The bishops find a pulse on the state of the family
In October 2013, the Vatican announced the convening of an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” for October 2014. Shortly thereafter, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Baldisseri, asked the world’s bishops to submit feedback about the acceptance of Church teaching regarding marriage and the family and the state of pastoral care of marriages and families. Many bishops invited perspectives from lay men and women, in response to Baldisseri’s request to share the questionnaire “as widely as possible” in order to obtain “input from local sources.”
In advance of the meeting this October, which will consist of a limited number of bishops (with all of the bishops convening in the fall of 2015 on the same topic), the Vatican released a document known as the “Instrumentum Laboris,” which summarizes the responses received from bishops throughout the world on topics regarding marriage and family that concern the Church hierarchy and laity.
First, it should be noted that the document in no way questions matters of Church doctrine. It is clear that the questions on the table do not involve whether or not to change Church teaching on marriage. Rather, the questions raised concern how to articulate the Church’s rich teaching to a world that clearly does not understand. Another topic under discussion is how to offer mercy and love to those undergoing particular challenges related to marriage and the family.
The document explores the many ways people are suffering today because of this lack of understanding. There are the children who suffer from abuse, divorce, same-sex unions, poverty and a general lack of witness to authentic life and love. There are adults who have made decisions to cohabit, divorce, use contraception or pursue polygamous relationships. The challenges of poverty, migration, war, consumerism and dependence upon social media deeply impact marriage and the family as well.
Another issue addressed throughout the “Instrumentum Laboris” is marriage preparation, both for those who are engaged and those who are in the “remote” and “proximate” stages of childhood and adolescence. The bishops are clearly concerned with how to explain love, marriage and openness to life to young people prior to entering the Sacrament of Marriage. Likewise, they mention the need for marriage enrichment and further education and formation for married couples.
The education and formation mentioned is not only about marriage, but also about being human. In the section concerning contraception, the bishops write of the need “to propose a coherent anthropological vision in revitalized language” (#128). Throughout the document, competing anthropological visions are mentioned as foundational to the discrepancy between what the Church teaches and how it is unaccepted by society at large.
Related to the need for a well-articulated anthropology is the bishops’ concern that natural law-based arguments need to be communicated differently. Several paragraphs in the “Instrumentum Laboris” are dedicated to the difficulties the Church faces today when speaking of the natural law. They write: “The language traditionally used in explaining the term ‘natural law’ should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner” (#30).
Concretely, some bishops mentioned emphasizing the Biblical foundation of the family, particularly the “order of creation.” The proposal also “insists on using language which is accessible to all, such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy” (#30).
The indispensable value of couples living the Church’s teaching is mentioned throughout the document: “All the responses agree that a key point in fostering an authentic, incisive pastoral programme for the family seems ultimately to rest on a couple’s witness of life, a witness which is consistent with not only Christian teaching on the family but also the beauty and joy which permits the Gospel message to be embraced in marriage and lived as a family. Pastoral ministry for the family also needs to follow the via pulchritudinis (‘the way of beauty’), namely, by a witness which attracts others simply because the family lives the Gospel and is constantly in union with God” (#59).
The 75-page document serves as a roadmap to the bishops as they prepare for the Extraordinary Synod. The fact that the map involves the lived reality of marriage and family throughout the world results in complexity and vastness of the issues addressed. The bishops appear as detectives, intent upon finding the root causes of society’s struggle to embrace the Church’s teachings on marriage and family.
The “Instrumentum Laboris” is not naïve about the challenges of living the Church’s teachings. The struggles, however, are not the last word. “[T]hrough such trials the family itself can be strengthened, and, with the support of pastoral care, led to recognize its fundamental vocation in God’s plan. The family is already a reality, ‘given’ and secured by Christ, and, on the whole, to be ‘built up’ each day with patience, understanding and love” (#44). At the conclusion of the document, the bishops turn in prayer to the Holy Family, through the words of Pope Francis.