Looking through the lens of mercy

The synod’s bishops will grapple with the realities of modern marriage, writes Austen Ivereigh

The Synod on the Family concludes a two-year process that began just a few months after Pope Francis was elected. It may come to be seen his greatest legacy. Despite its chaotic and fractious moments, it has become a powerful mechanism of Church discernment similar to the early Church councils, as Pope Paul VI, who created the Synod of Bishops 50 years ago, intended. 

New times pose new challenges: not to the validity of Jesus’ teaching safeguarded by the Church, but to its language, mindset, laws and pastoral strategy. The purpose, as Francis told the synod in his opening remarks, was for the Church to “question itself as to its fidelity to the deposit of the Faith, so that it does not become a museum to be looked at or conserved, but a living spring from which the Church drinks to quench thirst and to show up the source of life”.

The backdrop to the synod is the massive collapse across the western world of support for the Christian understanding of marriage in culture and now law – as Ireland, and most of our families, have witnessed at first hand. So huge has been this shift over time that it has created a sense of powerlessness faced with a spiral of alienation from parishes. 

Ever fewer Catholics marry (the proportion has dropped by over 50% since the 1970s) and those that do often divorce (in fact, the three countries with the world’s highest divorce rate are all Catholic) without seeking an annulment. What was previously a dynamic cycle of Church growth – the Faith, after all, is passed on primarily through the family, which is the principal instrument of evangelisation – has been dramatically shoved into reverse gear. 


In the past, bishops have come to synods in Rome seeking a frank discussion about this. What has pained them is that the Church has increasingly been made to seem and act in ways that are frankly pharisaical: watching as Catholics fail in marriage yet not lifting a finger to help them succeed, and imposing the heaviest sanction of all – lifelong exclusion from the sacraments – when they enter a second union. 

Meanwhile, canon law – which has for decades assumed something quite untrue, that people roughly know what marriage is when they enter it – has lagged hopelessly behind, with a creaky annulment system inadequate to the challenge. 

In the Pope’s native Argentina, there are just 150-200 annulments granted each year, in a country where there are tens of thousands of divorces. And they take so long few ever bother. (When the then Cardinal Bergoglio’s niece, María Inés Narvaja, told her uncle that after four years awaiting her fiancé’s annulment decision she would be getting civilly married, he told her it was the best news she could have given him.) 

In short, the Church’s approach to marriage, resting on the false assumption that culture supplies its essential ingredients, has long been out of date. It is widely believed that many, if not most, Catholic marriages are potentially invalid, because those entering marriage do so with the mental horizon of the culture, rather than that of the Church; they may desire their marriage to last, but in common with the culture they lack the “determination of the will”. 

The bishops wanting to discuss this in the past came up against the old, Vatican-controlled model of synods, as Cardinal Bergoglio saw for himself in the 2005 assembly. 

The result was a growing frustration on the part, above all, of the German bishops, who have demanded the right to re-admit people to the Eucharist on a case-by-case basis, and in 2013 were threatening simply to do so, even though it is obvious that any such scheme would undermine the Church’s witness to indissolubility over time. 

In reaction, rigorists grew more resolute in their resistance to any change, refusing even to admit any move that would make the annulment system more accessible. The Voice of the Family, a traditionalist network of pro-life groups lobbying the synod, perfectly captures this pharisaism. “It is the free choice of the individual, and that alone, which separates them from the sacramental life of the Church,” it haughtily says of the divorced and remarried. 

That is a very far cry from what most bishops here believe. Like Pope Francis, they see the way both culture and economic realities – job insecurity, the price of property – stack the deck against people marrying. Young people, the Pope told the bishops in Philadelphia, unconsciously acquiesce in the huge pressures against commitment. 

“They are paralysed when they encounter the beautiful, noble and truly necessary challenges which faith sets before them,” he perceptively observed. “Many put off marriage while waiting for ideal conditions, when everything can be perfect. Meanwhile, life goes on, without really being lived to the full.” 

Tired formulas

What pains Pope Francis is that Church leaders have long rolled their eyes, lamenting the decline of marriage and trotting out tired formulas, yet have done little actually to help people. Noting how not long ago “the similarities between the civil institution of marriage and the Christian sacrament were considerable and shared” but how “this is no longer the case”, Francis told the bishops in Philadelphia that the task now was “to invest our energies not so much in rehearsing the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family.” 

The consequences of this shift in focus are potentially enormous. Engaged couples need far more than a couple of pep talks; they need a lengthy period of formation. (If that means fewer marry sacramentally, that’s not a bad thing. At least those that do will do so validly). 

Once married, they need to be supported, given retreats and ongoing formation, in the way the Church does with consecrated men and women who are living out a counter-cultural commitment. All this will require a huge redeployment of energy and resources in the Church. 

But that still leaves those who went down the aisle inadequately prepared, and whose marriages foundered. Pope Francis’s new, fast-track annulment reform, which allows the bishop to act as judge, is a huge step towards freeing people from the burden of failure, and clearing a path back to parish life. 

But there will continue to be hard cases, where a judicial path is simply impossible. Hence Cardinal Walter Kasper’s idea of looking to the Orthodox Church, and its ‘penitential path’ back to the sacraments. 

Yet the more this has been looked at, said Cardinal Péter Erdö, the synod’s general secretary, this week, the more complex and problematic it appears. 

The synod is unlikely to go down that path, yet many bishops want the right to be able to re-admit people to the sacraments in unusual, painful cases. Asked about the Kasper proposal, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris said that if a path was open at all to the divorced and remarried, it would not be a general one but an ‘individualised’ one. 

Key principle

Pope Francis’s key principle – the lens through which he wants this whole discussion to take place – is God’s mercy. 

That does not mean bending the rules to suit individual circumstances, or weakening Jesus’ clear call to permanence in love; “the goal of conjugal life is not simply to live together for life, but to love one another for life”, said Pope Francis at the synod’s opening Mass, adding that the Church is called to promote indissolubility “as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously”. 

But it is also called “to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy”. 

Pope Francis knows the task of reinvigorating marriage and family in the western world and reversing the cycle of alienation from the Church will require an immense paradigm shift within the Church. 

At the end of this two-year discernment, it seems grossly unready. 

But he knows that this synod is not the end, but the beginning, and that what it concludes is only the start.