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Vatican issues working document for Synod of Bishops on the family

June 26, 2014

The Synod of Bishops has released the instrumentum laboris, or working document, for its upcoming 3rd extraordinary general assembly, which will take place from October 5 to 19.

The instrumentum laboris acknowledges the severe difficulties facing the family today, and “the growing conflict between the values on marriage and the family as proposed by the Church” and those prevailing in contemporary societies. The 75-page document suggests that most people— including many Catholics—are not acquainted with the Christian vision of marriage.

While showing clear support for Church teachings on controversial issues such as birth control, divorce, remarriage, and same-sex unions, the document underlines the need for respectful treatment of those who do not share the Church’s vision, and pastoral care for those Catholics who find themselves in difficult marital situations.

The synod, announced by Pope Francis on October 8, is devoted to “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” In November, the Synod of Bishops sent a preparatory document in which the world’s bishops were asked to respond to questions related to nine different topics, from “the diffusion of the teachings on the family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium” to “the relationship between the family and the person.”

The instrumentum laboris, dated June 24 and published on June 26, is a 159-paragraph summary of the responses received from the world’s bishops, as well as from individuals and institutions.

The document repeatedly acknowledges that many Catholics are unaware of or reject certain aspects of Catholic teaching on the family. It also summarizes the bishops’ varied proposals to address various pastoral challenges.

For example, the document states that “very many responses, especially in Europe and North America request streamlining the procedure for marriage annulments” (no. 96), although “some responses urge caution and point out the following risks in streamlining, simplifying or reducing the process: injustices and errors could result; the impression might be given that the indissolubility of the Sacrament is not respected; the change might lead to abuses and create in young people’s minds the idea that marriage is not a life-long commitment; and the action might bolster the mistaken idea that an annulment is simply ‘Catholic divorce’” (no. 99).

The document has three parts.

Part I

The document’s first part, “Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World,” offers a brief overview of biblical teaching and recent magisterial documents on the family (nos. 1-7) before surveying “the knowledge and acceptance of the teachings on marriage and the family from Sacred Scripture and Church documents” (nos. 8-19). The document found that “in places with a vibrant Christian tradition and a well-organized pastoral program, people are responsive to the Christian doctrine on marriage and the family. In other places, many Christians, for various reasons, are found to be unaware of the very existence of this teaching” (no. 8).

In its summary of “the Gospel of the Family and the natural law” (nos. 20-30), the working document states that “very few responses and observations demonstrated an adequate, popular understanding of the natural law … The demise of the concept of the natural law tends to eliminate the interconnection of love, sexuality and fertility, which is understood to be the essence of marriage. Consequently, many aspects of the Church’s sexual morality are not understood today. This is also a result of a certain criticism of the natural law, even by a number of theologians” (nos. 21, 26).

The first part concludes with an examination of “the family and vocation of the person in Christ” (nos. 31-49).

Part II

The document’s second part, “The Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges,” summarized proposals for improving ministry to families (nos. 50-60) before discussing four pastoral challenges: the crisis of faith (nos. 61-62), “critical situations within the family” (nos. 64-69), “external pressures” (nos. 70-75), and varied “special situations” (nos. 76-79).

The document then turned to “difficult pastoral situations” (nos. 80-120).

“Under the heading of so-called marriage difficulties, the responses consistently recount stories of great suffering as well as testimonies of true love,” the working document continued. “Real pastoral attention is urgently needed to care for these people and bring them healing so that they might continue their journey with the entire ecclesial community. The mercy of God does not provide a temporary cover-up of personal misdeeds, but rather radically opens lives to reconciliation which brings new trust and serenity through true inward renewal. The pastoral care of families, far from limiting itself to a legal point of view, has a mission to recall the great vocation of love to which each person is called and to help a person live up to the dignity of that calling” (no. 80).

In its summary of responses related to the pastoral care of those who cannot receive the sacraments because of their marriages outside the Church, the document states:

Pastoral charity impels the Church to assist people who have suffered the breakdown of their marriage and are living with their situation relying on the grace of Christ. A more painful wound results when these people remarry and enter a state of life which does not allow them to receive Holy Communion. Clearly, in these cases, the Church must not assume an attitude of a judge who condemns (cf. Pope Francis, Homily, 28 February 2014), but that of a mother who always receives her children and nurses their wounds so they may heal (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 139-141). With great mercy, the Church is called to find forms of “accompaniment” which can support her children on the path of reconciliation. With patience and understanding, she must explain to these people that their not being able to celebrate the sacraments does not mean that they are excluded from the Christian life and a relationship with God (no. 103).

The document’s second part concludes with a discussion of same-sex unions. “Every bishops’ conference voiced opposition to ‘redefining’ marriage between a man and a woman through the introduction of legislation permitting a union between two people of the same sex,” the document states. “The episcopal conferences amply demonstrate that they are trying to find a balance between the Church's teaching on the family and a respectful, non-judgmental attitude towards people living in such unions” (no. 113).

“The responses are clearly opposed to legislation which would allow the adoption of children by persons in a same-sex union, because they see a risk to the integral good of the child, who has the right to have a mother and father, as pointed out recently by Pope Francis,” the document continued. “However, when people living in such unions request a child’s baptism, almost all the responses emphasize that the child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children. Many responses indicate that it would be helpful to receive more concrete pastoral directives in these situations” (no. 120).

The second part also expressed concern about sex education: “sex education in families and educational institutions is an increasingly urgent challenge, especially in countries where the State tends to propose in schools a one-sided view and a gender ideology” (no. 119).

Part III

The third part of the document, “An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing,” examines “the pastoral challenges concerning an openness to life” (nos. 121-131). The document states that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae “certainly had a prophetic character in reiterating the unbreakable link between conjugal love and the transmission of life” (no. 122).

“When treating a couple’s openness to life and their knowledge of the Church’s teaching, with particular reference to Humanae Vitae, the responses clearly admit that, in the vast majority of cases, the positive aspects are unknown,” the document continued. “Those who claim to know the Church’s teaching belong, for the most part, to associations and Church groups actively involved in parishes or programs of spirituality for the family … From the pastoral point of view, the responses, in very many cases, see the need to make better known what was stated in Humanae Vitae and to propose a coherent anthropological vision in revitalized language, not only in pre-marriage preparation but also in instructional courses on love in general” (no. 128).

The third part concluded with a discussion of different issues related to the upbringing of children (nos. 132-157), including ministering to children whose parents are in irregular situations.

The 2015 synod

The Extraordinary General Assembly precedes an Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place in 2015 and will also be devoted to the family.

At the press conference at which instrumentum laboris was released, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, said that the conclusions of the Extraordinary General Assembly will be used to prepare a new instrumentum laboris for the 2015 Ordinary General Assembly. After the Ordinary General Assembly, “a final document will be published, subject to the decisions of the Holy Father.”

The archbishop announced that because of the importance that the Holy See attaches to the discussions of this Synod, a special day of prayer for the Synod will be held on Sunday, September 28. During the Synod assembly, Mass will be celebrated each day in the basilica of St. Mary Major, in the Salus Populi Romani chapel that Pope Francis has visited at several crucial points in his pontificate.


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  • Posted by: Langton7139 - Jun. 28, 2014 2:05 AM ET USA

    I note the use of "annulment" but rarely see "declaration of nullity." Is there a difference? Seems to me the latter is more appropriate and accurate. The former has the ring of divorce. Or am I being a pedant?

  • Posted by: lak321 - Jun. 27, 2014 9:47 PM ET USA

    Wow, Dr Mirus, thank you for the great summary! Much appreciated.