Mercy and compassion: focus of Synod of Bishops

Mercy and compassion: focus of Synod of Bishops

Peter Westmore

The forthcoming Synod of Bishops, to take place in Rome in October, will discuss the Church’s response to the many challenges facing married couples and families in 2015.

It will provide the foundation on which the Holy Father, Pope Francis, will release an Apostolic Exhortation, which is expected to be released next year.

While the issue of reception of Holy Communion for those in second marriages was the “hot button” issue at the first session of the Synod – which reaffirmed the church’s traditional teaching on marriage – the Draft Document prepared for the Synod Fathers shows that it will cover the whole range of issues affecting families, as well as controversial issues such as the increasing number of young people who do not marry, cohabitation the pastoral care of homosexuals and lesbians.

The draft document, The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World, has been circulated among the bishops’ conferences of the countries of the world, as well as the Synods of the Eastern Catholic Churches, the dicasteries of the Roman Curia and the heads of religious congregations.

The draft includes the conclusions of the first meeting of the Synod, in 2014.

The document is divided into three parts, which illustrate the continuity between the two meetings of the Synod, namely, Considering the Challenges of the Family (Part I) which draws directly from the initial phase of the Synod; The Discernment of the Vocation of the Family (Part II) and The Mission of the Family Today (Part III).

The intention of Parts II and III is to offer the Church and the contemporary world pastoral incentives to spur renewed efforts at evangelisation.

While the language used in the draft document is sometimes difficult to fully understand, it does acknowledge that in the world today, most people do not have the Church’s view of marriage and the family.

It says, “Only a minority [accepts] the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, seeing in it the goodness of God's creative plan. Marriages, whether religious or not, are decreasing in number, while separation and divorce is on the rise.”

It points out that “young people are displaying a fear to make definitive commitments, including a commitment concerning a family. In general, an extreme individualism, increasingly becoming widespread, focuses uppermost on gratifying desires which do not lead to total personal fulfilment.

“The development of a consumer society has separated sexuality from procreation.

“This fact is also one of the underlying causes of an increasing decline in the birth rate, which, in some places, is related to poverty or the inability to care for children; and in others, to the unwillingness to accept responsibility and to the idea that children might infringe on freely pursuing personal goals.”

The document recognises that the family continues to be seen as a safe haven for the most intimate and rewarding of loving relationships, but it is undermined by “the tensions resulting from an extreme individualistic culture.”

It points to the problem arising from “a feminism which considers motherhood a pretext to exploit women and hinder her full realisation.”

In a clear reference to the availability of artificial reproductive technologies, it points to the “growing tendency to consider having a child a way of fulfilling one’s personal desires, something to be achieved by any means available.”

And in a further reference to the growth of a culture of radical individualism, it refers to the belief that “personal identity and emotional intimacy ought to be radically detached from the biological difference between male and female.”

The document recognised other factors as contributing to the erosion of family life, including war, poverty and migration, and called for the Church to take a leading role in addressing each of these issues.

The challenges facing the family do not diminish the family’s role as “the fundamental and indispensable pillar” of society.

The document explicitly rejects the idea that the family is a matter of personal choice.

“Since the family is the leading agent in building society and not a private matter, adequate public policies on behalf of the family are necessary which support and promote the family …

“With regard to public policies on behalf of the family, such compensatory action redistributes resources and tasks for the common good, helping to re-balance the negative effects of inequality in society.”

Among the economic challenges for the family, the document identified “low wages, unemployment, economic insecurity, lack of decent work and a secure position at work, human trafficking and slavery.”

In Part II, the Synod document gives a powerful re-statement of the Church’s constant teaching about marriage, its relationship to the formation of the family, and some of the contemporary challenges facing the family.

It says, “Jesus himself, referring to the original plan of the human couple, reaffirms the indissoluble union between a man and a woman, though saying to the Pharisees that ‘for your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so’(Mt 19: 8).

“The indissolubility of marriage (‘What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ Mt 19:6), is to be understood not as a ‘yoke’ imposed on persons but as a ‘gift’ to a husband and wife united in marriage.”

The document also recognises that many marriages fail, with tragic consequences for the partners and their children. It says, “In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of the God’s plan for them.

“Looking to Christ, whose light illumines every person (cf. Jn 1:9; GS, 22), the Church turns with love to those who participate in her life in an incomplete manner, recognising that the grace of God works also in their lives by giving them the courage to do good, to care for one another in love and to be of service to the community in which they live and work.”

There is an area of dispute is between some European and American bishops, including Cardinal Kasper, who have supported giving divorced and remarried Catholics reception of the Eucharist without any regularisation of their marital status, and the clear majority who believe this position is not consistent Church teaching.

There is also disagreement between some of the European and American bishops who want to accommodate “same-sex marriage”, and a majority who believe it is clearly inconsistent with the Church’s constant teaching on marriage.

These issues will undoubtedly be discussed at the Synod.

If there is a weakness in the preparatory document, it is the lack of clear moral guidance in dealing with the most difficult issues relating to marriage and the family: including separation and divorce, the deliberate refusal to have children, cohabitation and homosexuality.

Shortly before the Synod, two books are being published which attempt to deal with these issues by reaffirming the church’s long-standing teaching in contemporary language.

Eleven cardinals have contributed to a new book which upholds Church doctrine on marriage and the family, a few weeks before the Synod on the Family.

The book, Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family, focuses on ministry toward those who face challenging marital situations, including the divorced, civilly remarried and those abandoned by their spouse while remaining faithful to their marriage, in addition to marriage preparation and evangelisation.

It explicitly rejects the Kasper doctrine, proposed by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, which promotes the idea, contrary to long-standing Church practice, of opening up Holy Communion to the divorced and remarried, without an annulment.

The aim of the book is to clarify and defend the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

The second book, Christ’s New Homeland – Africa, a contribution to the Synod on the Family by ten African bishops, reaffirms the church’s teaching, and also examines some particular African problems, including polygamy and the widespread incidence of cohabitation and marital breakdown.

The issues at the heart of the Synod also led the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Muller, to warn recently against pastoral approaches which are shaped by the prevailing secular culture.

He was responding to a German Catholic Bishop, a representative of the German hierarchy at the Synod, who said that the “lived realities” of people should be a source of information for dogmatic and moral truths.

Cardinal Muller told an Austrian Catholic newspaper, that placing “any so-called lived realities” on the same level as scripture and tradition is “nothing more than the introduction of subjectivism and arbitrariness, wrapped up in sentimental and smug religious terminology.”

He said that these “lived realities” can sometimes be very pagan and that the faith cannot be the result of a compromise between acceptable Christian ideals, abstract principles and the practice of a pagan lifestyle.

The Synod will meet at the Vatican over a period of three weeks, from 4 to 25 October 2015.

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