Roadmap for the family

Greg Daly examines the working document for this October’s synod of bishops

Hardly had the working document for the upcoming synod on the family been revealed that the Catholic internet went into overdrive, recalling feverish reactions to documents from last year’s extraordinary synod.

American blogger and Church analyst Rocco Palmo observed of the 147-paragraph Instrumentum Laboris that: “On the assembly’s most hot-button issue of all, the Instrumentum speaks of a ‘common accord’ among the world’s bishops toward ‘eventual access’ to the sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried couples, but only following ‘an itinerary of reconciliation or a penitential path under the authority of the [diocesan] bishop,’ and only ‘in situations of irreversible cohabitation’.”

With an English translation as yet unavailable, Palmo’s reading of the Italian text sparked fury among commentators who insisted that it was very clear from reports on the 2014 synod, and especially the final Relatio Synodi of that gathering, that far from there being “common accord”, bishops were divided on this point. 

Some, according to the Relatio, had insisted on maintaining the present discipline, while others favoured a case-by-case arrangement where access to sacraments could be granted in certain carefully defined situations and following penitential practice determined by diocesan bishops. 


Some maintained that divorced-and-remarried people could engage in a ‘spiritual’ communion, and others seemingly questioned why they could not therefore have access to sacramental Communion. The one thing that was clear was that further study was needed on this issue.

Panicked claims that the synod’s general secretary Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general rapporteur Cardinal Peter Erdo and special secretary Archbishop Bruno Forte were trying to somehow rig the upcoming synod could have been headed off if an official English translation had been easily available.

Section 122 of the Instrumentum repeats section 52 of the Relatio – one of three paragraphs in the document that did not reach the two-thirds bar necessary to pass, getting just 104 votes with 74 votes against it.  Explicitly recognising that the synod fathers of 2014 were divided, the Instrumentum continues by outlining possible ways of tackling the pastoral challenges posed by those who have civilly divorced and remarried.

Section 123 states: “To address the above issue, there is a common agreement on the idea of a journey of reconciliation or penance, under the authority of the bishop, for the faithful who are divorced and remarried civilly, who are in a situation of cohabitation. In reference to Familiaris Consortio 84, it suggests a process of becoming aware of the failure and the wounds produced by it, with repentance, verification of the nullity of marriage, commitment to spiritual communion and decision to live in continence.”

Crucially, the passage says nothing about sacramental Communion, instead envisaging a spiritual communion with the Church, maintained through repentance and a life lived continently. The following passages in the section point to how priests might avail of the Church’s power to bind and loose, in light of the suggestions of some bishops, and cite Vatican documents that outline the current arrangements.

As ever the lesson seems to be that rather than relying on hasty summaries and kneejerk commentaries, we should have the patience to see what the text itself actually says.

When looking at the Instrumentum Laboris, it’s worth starting by remembering what it is meant to be. Not a teaching document in any sense, the Instrumentum is the working document for the upcoming ordinary synod on ‘The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and contemporary world’, due to be held in Rome between October 4 and 25. Based on last year’s final Relatio, it replicates many parts of that document, but expands them with new arguments and ideas drawn from responses to 46 questions appended to the Relatio and sent to bishops around the world.

According to Cardinal Baldisseri, Rome received 99 submissions from bishops’ conferences and Eastern Catholic Churches, as well as 359 responses from dioceses, parishes, individuals and civic groups. The cardinal described the period between the synods as “a valuable opportunity for listening to what the Spirit says to the Church in the plurality of her components”.

Binding last year’s extraordinary synod on ‘The pastoral challenges on the family in the context of evangelisation’ to this year’s ordinary synod, and drawing on consultations with the laity, the Relatio is an example of how Pope Francis wants, as the cardinal has said: “A dynamic and permanent synod, not as a structured entity but as an action, as osmosis between the centre and the periphery.”

Commentary on the Instrumentum has naturally focused on ‘hot-button’ issues as homosexuality, birth control, cohabitation and marital breakdown, but in truth the document says little new on these issues.  

On support for homosexual people, the only substantive amendment is a proposal in section 131 that diocesan pastoral plans should specifically attend to the accompaniment of homosexual people and to families with homosexual members.

Otherwise, the document reiterates existing Church teaching that there is no basis even for comparing same-sex unions with God’s plan for marriage and the family, and describes as wholly unacceptable situations where financial aid to the poor is contingent upon the introduction of same-sex marriage laws. 

At the same time, the Instrumentum stresses that people with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect and sensitivity, respected like everyone else in their dignity, and never subjected to unjust discrimination. 

Laudato Si, the new papal encyclical on care for our common home, criticises those who propose reducing birth rates as a way of addressing the problems of the poor, and especially situations where economic assistance to developing countries is made contingent upon what are euphemistically referred to as “reproductive health” policies. 

Given how the encyclical argues that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”, it is hardly surprising that section 33 of the Instrumentum follows the Relatio in warning against population declines “due to a mentality against having children and promoted by the world politics of reproductive health”. 

Such declines, the document continues, create a situation “in which the relationship between generations is no longer ensured but also the danger that, over time, this decline will lead to economic impoverishment and a loss of hope in the future”. 

Section 133 picks up on this point, maintaining that economic factors and a mentality that sees the generation of life as a matter of design contribute to a lower birth rate and a weakened social fabric, and stressing that “openness to life is an intrinsic requirement of conjugal love”. 


