Abandoning language of the ‘Gospel of the Family’ and the ‘Domestic Church’ does not signal greater sensitivity to the people in the pews. It suggests the denial of the true identity and mission of the Christian family. Such a move isn’t pastoral, but paralyzing; it prevents the family from realizing what Pope Francis calls ‘God’s dream.’