The Family, In Context: Reflections on the working document for the synod on the family
The Gospel of the Family
By Drew Christiansen
“The proclamation of the Gospel of the Family is an integral part of the mission of the Church,” opens the just-released working document for this coming October’s Synod of Bishops. “The Gospel of the Family”: the words rather shocked me. For what should be obvious to every student of the New Testament is that Jesus’ preaching, what we call the Gospel, if it did anything, it relativized family life. As the late, great New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias explained, Jesus’ mission was to found “the new family of God.”
Consider some of Jesus’ hardest sayings. When he was told his mother and brothers wanted to speak to him, Jesus replied, “‘Who are my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother’” (Matt 12:42-50). To the woman who praised his blood ties to Mary, Jesus responds, “Rather blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28). Those are such unexpected, counterintuitive statements that exegetes say they most likely come directly from Jesus himself, ipsissima verba as scholars used to say.
Likewise, Jesus demanded detachment from family from those who would follow him. He tested a scribe who asked to follow him, warning that like Jesus himself he would have no home. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have their nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 9:20). And to a follower who hoped to fulfill the basic filial obligation of burying his father he replied, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury the dead” (9:21).
I do not mean to denigrate the Christian ideal of the family, nor do I want to disparage the work of the Synod office. The work they have done is exceptional and, as I read the working document, the challenge the synod faces in formulating a pastoral strategy for families is enormous and enormously complex. It is in the family, after all, that most of us will experience the holiness of others and attain holiness ourselves. But I do want to warn against over-sacralizing the family and discourage hyper-inflating its religious importance as “Gospel.”
A biblical theology of the family that focuses on the Holy Family and thinks of the (nuclear) family as uniform through history is faithful neither to the text, nor to history of the church’s pastoral experience. Speaking of the 'Gospel of the Family' as if Jesus’ good news was about family life is deviates from the New Testament witness.
If we want to say that the church has good news for families or that she has to do a better job at communicating the Gospel of Mercy to families who are suffering in ever so many ways that is a different matter. The document does that and does it well. What it doesn’t do for bishops and families alike is retrieve from the Scriptures the complex, not always comforting, outlook on the family by which Christianity brought something new to the world, found neither in pagan antiquity nor in the Jewish tradition: the community of disciples as the new human family “born, not of blood, nor of the will of flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:13).
Drew Christiansen, S.J., the former editor in chief of America, is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University.
Showing 'The Love of Christ'
By Helen Alvaré
The working document for the upcoming synod on the family treats so many issues that it’s difficult at this point to treat it too “thematically.” This is not unexpected as it appears for the most part to an attempt to gather together a vast amount of material from around the world on the intrinsically broad topics of the family’s situation today and the church’s current responses.
I believe that particular themes will likely emerge as more or less urgent when the first half of the synod is held this fall. This said, allow me to highlight a few features.
First, the document indicates that while there are disparities in the family issues the church faces around the world (e.g., polygamy, technology, machismo), there are also nearly globally pervasive, and genuinely fundamental, family problems too (e.g., individualism, materialism, fears of marital commitment). Together, these indicate the wisdom of a global forum on the family at this particular time.
Second, the document helpfully understands that there are two important “gaps” hindering evangelization on the family: a gap between the church’s teachings and cultural situations; and a gap between the language the church is presently using (theologically, as well as in its natural law discourse) and what constitutes persuasive and relevant discourse about the family today. I am glad that the matter of effective communication is squarely on the table.
Third, I’m relieved that the document indicates an understanding of the church’s role in the current predicament. The sexual abuse crisis is indeed a barrier to evangelization. So is the matter of distance between pastors and their sheep, and a lack of creative, joyful witness.
Fourth, and finally, the document delivers on Pope Francis’ many remarks about mercy, specifically about reaching out to families on the margins. It devotes a great deal of space to the need to invite adults and their children to experience the love of God, no matter their current situation. It’s quite practical even at this stage regarding concrete ways to demonstrate the love of Christ, while holding fast to the church’s understanding of the essential elements of marriage. It moves decisively in the direction of “use every opportunity to show the love of Christ”…even in the case of couples who want to get married in churches in part for the “photo opportunities.” Wow.
