What’s wrong with this Synod, I: Shuffling the deck chairs

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 09, 2014

[This is the first in a series of essays on the current Synod of Bishops, dedicated to the family. I should begin with the caveat that my comments are based on public reports from the Synod. The actual discussions may be developing along different lines. I hope so.]

Does the Synod of Bishops have nothing to say to the millions of married couples who are struggling to raise healthy children in an environment that has become toxic to family life?

At a time when the family is under unprecedented attack—a crisis that threatens our entire civilization—the bishops of the Catholic world appear fixated on a nicety of Church policy. If what we hear from the Synod Hall is an accurate representation of the actual discussion, the bishops are missing the big picture. Worse, they are squandering an opportunity to deliver the one message that our society most desperately needs to hear.

Early this week, as the Synod fathers were opening their discussions in Rome, the justices of the US Supreme Court announced that they would not hear appeals of lower courts’ decisions that had overturned state marriage laws. As a result the very term “marriage” has an entirely new legal meaning in 30 American states, while the remaining 20 states still (for now) hold to the traditional definition. We as a society no longer have a common understanding of what marriage is.

Nor are we Americans alone in our confusion. All around the Western world, politicians and jurists are asking the public to accept same-sex unions as equal to male-female marriages. We are being asked, and sometimes legally required, to accept and applaud relationships which, just a decade or two ago, we would have recognized as disordered.

Ideas have consequences, and so it should be no surprise that as we have lost our theoretical understanding of what constitutes real marriage, we have also lost our practical ability to hold marriages together. The widespread acceptance of divorce—as a common occurrence, not just a legal remedy for rare problems—was the first sign of that failure. But the problem grew exponentially with the acceptance of “no-fault” divorce laws, which made it possible for one party to sever a marriage contract. As Stephen Baskerville observed for Crisis magazine: “Today it is not possible to form a binding agreement to create a family.”

Marriage is by nature a permanent contract. But modern divorce law undermines the permanence of the union, stipulating that the partners—or only one partner—can terminate the contract at will. Thus the institution of marriage was actually redefined by state authorities about 50 years ago. Baskerville rightly complains that “the churches have never raised their voices against the state’s usurpation of power.” Will the Synod of Bishops now speak out against “no-fault” divorce laws, then? If there have been any suggestions to that effect, I have not heard them.

Real marriage requires real commitment. It is daunting that throughout the West, during the past generation we have seen a spectacular rise in the number of couples who prefer to live together without marrying: acting like spouses but declining to make a commitment. These are unstable unions, and intentionally so: either partner can leave at any time to form another relationship.

Yet these unstable unions are producing children. The rate of out-of-wedlock birth has skyrocketed. In 1965, the famous “Moynihan Report” announced that the African-American family was in crisis, citing the data that showed roughly one-quarter of all black children were born to unmarried mothers. Today the rate of illegitimacy among all newborn American babies is over 40%. 

Divorce and illegitimacy, combined, have produced an unprecedented situation in which most children, in the US and in many European countries, are not living in households headed by their married parents. These children will face many handicaps in life, including the lack of a model that might help them to build a stable, lasting marriage of their own. There is no more certain recipe for a dysfunctional society than a population dominated by the children of broken homes. And that’s what we now have.

Yet for some revolutionary thinkers, that’s not enough. Proponents of “gender ideology” are rapidly gaining influence in the schools, promoting their notion that one’s gender identity is entirely a matter of one’s own choice. This bizarre ideology, which is now worming its way into our primary schools, subverts any understanding that men and women, fathers and mothers, are distinguishable—any notion that the family matters at all.

Beyond question, the family is in crisis. Msgr. Cormac Burke writes for Mercatornet:

While not pessimistic by nature, I must say that we are blinking at reality if we do not face up to the fact that since the 1950s, marriage and the family, outside and inside the Church, have been plunged into an ever-growing crisis—to the extent that their nature, and very existence, are threatened by total collapse.

Since Msgr. Burke has extensive experience in dealing with troubled families—having served for years as a judge of the Roman Rota, hearing countless marriage cases—it is interesting to note his diagnosis of the problem: “If I had to sum up the causes of this crisis in one factor, it would be this: marriage is no longer approached as a family enterprise. It has become basically a “you-and-me” affair.” [His emphasis]

Real marriage has three essential characteristics: it is faithful, fruitful, and for life. Msgr. Burke’s analysis points us toward the second of these characteristics. If a couple enters into a union intent only on satisfying their own needs and desires, they are missing a vital ingredient: the orientation toward children. Thus we arrive at the great secret of Catholic teaching on marriage: the need to be open to life.