Given Pope Francis’ January observation that good Catholics do not need to be “like rabbits”, it is hardly surprising that the Instrumentum reiterates now that Catholics are under no obligation to procreate heedless of consequences. 

Section 136, adopted directly from the Relatio and drawing on Humanae Vitae, points out how a fully lived love, unconditionally open to life, “serves as the basis for an appropriate teaching regarding the natural methods for responsible procreation”. We should return to the 1968 encyclical, according to the Instrumentum, with an eye to how it “highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births”. 

Sections 98 to 103 tackle the issue of couples living together without having been married in the eyes of the Church, some being married civilly and others cohabiting. Building on Relatio sections 41 to 43, the Instrumentum stresses the importance of seeing the good in existing relationships and of encouraging and accompanying couples so they can move to a sacramental union. It recognises that couples often opt for civil marriages or cohabit not through opposition to sacramental marriage, but because of external factors.

The Relatio addressed what it called “wounded families” – those involving single parents and separated, divorced, and remarried people – over the course of 11 paragraphs, but the Instrumentum develops this to a full 26 paragraphs from section 104 to 129. 

The most controversial part of the Instrumentum, predictably, is the series of paragraphs grappling with the integration of civilly-divorced-and-remarried people into Christian life. These address such issues as spiritual communion, the effects on children of parents feeling excluded from the Church, whether or not a one-size-fits-all approach is desirable in these situations, and the possibility of establishing a ‘penitential path’ to the sacraments.

Streamlining of annulment procedures is identified as backed by a strong consensus, as is the possibility that such procedures might even be free of charge, with the Instrumentum also reporting strong support for free diocesan mediation and counselling services. It emphasises the importance of forgiveness for healing wounds in families, recognising that family ruptures often cannot be healed without hard work, grace and external help, with Christian communities being urged to help wherever necessary. Such communities are especially urged to support those who do not enter new relationships after marital breakdown. 

Other paragraphs suggest how people in difficult situation should be accompanied, and outline the range of pastoral options under consideration, citing Pope Francis’ bull of indiction for the Holy Year of Mercy, which states that the Church is called above all to be a credible witness to mercy, and that God’s unceasing mercy “is a spring that will never run dry, no matter how many people draw from it”.

Focus on such ‘hot-button’ issues can, however, give a false impression of the Instrumentum and the upcoming synod, just as last year the same issues hijacked the popular narrative of the extraordinary synod, obscuring how diverse the challenges faced by the family around the world can be. 

In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, discouraging polygamous traditions is a constant task. In the Middle East, fugitive and beleaguered Christian families wonder how to pass the Faith on to their children and where their children’s futures lie. In the Philippines, numerous fathers are responsible for raising families helped by money sent home by wives working as nurses, carers, cleaners, and maids in western cities. Other societies have their own difficulties. Viewing the Instrumentum through a western lens, therefore, risks distorting the reality of the synod, hiding the global nature of the Church. 

The Instrumentum, then, is divided into three parts, the first of which, entitled ‘Listening to the challenges of the family’, relates most closely to last year’s extraordinary synod. Exploring the various cultural, socio-economic, ecological and anthropological changes with which families are faced, this section, according to Cardinal Baldisseri, is “now happily enlightened by the new encyclical letter Laudato Si’”. 

The main challenges families face, he explained, involve “poverty and social exclusion, old age, widowhood, bereavement in the family, disability, migration, the role of women, emotional life and education in sexuality and bioethics”.

This section frankly acknowledges that in the modern world, only a minority of people live and support the Church’s teaching on the family in its entirety, and picks up on such corrosive problems as “an extreme individualism” that focuses on the satisfaction of desires rather than human fulfilment, a fear of commitment, a sundering of sexuality and procreation, and a strand of feminism that regards maternity as “a pretext for the utilisation of women and an obstacle to their full realisation”.

The second section, ‘Discernment of the family vocation’, the Relatio Synodi develops the themes of natural marriage and sacramental fullness, indissolubility as a gift and a duty, family life, union and fruitfulness, and the young and fear of marriage. Recalling how the family is the primary and natural educator of the child, and a potential school of evangelisation, this section considers the intimate bond between Church and family, and such issues as prayer, catechesis, faith and the family’s missionary and evangelical potential.

The third part, ‘The mission of the family today’, follows on from this and begins with a broad reflection on the family and evangelisation, before more thoroughly considering such other issues as the family as subject of pastoral ministry, nuptial liturgy, renewed language and missionary openness. Noting how future priests are sometimes formed in families, the third part of the Instrumentum also suggests that it could be good for seminarians to live with families in order better to understand family life as adults.

Calling for the Christian message to be expressed through the family in a language that inspires hope, the Instrumentum stresses a need to use “a style of communication open to dialogue and free from prejudice”, saying that such an inviting and non-judgmental language is necessary “particularly with regard to those Catholics that, in area of marriage and family, do not live, or are unable to live, in full accordance with the teachings of the Church”.

At the press conference at which the Instrumentum was presented, Cardinal Baldisseri recalled how Pope Francis believes “the synod is a space in which the Holy Spirit can act, not parliament”, with the Synod Fathers being invited to express themselves with parrhesia, that apostolic courage that is a gift of the Spirit. 

Where the Spirit will lead the Church remains to be seen, but in the Instrumentum the synod has an intriguing roadmap.