While much attention is focused on Communion for the divorced, the bigger news is a significant pastoral shift, writes Austen Ivereigh
The synod’s final report, approved in its entirety by 265 voting members on Saturday evening, has spelled out ways in which the Catholic Church across the world can both bolster the family and help integrate and heal those who are suffering from marriage breakdown.
Most early reports zoomed in on the three paragraphs relating to the question of sacraments for the divorced and remarried, which has been the main source of division in the three-week synod, as well as the paragraph dealing with gay people.
But the 91 other paragraphs in the relatio finalis are in many ways far more newsworthy, setting out a vision for the Church that amounts to one of the most significant shifts in pastoral approach in a generation.
Following a thorough survey in Part I of the social, economic and cultural challenges to marriage and family across the globe, Part II reviews the key elements of Revelation and Church teaching, reaffirming indissolubility and the link between marital love and openness to life of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. But while underscoring the importance of clear doctrine, the document warns against making judgements that fail to account the complexity of individual situations, while calling on the Church to be attentive to the ways in which people “live and suffer as result of their condition” (51).
A new direction
Part II also contains the new direction — a call for the Church to enter into the complexities and difficulties of marriages under strain. “The Church remains close to the married couples whose bond is so weak that they are at risk of separation”, notes paragraph 53, adding that in cases where the marriage breaks down “the Church feels the duty to accompany that moment of suffering”, paying particular attention to children.
Equally, the report notes the Church’s concern for the welfare of couples who cohabit, are civilly married, or divorced and remarried. And in what marks a significant shift, the same paragraph asks that couples whose marriages have broken down to be informed about the possibility of an annulment.
The report also calls in paragraph 54 for the Church to accompany couples who are living together as a stage towards marriage, noting that both cohabitation and civil marriage prior to sacramental union are becoming increasingly common in many countries. Rather than condemning these trends, the document asks pastors to see such situations as “an occasion to accompany [people] towards the sacrament of marriage”.
In the following paragraph, in language reminiscent of Gaudium et Spes, the document offers a compelling vision of a Church bringing the mercy of God to humanity:
“The Church starts from the concrete realities of today’s families, all in need of mercy, starting with those who suffer most. With the merciful heart of Jesus, the Church must walk with her most fragile children, scarred by a lost and wounded love, restoring faith and hope, like a lighthouse or a torch carried in the midst of the crowd to bring light to all those who have lost their way or who find themselves in the midst of a storm. Mercy is “the heart of the revelation of Jesus Christ” [Misericordiae Vultus]”
The document’s third part spells out concrete ways in which this new pastoral strategy can be brought into effect.
A key theme is to bolster the preparation and support for marriage. Christian marriage is a call from God that needs to be discerned and prayed over, requiring people who can accompany engaged couples, the report says. Paragraph 57 calls for improving pre-marriage catechesis, which it describes as “often poor in content”, and for teaching on marriage and family to be built into the education of the young. In response to cultural and legal pressures on the family, the report affirms the Church’s freedom to teach children its doctrine and the right of teachers to conscientiously object to state programmes that contradict it.
The report calls for a “broadening of the themes in pre-marriage courses, such that they become pathways of education in faith and love, integrated into the courses in Christian initiation”. Formation in love and marriage “needs to take on the shape of a pathway geared to the vocational discernment both as an individual and as a couple”, notes paragraph 58.
The report goes on to speak of the wedding day as a moment when the couple is welcomed into the Christian community, and should be prepared, says Paragraph 59, by means of a “mystagogical catechesis which enables the couple to grasp that the celebration of their alliance is accomplished ‘in the Lord’”.
The report goes on to call for a pastoral accompaniment of young couples in the first years of their marriage, inviting them to take part in prayer groups and parish meetings to overcome the tendency to isolation that often follows the wedding. Creating “meaningful bonds” is key to overcoming the pressures on young marriages, the report says.
