St. John Paul II and the Synods on the Family
When Pope Francis canonized John Paul II on April 27, he dubbed him the "Pope of the Family." He added that, as the Church heads toward this October’s "Extraordinary" and next October’s "Ordinary" Synods on the Family, it "is surely a journey that, from his place in heaven, [John Paul] guides and sustains."
Among scholars of John Paul II’s teachings on human love, sexuality, marriage and family, however, one of the concerns leading up to the synods is whether the Pope of the Family’s guidance has been getting heard and heeded.
With the exception of the recent invention of same-sex unions and the push for the normalization of same-sex activity, none of the major questions the synods will address is new. They were tackled in great detail and depth in 1980, during the last Synod on the Family, and were analyzed and answered by St. John Paul in his 1981 exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World).
This is the richest study on the family in the history of the magisterium, where John Paul summarizes the Church’s theology on marriage and family life and applies those truths to still-pressing questions and problems.
In the preparatory document and questionnaire sent out by the Vatican in anticipation of this October’s synod, however, there was, shockingly, only one rather insignificant citation of this seminal exhortation. John Paul’s 1994 "Letter to Families" — which developed how "the history of mankind, the history of salvation passes by way of the family" and presented a compelling vision of spirituality for the family today — wasn’t cited at all.
Neither were John Paul’s five years of catecheses on "Human Love in the Divine Plan," popularly called the "theology of the body," which presented John Paul II’s most developed biblical anthropology on the nuptial dimension of human life and on the importance of the sacrament of marriage in human redemption.
Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna — one of John Paul’s chief collaborators on marriage and family issues and his chosen theologian to be the founding president of the John Paul II Institute for the Studies of Marriage and Family in Rome — declared in a March interview that he was "flabbergasted" at the neglect of John Paul’s theology of marriage in the buildup to the synod.
"In the history of the papacy," he stressed, "no pope has ever spoken so much about this theme, and yet this teaching is ignored as if it did not exist."
There are two fundamental reasons, I believe, why this treasure has been disregarded in much of the synods’ formal and informal preparations.
The first is that many in the Church, including prelates and theologians, are either not very familiar with John Paul II’s corpus or misunderstand it. John Paul’s ideas haven’t had anywhere near the consequences they might have had, because, in most dioceses and parishes, they haven’t been assimilated and implemented.
We can apply G.K. Chesterton’s famous quip about Christianity to John Paul’s theology on marriage and family life: In various parts of the Catholic world, his teaching "has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."
It also has been misunderstood by many of those in positions needed to implement it.
In some parts of the Catholic world, leading clergy and theologians believe that John Paul’s theology of the body is primarily a North-American construct addressing fundamentally North-American fixations. That is partially because the theology of the body has become too associated with the interpretations of some of its most diligent proponents, who have occasionally overemphasized its teachings with regard to the theology of sex in ways that aren’t relevant to settings, like in Latin America, where there’s no residual puritanism.
But the theology of the body is far bigger than a theology of sex: It provides the rich anthropological premises drawn from Divine Revelation for almost every conclusion of the Church’s teachings with regard to human love, marriage and family.
The same misunderstanding is also relevant to the second reason why I believe John Paul’s insights have been getting sidelined leading up to the synods. Misconstrued in this way, his thoughts would seem almost rebellious to raise after Pope Francis said in Jesuit magazines last September that Catholic clergy and faithful should stop insisting about issues regarding sexuality, abortion, "gay marriage" and contraception.
Pope Francis stressed in that interview, "When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context." That context, he said, is the kerygma, the larger truth about Jesus’ loving and saving mercy.
When the Church’s moral teachings are presented without this frame of reference, they risk being transmitted as an unattractive, "disjointed multitude of doctrines" that, although true, don’t show the heart of Jesus’ saving message.
Pope Francis emphasized, with great pastoral wisdom, that, without the fuller proclamation of the love of God, there’s a danger that many will misconstrue the Church’s teachings in areas of human sexuality, marriage and family as arbitrary rules that have little connection to Jesus.
John Paul II’s teachings, however, especially his theology of the body, provide the kerygmatic "context" Pope Francis insists is so crucial: They demonstrate that the Church’s teachings are not a "disjointed multitude of doctrines," but, in fact, part of a whole message of who God is, who the human person — "male and female" — is and the right path after the Fall to grow more and more into God’s likeness as a communion of persons in love.
The theology of the body is one of the most important "medications" needed in what Pope Francis calls the "field hospital" of the Church. The most painful human, emotional and spiritual lesions come from the lack of being loved, from broken hearts and broken families.
We need a battlefield infirmary because there’s a war going on — the same primordial combat that the devil has been waging since the beginning against love, marriage and the family.
Since the sexual revolution, the toll of that war has been incalculable. The theology of the body not only provides much of the medicine for the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit, but also some of the theological weapons useful to keep people from needing the field hospital in the first place.
John Paul’s theology of the body is an expression of the kerygma required for the evangelization of today’s families.
Pope Francis has called Catholics to imitate Jesus on the Road to Emmaus, accompanying people on their journeys, entering into their conversations and seeking to warm their hearts patiently by the fire and love of one’s own faith.
As we see with the two Emmaus disciples, Pope Francis says, the reasons why people wander from Jerusalem generally bear the seeds of their eventual return. Today, many abandon the Church in areas of sexual morality, marriage and family life because they think that the Church’s whole approach is one big "thou shalt not," an asbestos straitjacket wrapped around the most passionate of human experiences.
John Paul’s theology of the body helps people to recognize that, rather than denying their deepest longings, the Church’s teachings make possible their achievement. As so many young people have discovered, the theology of the body not only warms their hearts, but can ignite them.
John Paul II’s theology of the body is indeed one of the bridges the Church must take to meet those whom Pope Francis says are on the "peripheries of existence," because it is precisely the misunderstanding of the why behind the what of the Church’s teachings on human love, marriage and family that has led many people to feel alienated from the Church.
The theology of the body provides the "context" for people — both those on the outskirts of the moral life as well as those charged by Jesus to announce his saving kerygma to them — to see why the Church’s teachings in these areas are part of the Good News, not the "bad."
As the synods approach and the crisis of the family worsens, the Church needs the guidance of the "Pope of the Family" now more than ever.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of
St. Bernadette Parish in
Fall River, Massachusetts,
and is national chaplain of