A document "intended to provide an initial reference point" for the October Synod of Bishops on the family was released Thursday at the Vatican. The document acknowledges that "the primary task of the church is to proclaim the beauty of the vocation to love," but there is little beautiful or inspiring in this document. If married life is as boring and joyless as this document, I am glad I am celibate.
The 85-page document, called an instrumentum laboris or working paper, is based on responses to a questionnaire sent out from the Secretariat of the Synod in October. Compiling input from numerous sources does not lead to a coherent presentation or scintillating prose. Drawing up the paper was more difficult than usual because of the large number of responses and the limited time the secretariat had to do its job.
The secretariat undoubtedly did what it did for earlier synods: put the responses into two piles. Into the first and most important pile go the responses from bishops' conferences, the Roman Curia, and those bishops who will attend the synod. The second pile contains responses from individual bishops and others, including the laity. The first pile gets the most attention.
For anyone familiar with the 1980 synod on the family, reading the new instrumentum laboris fosters a feeling of déjà vu.
Many of the same issues are discussed: divorce, cohabitation, irregular marriages, abortion, birth control, poverty, polygamy in Africa, interfaith marriages, annulments, extramarital sex, child upbringing, etc.
Many of the same factors are blamed for marriage and family problems: "the mass media; the hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; the growing secularism; the prevalence of ideas that lead to an excessive, selfish liberalization of morals; the fragility of interpersonal relationships; a culture which rejects making permanent choices ... "
Many of the same solutions are proposed: better catechesis, better preaching, better seminary training, better marriage preparation, prayer, marriage courses in Catholic schools, couples counseling, parish outreach, devotion to the Holy Family, etc.
Granted the return of all these old topics in the new instrumentum laboris, one could conclude that the 1980 synod on the family was a failure, but it is not clear how this new synod will do any better.
There were some new things in this year's working paper. For example, references were made to the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, especially to Familiaris Consortio, the 1981 apostolic exhortation of John Paul II that followed the 1980 synod on the family. In addition, some new issues have arisen, like gay marriage.
Most remarkable, however, was the new instrumentum laboris' frank acknowledgement that "even when the Church's teaching about marriage and the family is known, many Christians have difficulty accepting it in its entirety." Specifically mentioned were "birth control, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, cohabitation, fidelity, premarital sex, in vitro fertilization, etc."
While pinning most of the blame on the culture, it also acknowledged that the church could do a better job presenting its teaching. Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco got in trouble at the 1980 synod for saying the same thing.
Even though the church for centuries has used the concept of "natural law" to defend its teaching, the working paper confesses that "the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible." As a result, "the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy."
It reports that "in not only the West but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not 'scientific.' "
This has serious consequences for church teaching. "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," the working paper says.
One happy note for academia. Unlike the 1980 instrumentum laboris, this new working document does not blame dissident theologians for the failure of the laity to accept church teaching on sexual ethics. Rather, it admits that the sexual abuse crisis and lavish living by clerics have hurt the church's moral credibility.
One can see the influence of Pope Francis in the document when it cites his practical advice to families to constantly repeat three phrases: "Can I? May I?", "Thank you," and "I'm sorry." It also notes the need for "the church's compassion and understanding in offering guidance to families 'as they are.' " It quotes the pope as saying, "the Lord never tires of forgiving: never! It is we who tire of asking his forgiveness."
Many have hoped that the synod will especially show compassion toward those who are remarried after divorce and want to receive Communion. The paper reports: "In Europe (and also in some countries in Latin America and Asia) the prevailing tendency among some of the clergy is to resolve the issue by simply complying with the request for access to the sacraments."
The document says that many, "especially in Europe and North America request streamlining the procedure for marriage annulments." At the 1980 synod, Vatican officials criticized American bishops for granting annulments too easily. Opponents of streamlining the process bring up the same old fears: "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.' "
The working paper also notes that "some recommend considering the practice of some Orthodox Churches, which, in their opinion, opens the way for a second or third marriage of a penitential character." It does not mention that Pope Francis is among those recommending consideration of the Orthodox practice.
The paper proceeds to throw cold water on the idea by saying "countries having a major number of Orthodox Christians noted that, from their experience, this practice does not reduce the number of divorces." According to the instrumentum laboris, "Others request clarification as to whether this solution is based on doctrine or is merely a matter of discipline."
Despite the numerous problems cited by the working paper, it still has hope for "a new springtime for the family," which it believes will be led by young people who "see a value in a stable, enduring relationship and express a real desire to marry and form a family." How this jibes with the fact that young people are delaying marriage, hooking up, practicing birth control, and living together before getting married remains to be seen.
Based on the experience of the 1980 synod, the impact of the instrumentum laboris could be short-lived. The 1980 document was criticized for leaving out important input from some bishops' conferences. The report done later by the synod "relator," appointed by Pope John Paul II, was much more important in guiding the synod than the instrumentum laboris.
The relator's brilliance and organizational skills impressed the synod fathers. Predictions were made that he would be brought to Rome to head up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a year later, these predictions came true as Joseph Ratzinger was appointed CDF prefect.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]