The report also suggests building in much better formation for priests, deacons, religious and catechists. Seminarians should spend time living with families, and seminary formation needs more lay, and especially female, input. The spiritual direction of families should be considered a parish ministry, paragraph 61 notes.
A second theme of Part III is to bolster efforts to encourage openness to life in the face of what it calls “the strong fall in the birth rate, which is weakening the social fabric”. Paragraph 63 calls for Humanae Vitae to be rediscovered “in order to revive the willingness to have children, in contrast to a mentality often hostile to life”.
The document goes on to call for parents’ freedom to educate, and to warn that parents are increasingly being replaced as educators by the power of the media and state policies.
The final part of the document spells out ways of walking with people in a huge variety of what the report calls “complex situations”: cohabitation, civil marriage, mixed and interreligious marriages, gay people, people whose marriages have broken down, abandoned spouses, single parents, as well as divorced people who have civilly remarried.
“While it appreciates and encourages families who honour the beauty of Christian marriage, the synod seeks to promote the pastoral discernment of situations in which the welcoming of this gift has ceased to be appreciated, or has been in different ways compromised”, the document notes (69).
Cohabitation, for example, is seen as an opportunity to be turned into the fullness of marriage and family in the light of the Gospel (70); civil marriage is often chosen not because the couple is rejecting sacramental marriage but for reasons of culture or circumstance, and can also be seen often as a stepping stone to marriage (71).
Gay people should be welcomed and listened to with respect, and particular support given to families where gay people live. However, the document clearly rejects any attempt to make “gay marriage” equivalent to marriage, quoting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to deny any basis for an analogy between the two kinds of union (76).
“A dedicated ministry to all those whose marital relationship is broken is particularly urgent”, the report says (78), adding that the experience of marriage breakdown, while always painful for all involved, can become an opportunity for “reflection, conversion, and entrusting to God” (79).
The report goes on: “the Christian community and its pastors have the duty to ask the separated and divorced spouses to treat each other with respect and mercy, above all for the good of the children.”
The report highlights the vulnerability and solitude faced by single parents and widows, as well as teenage mothers, all of whom require special attention and support (80). When couples experience problems in their marriage, they should be able to count on the help and support of the Church; experience shows that with help and encouragement most marital crises can be overcome (81).
Divorced and remarried
On the divorced and remarried, there is no specific mention of access to the sacraments, and current Church discipline is therefore unaffected. But there is a very strong call for the divorced and remarried to be integrated into the life of the Church, so that they do not feel themselves to be excommunicated but “can live and mature as living members of the Church”.
Specifically, the report calls for a discernment “of the different forms of exclusion actually practiced in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional arenas can be overcome”. The report also highlights Pope John Paul II’s distinction in Familiaris Consortio of different kinds of situation.
Most significantly, paragraphs 85 and 86 calls for an “examination of conscience”, with a series of questions similar to those proposed by the German-speaking group and one of the English groups in their reports.
Paragraph 86 adopts the phrase used by the German-speaking group of an “internal forum” process, under the guidance of a priest, that can contribute to what it calls “the formation of a correct judgement on what obstacles exist to a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on the steps that can encourage that participation and make it grow”.
Although the report does not mention what that participation could involve, and does not include the German-speaking group’s specific reference to the sacraments, the wording is sufficiently ambiguous to allow those favouring an opening in this area to say it remains on the table. Equally, those opposed have said that the document in effect reasserts existing practice.
The variety of headlines generated by these paragraphs — some claiming it as a victory for conservatives, others claiming it opens the door to reception of sacraments down the road — shows that the wording can bear either interpretation, which appears to have been the synod’s intention. Both sides in the argument can proceed with integrity.
But in the context of the document as a whole, these paragraphs are part of a broad shift in the Church’s pastoral focus.
Divorce and cohabitation are no longer trends simply to be deplored; the Church is asked to help people in practical ways to get married and to stay married. And it is asked to tend especially to those who have suffered the collapse of marriage and family, helping to heal and integrate them.