Despite repeated claims in the secular media and on some Catholic blogs that the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome had radically changed the church’s teachings on marriage and the family, the Final Report of the Synod reaffirmed the church’s teaching, with a new emphasis on understanding the difficulties in living the Christian life, and of providing effective pastoral care.
The 94 paragraphs of the final report were voted on individually by the 265 bishops, archbishops and cardinals present at the meeting.
The report was presented to Pope Francis who will use it to prepare an authoritative statement, perhaps an Encyclical, on marriage and the family.
The report therefore represents the “sensus fidelium” of the Catholic church around the world, dealing with a range of very difficult problems, from the growth of secularism in the Western world and the crisis of gender identity, to the problems of polygamy and cohabitation in the Third World.
It is very difficult, in the space of a few paragraphs, to summarise the depth of understanding to be found in the document, which deserves to be read in full. However, a few extracts, imperfectly translated from the Italian, give a sense of the total document.
The Synod discussed the importance of the family, to every one of its members and to society.
“The mystery of the creation of life on earth fills us with delight and amazement. The family based on marriage of man and woman is founded on the magnificent and irreplaceable personal love that transmits life. Love cannot be reduced to the illusion of time, love is not an end in itself, love relies on the other.
“In the promise of mutual love, in good times and bad, love wants to protect life until death. The fundamental desire to form the bonds of love, solid and intergenerational, reaches beyond cultural and religious boundaries, and social change. In the freedom of the ‘Yes’ exchanged by man and woman for life, we experience the love of God.
“For the Catholic faith, marriage is the sacred sign which symbolises the love of God for his Church. The Christian family is therefore part of the living Church: a ‘domestic church’,” the Synod said.
Yet the Synod Fathers recognise the lived reality, recognising that all human beings are “imperfect and vulnerable”.
The Synod Report examined the challenges facing the family in the contemporary world.
In relation to sexuality, the Synod Fathers wrote, “A cultural challenge today of great importance emerges from ‘gender’ ideology that denies the difference and the reciprocal nature of man and woman.
“It envisages a society without gender differences, and empties the anthropological foundation of the family. This ideology leads to educational programs and legislation that promote personal identity and emotional intimacy radically decoupled from biological complementarity between male and female. Human identity is seen as a personal option that can changes over time.”
The Report also emphatically reaffirmed Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
It said, “The irrevocable covenant faithfulness of God is the foundation of the indissolubility of marriage. The complete and deep love between spouses is not only based on human abilities: God supports this alliance with the power of his Spirit … ‘what God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:9).”
It added, “Marriage is the community of all life, by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.”
Yet it recognised that while marriage is vital for society, the structures of society often undermine marriage.
The report said, “In different cultures, many young people show resistance to the definitive commitments regarding relationships, and often choose to live with a partner or just to have casual relationships.
“The falling birth rate is a result of various factors, including industrialisation, the sexual revolution, the fear of overpopulation, economic problems, the growth of a contraceptive mentality and abortion.
“The consumer society may also dissuade people from having children just to maintain their freedom and their way of life.
“Some Catholics have difficulty to lead their lives in accordance with the Catholic Church's teaching on marriage and the family, and to see that teaching the goodness of God's creative design for them.
“The number of marriages in some parts of the world has decreased, while separations and divorces are not uncommon,” it said.
The Synod Fathers called for the redirection of government policy to support families. It said they must “promote family policies that support and encourage families, primarily those of modest means.
“They need to recognise specifically the compensatory action of the family in the context of modern welfare systems: it redistributes resources and performs tasks essential to the common good, helping to rebalance the negative effects of social inequity.”
It endorsed Pope Francis’ words: “The family deserves special attention by those responsible for the common good, because it is the basic unit of society, which brings strong links of union that underpin human coexistence and, with the generation and education of his children, ensure the renewal and the future of society.”
It said, “As a faithful and indissoluble union between a man and a woman called to accept one another and to welcome life, the sacrament of marriage is a great grace for the human family. The Church has the duty and the joy to announce this grace in every person and in every context.”
It said, however, “In many countries, a growing number of couples live together without marriage, religious or civil … [and] de facto unions are becoming more numerous, not only as a rejection of the values of family and marriage, but also because marriage is perceived as a luxury, and social conditions, particularly poverty, pushes people to live in de facto unions.”
In response to this challenge, it said, “All these situations must be addressed in a constructive manner, trying to turn them into opportunities on the journey of conversion towards the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel.”