Since the squall of protest that greeted the release of Humanae Vitae in 1968, most Catholic leaders have lapsed into silence on the issue of contraception. As a result, the link between marriage and children—the reason why marriage is in essence a family affair—has been lost to public view. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal months ago, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan confessed that the Catholic hierarchy had missed a crucial opportunity by failing to take up the message of Humanae Vitae. “We forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice when it comes to one of the more burning issues of the day," he said.

Today the burning issue is the utter breakdown in the public understanding of what constitutes marriage. Without that understanding, healthy family life becomes the exception rather than the rule. Without healthy families, our civilization is doomed.

And today the only institution that can lead our society to recover a proper understanding of marriage and family life is the Church. By preaching the fullness of Catholic teaching on marriage, the Synod could heal a shattered society. If instead they dwell obsessively on a small corner of the problem—the plight of the divorced and remarried—the Synod fathers would be guilty of apostolic negligence.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: lovison4584 - Oct. 12, 2014 6:02 PM ET USA

    I have said Pope Francis needs to issue a Humanae Vitae on the family and this Synod is the time for it. We have to pray for an outcome that gives the world strong guidance and leadership not formal ambiguity. I hope for the former and sacrifice in fear of the latter.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Oct. 11, 2014 1:20 PM ET USA

    Perhaps God's grace will come as we face the awful reality that is the consequence of having shut off life. In a few decades expect a great collapse of world pop. A harmless adjustment will not be possible. Politics, economics, even survival, all a nightmare. Perhaps then, whatever remains will try to rebuild a coherent Catholic civilization. Kasper and friends - the lifeless of today - will be gone and the lifethrilled of today will live on in God's grace.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Oct. 11, 2014 1:19 PM ET USA

    Perhaps God's grace will come as we face the awful reality that is the consequence of having shut off life. In a few decades expect a great collapse of world pop. A harmless adjustment will not be possible. Politics, economics, even survival, all a nightmare. Perhaps then, whatever remains will try to rebuild a coherent Catholic civilization. Kasper and friends - the lifeless of today - will be gone and the lifethrilled of today will live on in God's grace.

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Oct. 11, 2014 6:30 AM ET USA

    Ideally, the Bishops and Pope Francis would reiterate and enthusiastically proclaim all the Church's teaching regarding marriage and confess that through misguided "pastoral guidance" and failure to proclaim them the teachings have become dead. As a result Pope Francis and the Bishops will begin to instill in the faithful sacredness of marriage, the evils of contraception and divorce, and the need to be generous in having children. Let us pray the Synod will be inspired to do this.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 09, 2014 8:55 PM ET USA

    When this synod ends without changing Church doctrine, the Pope and the entire prelature will be able to say "we worked on this as hard as we could--never before had we spent so much time and energy to see if there was any change that could be made--but there just isn't anything we could do to find a way around the teachings of Jesus. We tried our very best." The libs bought that when Clinton reneged on a middle class tax cut, so they can hardly object now, but of course they will.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 09, 2014 5:32 PM ET USA

    I hope to be disabused of my pessimism, but what I have heard to date tells me the Synod would have helped more if it had never been held. The notions being bandied about by some of its participants and seemingly not squelched by the pope, are not just depressing, they are catastrophic potentially. Let's pray. Hard.

  • Posted by: shrink - Oct. 09, 2014 1:45 PM ET USA

    "New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan confessed…" The US bishops were told to be quiet. There were some prelates who wanted to get tough, and they were themselves threatened by Vatican insiders, perhaps even Paul VI. At the time, Cdl O'Boyle was about to come down hard on the academic dissidents protesting Hum.Vit., including Charles Curran, an untenured asst. professor at Catholic Univ. O'Boyle was told to stand down by Cdl Wright, who was in the Vatican at the time.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 09, 2014 1:36 PM ET USA

    "By preaching the fullness of Catholic teaching on marriage, the Synod could heal a shattered society..." Failure to bear witness to the truth about marriage and to the wondrous, unique sacramental graces of Christian marriage in the New Covenant constitutes negligence as rightly pointed out. Excellent conclusion. If there were ever a time to demonstrate solicitude and to share God's love with the world it is now afforded to the Synod fathers. They are called to be generous in their charity.