Bishops around the world are being asked to take a realistic look at the situation of families under their care and at how effective pastoral and educational programs have been at promoting church teaching on sexuality, marriage and family life. The preparatory document for the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, which will be held in October 2014, ends with 38 questions about how church teaching is promoted, how well it is accepted and ways in which modern people and societies challenge the Catholic view of marriage and family.
Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the synod, asked bishops to distribute the document and questionnaire “immediately as widely as possible” to deaneries and parishes “so that input from local sources can be received.” The responses will be summarized and returned to the Vatican by the end of January. Archbishop Baldisseri, encouraging even wider consultation, did not specify how bishops should seek input, and it is not clear yet how bishops in the United States will proceed, but the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales put the questionnaire online in late October for anyone to answer. In a statement to The National Catholic Reporter, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spokesperson, Helen Osman, said, “It will be up to each bishop to determine what would be the most useful way of gathering information to provide to Rome.”
The questionnaire covers some of the church’s most contentious contemporary issues, seeking to discover the questions divorced and remarried couples have about Communion and reconciliation and whether a simplification of the annulment process would help toward “solving the problems of the persons involved.”
The synod organizers ask the bishops to estimate the percentage of local Catholics living together without being married, the percentage of those divorced and remarried, and the proportion of children and adolescents in their dioceses who are living in families in those situations. It asks how “accepted” is the church’s teaching on contraception and also touches on the status and nature of pastoral attention to people who are in same-sex partnerships. It surveys bishops about the legal status of same-sex unions in their local area and church efforts to defend traditional marriage but also asks what kind of “pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live” in same-sex unions and what can be done to transmit the faith to their adopted children. Other concerns expressed by Archbishop Baldisseri in his introduction to the survey include interreligious marriages, “the single-parent family,” polygamy, “a [cultural] presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary” and “forms of feminism hostile to the Church.”
Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy, forgiveness and not judging others and his specific comments on helping divorced and civilly remarried couples who cannot receive Communion have encouraged many Catholics to believe changes in church teaching on such matters may be in store. The document said, however, “the teaching of the faith on marriage is to be presented in an articulate and efficacious manner so that it might reach hearts and transform them in accordance with God’s will.” Church teaching always has been clear that marriage is a lifelong bond between one man and one woman open to having and educating children, it said, and the synod’s goal will be “to communicate this message with greater incisiveness.”
The preparatory document specifically mentions modern contributions to church teaching, including the Second Vatican Council’s defense of the dignity of marriage and family, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae” on fidelity and procreation in marriage and Blessed John Paul II’s teaching on God’s plan for married love.