Helen Alvaré is a professor of law at George Mason University, where she teaches law and religion and family law. She is also a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
A Hopeful Start
By Julie Hanion Rubio
While the “Instrumentum Laboris” working document for the upcoming Synod on family contains plenty of material that Catholics have heard before or could have predicted, there are many indications that change is in the air. Particularly notable are a recognition of the nonreception of many core Catholic teachings on marriage and family, a struggle to find a way to welcome many who are alienated from the church and an emerging understanding of the need to better communicate the beauty of Catholic teaching. The surveys collected around the world gave Catholics a chance to be heard, and the working document for the synod reveals a willingness to listen to the voices of the faithful. If the Synod is to achieve its goal, that listening will need to continue and deepen.
Throughout the document, honesty about the nonreception of Catholic teachings is evident. Respondents told the Vatican committee that most people were familiar with biblical teaching on family, but knew little about Magisterial documents, and were confused by the use of natural law language. Though acceptance of various teachings varies in different parts of the world, tensions over the following were noted: gender roles, the possibility of keeping lifelong marriage promises, polygamy, same-sex union, cohabitation, consumerism and contraception. There are many references to impatience with a church that wishes to intrude on private decisions and to exclude those whose living situations are less than ideal. Despite occasional lapses into wishful thinking, the document does not shy away from the reality of disagreement.
Significantly, disagreement is treated for the most part as an internal problem needing a pastoral response. True, there are the usual accusations of cultural deficiencies (e.g., individualism, materialism, sex-saturation) and numerous references to “gender ideology” and a pervasive “contraceptive mentality.” However, the document also tries to listen to people in difficulty (e.g., parents are “distressed” when their children can receive sacraments but they, due to their “irregular” situation, cannot.) and describe what faithful Catholics actually think (e.g., many do not see a significant difference between contraception and Natural Family Planning). The section on difficult pastoral problems begins with a reference to Pope Francis’ call for the church to be “the house of the Father, with doors always wide open,” and speaks of a need to go beyond legalism (No. 80). References to the need for ministry to children in broken families (No. 149) and for welcoming same-sex couples and their children (No. 116-20) are particularly encouraging. The whole document is marked by a concern to balance a duty to embrace with a duty to challenge.
A call to better communicate the riches of Catholic teaching stands along side the call for greater pastoral sensitivity. Indications of creative thinking are mixed with more traditional language. The beginning of the document travels the well-worn path of the usual biblical references and summarizes recent Magisterial teaching without bringing out its originality. More promising is language attempting to respond to popular romantic notions with a view of marriage as “a personal response to another person as part of a joint project of life, which reveals a great mystery and great promise” (No. 85), and attention to social justice evident both in references to the ways in which unjust social structures work against families and in brief references to the potential of families to be agents of social change (Nos. 5, 33-4). Pope Francis’ message of focusing on the essential and the beautiful has been heard, though efforts to respond are just beginning.
Catholics throughout the world were energized by the announcement of the Synod and the opportunity to speak about their lives. This is a great opportunity to give the many who feel marginalized or discouraged something to hope for. The working document sometimes gives the impression that the Synod’s response will be to condemn the culture and repeat old teachings dressed up in language that sounds new to very few. But there are indications of a different approach rooted in attentiveness and a willingness to risk what Pope Francis has called “accompaniment” (No. 104). If the Synod is to answer the hopes of ordinary Catholics, it will involve even more listening, and an even more serious attempt to walk beside people whose experience may help the church open its doors in new and exciting ways.
Julie Hanlon Rubio is professor of Christian ethics at Saint Louis University and the author of Family Ethics: Practices for Christians (Georgetown University Press, 2010).