On the other contentious subject, the Church’s attitude to those who are divorced, the Synod reaffirmed the indissolubility of marriage, but also held out the hand of mercy towards those who are divorced, regardless of their situations.
The Synod Fathers said, “The testimony of those who even in difficult conditions do not undertake a new union, while remaining faithful to the sacramental bond, deserves the appreciation and support of the Church. It wants to show them the face of a God faithful to his love and always able to give back strength and hope.
“People separated or divorced but have not remarried who are often witnesses of marital fidelity, must be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the food that sustains them in their state.”
To those who have divorced and remarried without annulment of the first marriage, the Synod rejected a proposal from the German bishops to admit them to Holy Communion, but said they “need to be more integrated in the Christian communities in different ways as possible, avoiding any chance of scandal.”
It added, “Saint John Paul II offered a comprehensive policy, which remains the basis for the evaluation of these situations: ‘Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to discern situations. There is indeed a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have contracted a second marriage for the sake of the children, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous marriage, irreparably broken, had never been valid’.”
The Synod Report added, “It is therefore the duty of priests to accompany the people concerned, on the way to understanding, according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the Bishop.”
After the Synod, some of the German bishops whose proposal to readmit divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion had been decisively rejected, attempted to put their own spin on the outcome.
George Weigel, biographer to St John Paul II and a well-placed observer of the Synod, wrote in response: “Claims from certain German bishops, repeated in parts of the world media, that these three paragraphs amount to a tacit vindication of the Kasper Proposal in any of its various iterations – Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried after a ‘penitential path’; devolution of authority over this to bishops’ conferences; an appeal to the rights of ‘conscience’ – will not withstand serious scrutiny.
“Media reports to the effect that these paragraphs include an endorsement of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried are based on ignorance of the text or vulnerability to the German spin machine.
“The language in the three paragraphs is sometimes ambiguous, especially if one is looking for ambiguity.
“But if read through the ‘comprehensive’ prism of Familiaris Consortio in its entirety, these three paragraphs – with their welcome and touching determination to reach out to the divorced and civilly remarried – are not only compatible with the classic doctrine and sacramental discipline of the Catholic Church; they reinforce it, by stating plainly that that teaching is the foundation from which true pastoral accompaniment takes place,” he said.
They Synod Fathers quoted the words of Pope Francis at the Midnight Mass last year in which he said, “Have we the courage to accept with tenderness difficult situations and problems of those around us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective, but without the warmth of the Gospel? How much need is there for tenderness in today’s world, the patience of God, God’s closeness, and His tenderness.”
It recognising the family as the fundamental unit of society, the Synod Fathers also recognised the importance of working to protect the position of the family in society.
It said, “For Christians who work in the political arena, commitment to life and the family must take priority, since a society that neglects the family has lost its openness to the future.
“Family associations, committed to working together with groups of other Christian traditions, have among their main aims, the promotion and defence of life and family, freedom of education and religious freedom, harmonisation between the time for work and time for the family, the protection of women at work, the protection of conscientious objection.”
The Synod Fathers asked the Holy Father to consider issuing a document on the family, because in the family, the domestic Church, shine forth Christ, light of the world.
Their report concluded with a profound prayer to the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – to “make our families places of communion and prayer [and] awaken in us awareness of the sacred and inviolable character of the family, its beauty in the plan of God.”
In an interview given after the Synod, after some media reports wrongly claimed that the Synod had endorsed same sex marriage, and others that it had endorsed Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, Cardinal George Pell put the record straight.
He told Diane Montagna of Aleteia, “Those headlines are inaccurate, unjustified and misleading. People should read the document, not what has been spun to them. I also think it is important for the press to actually read what was said and not just unthinkingly take the line which they’re being fed.”
He added, “It’s a consensus document. All of the 94 paragraphs were passed. Two of them, one in particular, scraped through to two thirds by just one vote, not because they are heretical but because they weren’t clear enough.
“The document is well structured, it’s elegantly written and in no sense is it intellectually embarrassing, as the Instrumentum Laboris [the working document presented to the Synod Fathers] was. Furthermore, it endorses no departures from Church doctrine or fundamental practices.
“The document also has an adequate teaching on conscience. Conscience has to be formed according to the teachings of the Church, and on the subject of divorce and remarriage, according to the full teachings of John Paul II and the teachings of the Church,” he said.