August 14, 2015


Preparing for the synod

We are all well aware that the family, which has always been considered the basic unit of society, is in trouble. And nobody seems more aware of that than Pope Francis. That’s why he called for a meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family in October. Since we are all members of a family, no matter how different, this synod should be important to us all.

The bishops who will attend the synod now have what is called the instrumentum laboris, sort of a roadmap for the work they will undertake. You can read the document by Googling “Synod on the Family Instrumentum Laboris.” It shows that the bishops will have an enormously busy three weeks.

Fortunately, they have a head start, thanks to last fall’s extraordinary meeting of the synod on the same subject. They have the relatio, the summary of last fall’s synod. And they have the results of a questionnaire that was sent to dioceses throughout the world to determine how much Catholics understand and follow Church teachings regarding the family.

The instrumentum has three parts: the challenges of the family, the discernment of the family vocation, and the mission of the family today. Each part is broken down into three or four chapters, so there’s not much about the family that won’t be discussed.

The bishops will not ignore the first two parts of the document, but the most controversial items appear in Part III. That’s where the bishops find material about couples who are cohabitating, civilly married but not sacramentally married, divorced and not remarried, and divorced and remarried.

Here, too, are discussions about integrating these couples into the life of the Church, such as giving Communion to those who should not be receiving Communion, including cohabiting couples and those who are divorced and civilly remarried. The questionnaires about current practices indicate that a large percentage of those couples in some parts of the world are receiving Communion.

There is a lot about “mercy” in this document, reflecting the emphasis that Pope Francis has given, and not just in Part III. The last paragraph of Part II, for example, states, “The Church’s point of departure is the concrete situation of today’s families, all in need of mercy, beginning with those who are suffering most. In fact, mercy manifests the sovereignty of God, which permits him to be faithful, time and again, to his very being, which is love.”

There may be clashes among the bishops during the synod. Pope Francis has said, in fact, that he “would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St. Ignatius called it.”

Two groups, in fact, seem to be gearing up for a vigorous discussion. In May, some European bishops met in Rome for a “study day” on family issues. These are the bishops who would like to make changes in current practices, and are emphasizing the concept of mercy. In June, African bishops met in Accra, Ghana. They are the bishops who were most outspoken against some of the proposals made during last year’s synod.

So where is Pope Francis in all this? This pope’s style, as we should have learned by now, is not as monarchial as that of some of his predecessors. He called last year’s synod an expression of “collegiality and synodality.” He obviously wants to implement what the Second Vatican Council taught about collegiality.

This undoubtedly reflects the fact that he is the only pope to have served as president of a national bishops’ conference (two terms in Argentina) and played an important role in reviving the Conference of Latin American Bishops, known as CELAM. He wrote in his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” that one of his goals as pope was to practice collegiality and synodality. Toward that end, he established the Council of Cardinal Advisors.

We can be sure that he will make the necessary decisions after the synod is finished, but first he wants to get the advice of the other members of the Church’s magisterium. He will not forget that that the synod’s objective is to strengthen the family in this age of secularism.

—John F. Fink

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