Synod on the Family: A Preview of Coming Attractions

VaticanIIThe recently released working document for this October’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family presents a remarkably candid view of the troubles besetting Catholic marriages and families today.

Young people are frequently afraid to commit. Marriage preparation is often seen as a useless obligation. Ignorance of Church teaching is widespread. Few understand that using contraception is sinful. Many parents show limited interest in the religious education of their children. But there are bright spots. In contrast to the near universal confusion over contraception, most Catholics realize that abortion is a serious sin. The faithful also expressed both a strong desire to know Sacred Scripture better and a deep devotion to the Holy Family.

The working document (or instrumentum laboris) summarizes the vast number of answers to the questions posed in the Synod’s Preparatory Document issued on November 5, 2013. In drafting the working document, the Synod Council considered both official responses from the bishops and also observations by parishes, lay movements, academic institutions, along with Catholic and non-Catholic specialists on marriage and family life. The tone and scope of the working document demonstrate Pope Francis’ commitment to listening to others as the necessary first step in any dialogue.  Pastoral dialogue, the Pope stated in The Joy of the Gospel, must be founded on “a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear.”

Although touching on hot-button issues like same-sex unions and reception of the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, the bulk of the working document focuses on improving pastoral care through changes to annulment procedures and marriage preparation, encouraging openness to life, and better communication of Church teaching. Pope Francis has strongly criticized attempts to reduce the purpose of the Synod to a discussion of reception of the Eucharist by divorced and remarried Catholics, emphasizing that the Synod has a much broader scope.

Deacon Dodge of the Cathedral of the Madeleine probably spoke for many observers when he remarked, “I was both surprised and gratified, given all the media hype even within the U.S. Catholic media about this question [of pastoral care for the divorced and remarried], that it wasn’t dealt with more” by the working document. “While acknowledging the suffering of those who cannot receive communion because of their remarried status,” he added, “the Instrumentum does not lean heavily towards making accommodations for [them] … to start receiving communion.” Jesus’ clear pronouncements on the indissolubility of marriage make this issue “no mere pastoral concession” but one that “goes to quite fundamental theological matters,” he explained.

Annulments and Marriage Prep

The most significant area of consensus among the bishops concerned the Church’s annulments process. “Very many responses … request streamlining the procedure for marriage annulments,” stated the working document. Changes could take two forms. One would be a formal amendment to the canon law, which could take several years. But other changes could be made by the Pope alone in a document called a motu proprio. “Amending canon law is done with some regularity via a motu proprio,” most recently by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, Deacon Dodge explained. Aldean Hendrickson, canon lawyer and Director of the Tribunal of the Diocese of New Ulm agreed, adding “Even so, the most the Synod itself can do is recommend or strongly urge certain changes.”

The Synod appears open to exploring lack of faith as a ground for an annulment. Unfortunately, that conflicts with what the working document states is the common practice of warmly welcoming non-practicing Catholics who request marriage in the Church. There would seem little point in warmly welcoming people to a sacrament that appears invalid from the get-go. Deacon Dodge suggested that there should be at least a well-founded hope that the couple would practice the Catholic religion before they can marry in the Church. But Tribunal Director Hendrickson cautioned that “personal faith is a very difficult thing to measure, especially for a tribunal some years after the fact. … Instead of worrying how many marriages might be foundering due to lack of faith, we need to be finding ways in the Spirit to ignite the fire of faith in marriages.”

Like the annulments process, marriage preparation also seems in need of an overhaul. Whereas the bishops appear happy with the state of marriage preparation and proud of efforts to provide more information over longer periods of time, couples generally don’t like longer programs and are largely indifferent to the information presented. As a supplement to pre-Cana programs, the Synod will likely consider a push for marriage education starting at a younger age as well as more support programs for the already-married.

Many of these supplemental types of marriage education were already recommended by the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1996. These recommendations, however, have been largely ignored by dioceses in the U.S. Deacon Dodge stresses the scarcity of resources for marriage preparation as the likely reason. “Our diocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life has a staff of one part-time person,” he noted. Even if a post-synodal exhortation strongly recommended expanding current programs, Deacon Dodge does not think it’s possible for most dioceses to follow through. Peter McFadden, pre-Cana instructor and president of Creative Marriages, Inc., agrees that there will be challenges at the parish level implementing any Vatican recommendations because of the need to rely on volunteers.

There’s a real danger that documents resulting from the Synod “will be well-received, but go unheeded” because of practical and financial difficulties, according to Deacon Dodge. Nevertheless, “any effort to put focus on what the Church can do to help couples succeed in marriage is an effort not wasted,” said McFadden.

Openness to Life

The working document provided some much-needed clarity on the issue of contraception. While acknowledging that many Catholics see nothing wrong with using contraception, the document nonetheless praised the Church’s long-standing stance against it, particularly as expressed in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The working document went so far as to describe Humanae Vitae as “prophetic,” words which Pope Francis has used before to refer to the genius of Pope Paul VI. The working document thus clearly indicated that the Synod “will neither ignore nor attempt to change the teachings” on this hot-button issue, according to Deacon Dodge.

“I like that the Instrumentum [section on openness to life] recommends the dissemination of Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching on theology of the body,” added Deacon Dodge. Prior to the working document, commentators such as Fr. Landry expressed unease that the Synod would disregard the seminal thought of Pope St. John Paul II on marriage, sexuality, and the family. The working document should allay such concerns by its frequent mention of the Theology of the Body and other themes expounded on by the John Paul II. Moreover, the document’s entire character bears the stamp of St. John Paul’s perspective on the importance of being created male and female, particularly in relation to troubling developments like gender theory, the idea that gender is a social construct rather than a biological reality.

Spreading the Word

One of the main concerns expressed in the working document was the Church’s need to communicate its teachings on marriage and family life to the faithful more clearly. This October’s Synod deals not just with the family but with the evangelization of the family. The survey responses revealed that most Catholics have not read the papal encyclicals of the last several decades, and the message contained in those documents just isn’t getting through.

Pre-Cana instructor McFadden is “encouraged to see the Church taking a more comprehensive approach” to sharing its wisdom on these issues. A lot of engaged couples are “naïve on their wedding day” and “underestimate how involved marriage really is,” stated McFadden. “There’s a need for on-going formation” starting in high school and continuing for years after the couple gets married, he added.

We can’t expect laypeople to educate themselves by reading the original Church documents, noted Deacon Dodge. Evangelization is the responsibility of those of us who know — whether we are clergy or laity — to spread the message to those who don’t know. Regardless of what formal changes might result from the Synod, it should serve as a call to action to all of us to spread the good news.


*Editors Note:  This article originally appeared at Aleteia.

Karee Santos is the founder of the Can We Cana? blog and also has written for Catholic Match Institute, Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, and CatholicMom.com. Together with her husband Manuel Santos, M.D., she co-authored The Four Keys to Everlasting Love: How Your Catholic Marriage Can Bring You Joy for a Lifetime (Ave Maria Press, 2016). The Santos’s designed and taught a pre-Cana marriage preparation course, and they write a monthly marriage advice column on CatholicMom.com called “Marriage Rx.” They also contribute to FAITH magazine's “Your Marriage Matters” advice column. The couple live in Long Island, New York, with their six children.