The Church reads the signs of the times. This year, she is poised to address the challenges wrought to evangelization by advocacy for the redefinition of marriage, secular divorce, cohabitation and other developments regarding family life. A working document entitled The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization has been drawn up to guide the extraordinary synod of bishops.
The synod of bishops is an advisory body to the pope, constituted of bishops selected from around the world. An extraordinary synod is held to address an urgent matter; the ordinary synod meets at regular intervals.
As the extraordinary synod prepares for this meeting, it is clear that the Church realizes the pressing and urgent nature of changing cultural views about sexuality and marriage. One issue that epitomizes the confusion between Christian teaching and modern culture is the growing acceptance and legalization of same-sex “marriage” and what it means for the Church and how she shares the Gospel. The cultural casting of homosexuality as a civil rights issue has caused often well-intentioned persons to misunderstand the Church’s teaching and to misinterpret the true nature of marriage as ordered to the procreation of children as “hateful”.
The meeting of the synod does not signal that the Church is changing or re-considering changing her teachings. Left-leaning Church members (and non-Church members) may misread the synod’s purpose and think that doctrine about marriage is now open to debate. It is not. Rather, the bishops aim to address how to speak the truth about marriage in the presently shifting cultural context.
To glance over the document is to see just how deeply sensitive the bishops are to the profound challenges they must contend with regarding Christian family life. The document opens with an outline of the issues. Here is a selection:
- “the widespread practice of cohabitation, which does not lead to marriage”
- “same-sex unions between persons, who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children”
- “marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman; the caste system.”
- “a culture of non-commitment and a presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary”
- “relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage; the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life”
- “increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire)”
- “Within the Church, faith in the sacramentality of marriage and the healing power of the Sacrament of Penance show signs of weakness or total abandonment.”
Noting the last listed issue, the bishops willingly admit problems within their flocks in addition to cultural conditions. Further, they see not only the West and its decaying mores, but also threats to the sanctity of marriage that arise in other parts of the world: the caste system and the de facto practice of purchasing women. The inclusion of dowry and the caste-system on this list reveal the breadth of the Church’s pastoral eye. She watches across space and time for the sake of souls.
After delineating the problems, the bishops explain the beauty of marriage and family life by drawing on the Church’s recent great documents on the matter, Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio and Gaudium et Spes from Vatican II.
Citing John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, the bishops explain: ”The institution of marriage is not an undue interference by society or authority, nor the extrinsic imposition of a form. Rather it is an interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive, in order to live in complete fidelity to the plan of God, the Creator. A person’s freedom, far from being restricted by this fidelity, is secured against every form of subjectivism or relativism and is made a sharer in creative Wisdom” (FC, 11).
Marriage is an “interior requirement” of conjugal love, of the sexual union of man and woman. The exclusivity of the marriage bond between man and woman belongs to the natural law, the order inherent in creation, as the only place where the procreation of children and continuation of human life can happen. The conjugal act, simply as what it is, brings one man and one woman together in such a manner as to unify the spouses and potentially create new life. The societal institution of marriage expresses this great reality. And as a reality, it is not open to “reinterpretation,” regardless of how much we might try. The reality of what marriage is does not actually present an injustice to anyone.
The bishops underscore the importance of marriage by citing Pope Francis’s encyclical Lumen Fidei, “The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24) and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom and loving plan.”
The family is the first place where we receive the Faith; as such, it is central to the Christian message.
The fathers also promise us that marriage is truly possible and realistic because of faith. “Promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love” (LF, 52). “Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love. It assures us that this love is trustworthy and worth embracing, for it is based on God’s faithfulness which is stronger than our every weakness” (LF, 53).
Having stated the problem and authentic Christian teaching, the working document then moves to posing a series of specific questions to help define and address these issues as pastors, loving the community of believers, reaching out to others and guiding all towards Christ:
For instance, regarding the openness of married couples to children, the document asks: “What differences are seen in this regard between the Church’s teaching and civic education? How can a more open attitude towards having children be fostered? How can an increase in births be promoted?”
The authors clearly realize that much of the West has parted ways with the Church regarding the meaning of sexuality and the goodness of children. The issue of same-sex “marriage” is, of course, related to the question of openness to children, cohabitation and general attitudes on marriage. The bishops understand that these topics must be addressed together in order to provide a coherent witness.
The questions show a desire to learn how widespread the difficulties are as well.
- It asks about percentages of cohabiters and divorced and remarried persons among the baptized.
- It asks about the status of same-sex unions and any children that may involved: ‘What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union?”
- It asks “How successful have you been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture?”
And with an eye always to the pragmatic, the bishops’ document looks for solutions:
- “What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types [same-sex] of union?”
- “What pastoral care has the Church provided in supporting couples in formation and couples in crisis situations?”
The synod of bishops has their work cut out for them. Addressing these questions will be demanding. One perspective to remember, the answer to every question is that the Church offers authoritative truth and the path to salvation.
Monsignor Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington last year penned a wonderful response to the question of “What does the Church offer the gay person?”
In short, he says, “To begin, the Church offers Gay people what she offers anyone else: the truth of God’s Word authoritatively interpreted, the Sacraments of Salvation, a vision for life, and the witness and support of the communal life, a communion with those now living as well as with the ancients whose voice and witness we still revere. We also offer respect rooted in truth.” Read his whole essay here. The landscape may change, but what Christ and His Church offer remains the same.
May the Holy Spirit guide our bishops as they seek to bring the good news faithfully amidst new environments.