Listening to the Laity
By Lisa Fullam
Have you ever read an essay in which the author seems to change his or her mind in the course of writing, but didn't go back to re-edit the first part? That kept coming to mind as I read the "Instrumentum Laboris" for the upcoming Synod on the Family. The purpose of the document is to provide a summary of main points gleaned from the worldwide inquiry about magisterial teaching that was requested by the Vatican. Various constituencies responded, with some dioceses inviting responses from individuals, while other bishops seemed to regard consultation with hoi polloi as less crucial. Even so, what begins as a confident, even smug reaffirmation of current doctrine winds up in a place that’s far more humble.
The preface includes the lyrical and, I think, unarguable statement that “the primary task of the Church is to proclaim the beauty of the vocation to love…” Then it declares that at least according to episcopal conferences, “when the teaching of the Church is clearly communicated…it is enthusiastically received for the most part by the faithful.” Indeed, some of those same episcopal conferences assert that the reason for resistance to Church teaching on family-related matters is “want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level…” (9)
Well, that seems clear enough—disagreement with magisterial teaching means that you don’t know Jesus. The writers could have stopped there.
But they didn’t. The results of the questionnaire lead the writers of the instrumentum to nearly opposite conclusions at several points in the text; some oppositions come from the responses, and some are added as editorial comments from the writers. Here are a few:
- Some expressed concern about too much openness to life (when couples want a child “at any cost” and practice IVF, pg. 34,) and not enough, (when they practice contraception, pg. 56).
- There is consistent concern that the church should demonstrate mercy to people in “irregular situations,” (pg. 63,) but that doesn’t negate the risk of too much mercy that, e.g., streamlining the annulment process would pose, (pg. 45).
- Scientific research raises issues, (e.g. concerning the meaning of “nature,” pg. 12,) but lots of responses call for a deeper dialogue with the human sciences, (to explain sexual orientation, pg. 52). A consistent worry is a “gender ideology” (italics in original). How the bishops proceed on the question of engagement with science is crucial: it was the human sciences and people’s experience that problematized the traditional dichotomies of sex and sexuality in the first place. Of course, a hallmark of Catholic ethics is its confident search for truth from all sources—myself, I’m rooting for more science to inform doctrine, not less.
- A complaint is made that the lower rate of marriage reflects a “fear of commitment,” (so people cohabitate, pg. 37) but there must be a sharp line drawn lest some people publicly express their commitment to their partners, (if they’re gay, pg. 50).
- The “traditional” western nuclear family is praised as normative (pg. 30), despite its relatively recent emergence as a dominant model, but there is also a call for a greater reintegration of families across generational lines (pg. 19), and a call to look to a very non-traditional family—a sexless couple with mom, stepfather and young Jesus—as model.
Along the way, the writers take stock, to some degree, of the real challenges to current doctrine posed by factors like poverty, abuse, migration, etc., that cannot be as easily turned into blaming the usual straw men of relativism, hedonism and the influence of the media.
The document concludes by saying that it hopes only to present “an initial reference point” for Synod conversations. That’s a fine and admirably humble endpoint for the "Instrumentum."
And that’s the good news, if the bishops are willing to hear it. Current magisterial teaching on sexuality and family life is highly controversial, a fact amply demonstrated by the internal oppositions raised in the "Instrumentum," as well as by stacks of sociological data demonstrating non-reception of much of current sexual teaching. What’s worse than non-reception of doctrine is another fact reported in the "Instrumentum": current magisterial teaching on marriage and the family is the occasion of significant suffering. The Synod on the Family, if it is to address the complex and multifaceted challenges and opportunities to family life and intimate relationships in our time has to begin by listening to the voices of people living their lives in faith.
What is required now is more than merely restating current doctrine—the church needs its leaders to rethink teaching on sex, marriage, and family from the ground up, beginning with the affirmation of "Gaudium et Spes" that marriage is a community of life and love, enlivened by the Spirit of Christ. Then the laity—who are living that life and love in many and beautiful forms—must be heard. The Synod fathers would do well to use their time together to structure and launch a broad consultation of all the people of God in all our magnificent diversity.
Lisa Fullam is associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara.