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For the purposes of the Synod on the Family, consider the source

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 06, 2013

It is not surprising that the Vatican has already had to issue a denial that it is polling Catholics about marriage and sexual issues, as if to put Catholic doctrine to a vote. This is the kind of thing that makes hot news for ignorant secular reporters, and which can be used to pressure the Church by those who are less innocent. This sort of “interpretive” reporting has been used for over fifty years now by dissident Catholic publications, such as the National Catholic Reporter.

Usually these interpretations are not the fault of the Vatican, let alone the Pope. This is simply what happens in a culture which either wants to push the Church into a corner or, at best, is completely ignorant of how the Church works, and so casts everything in political terms. In politics, the purpose of consultation with the “littles” is to see which way the wind is blowing, the better to be a proper weather vane. On this reading of life, perhaps it stands to reason that if the Pope is asking questions about contested matters, he must be taking a poll to determine future Church policy.

You might recall that when Pope Paul VI was working with a commission of theologians to study the question of artificial contraception, a combination of theologians and journalists led the world to believe that a change in doctrine was imminent, causing both anticipatory changes in personal morality and increased disappointment on the part of those who neither understood nor wished to follow the Church’s teaching. The same thing was done a few years earlier with great effect during the Second Vatican Council. But that gambit is now outworn. Only those who do not wish to know the truth will be deceived. And the time when large numbers of bishops will encourage the propagation of such myths is now past.

All the same, this makes another good reason to get your information from Catholic World News, and not from the various “today” shows on television, which are more likely to pick up something, as at least one program did this week, from Yahoo.

The current manufactured furor centers on the questions in the Preparatory Document for the forthcoming Synod on the Family. These are questions which the Pope is asking the world’s bishops to answer before the Synod, and they are all framed in the context of determining the most effective pastoral response to the crisis of the family as it exists in the various cultures around the world.

The very title of the document indicates the Pope’s intentions: Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization. After explaining that the Holy Father is calling a synod to deal with this challenge, the text explains the basic problem:

Concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago have arisen today as a result of different situations, from the widespread practice of cohabitation, which does not lead to marriage, and sometimes even excludes the idea of it, to same-sex unions between persons, who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children. The many new situations requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care include: mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman; the caste system; a culture of non-commitment and a presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary; forms of feminism hostile to the Church; migration and the reformulation of the very concept of the family; relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage; the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life; underlying trends of thought in legislative proposals which devalue the idea of permanence and faithfulness in the marriage covenant; an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire); and new interpretations of what is considered a human right. Within the Church, faith in the sacramentality of marriage and the healing power of the Sacrament of Penance show signs of weakness or total abandonment.

That’s a long paragraph, but it ought to make sufficiently clear even to the most dim-witted reporter that the Church wishes to find the best ways to overcome these obstacles to marriage and family life, not enshrine them into Canon Law. Rule number one for secular journalists covering religion: Catholics and Anglicans are not the same.

Moreover, this signal paragraph is followed by a clear statement of real danger: “Consequently, we can well understand the urgency with which the worldwide episcopate is called upon to gather cum et sub Petro [with and under Peter] to address these challenges.” Really, the purpose of Pope Francis in all this is pretty hard to miss. Of course some reporters with promises to keep (or deadlines to meet) might not bother to read a document which, as long as everyone remains ignorant, serves so well to conjure up a story.

In this case, however, the document is not all that long; you can easily skim through it yourself. It touches on the main lines of the Gospel, the plan of God, and the subsequent teachings of the Church with respect to the family. It then proceeds to a section of questions, by way of gathering information necessary to the Synod’s deliberations. There are nine headings. For convenience, I have listed them below with just one sample question from each section:

  1. The Diffusion of the Teachings on the Family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium: E.g., What formation is given [in your diocese] to our people on the Church’s teaching on family life?
  2. Marriage according to the Natural Law: E.g., Is the idea of the natural law in the union between a man and a woman commonly accepted as such by the baptized in general?
  3. The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization: E.g., What experiences have emerged in recent decades regarding marriage preparation?
  4. Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations: E.g., What questions do divorced and remarried people pose to the Church concerning the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation [and] among those persons who find themselves in these situations, how many ask for these sacraments?
  5. On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex: E.g., Is there a law in your country recognizing civil unions for people of the same sex and equating it in some way to marriage?
  6. The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages: E.g., What is the sacramental practice in these cases: preparation, administration of the sacrament and the accompaniment?
  7. The Openness of the Married Couple to Life: E.g., Is the teaching of Humanae vitae on responsible parenthood accepted [and] what aspects pose the most difficulties in a large majority of couples accepting this teaching?
  8. The Relationship Between the Family and the Person: E.g., What critical situations in the family today can obstruct a person’s encounter with Christ?
  9. Other Challenges and Proposals: [no specific questions]

It takes a good deal of preparation and information-gathering to set the stage for an effective large-group discussion of any grave moral issue. But the kind of preparation necessary to a doctrinal discussion is different from what is required for a pastoral response. These questions presuppose the doctrine and they acknowledge the gravity of the contemporary situation, in which whole cultures, including the Catholics within those cultures, have been cut adrift from the doctrine. What Francis is doing now is attempting to gather the data, experience and insights from bishops around the world that are most likely to help the Church address this crisis more effectively than she has in the recent past.

This may not be how government works, but it is how the Church is supposed to work. Some will not understand this; others may wish to manipulate the process. But I repeat that these failings should have legs only among those who do not care to grasp the truth. If our sources of information do not give us the truth, we should set them aside and find others. And remembering the old axiom about wanting the job done right, we should also become sources of accurate information ourselves.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Defender - Nov. 07, 2013 10:39 AM ET USA

    It's also so odd (and depressing) to hear or read about priests who think the pope is going to change things based on this polling! What does that say?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 06, 2013 8:34 PM ET USA

    Pope Paul's commission required some intervention if memory serves. In fairness and in truth it must be admitted that a great deal of confusion exists among those reporting because a great deal of confusion exists in the Church. Signs of weakness will always be seized upon by those who are looking to effect a change. This is why the Church and her leaders require copious prayers, fortitude.and tremendous grace to stay the course.