Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Gospel for families “as they are”

Modern family

The Catholic Church is in the process of preparing for two synods of its bishops - one this autumn and the other the following year - during which questions to do with the family will be reviewed. As a basis for the discussions, the Vatican has issued an initial preparatory document last November, whose most novel feature was an extensive questionnaire addressed to the bishops conferences of the world, but open to completion by anyone. The questionnaire spanned topics like whether Church teaching about the family was known, whether marriage preparation and care for families were effective, how difficult marital situations were dealt with, how same-sex unions were approached, how procreation was understood, plus an open question about any other family-related challenges.A questionnaire of this scale and openness is unprecedented, and three days ago, a summary of its results was published in the form of the “instrumentum laboris” (i.e., working instrument) that will be used during this year’s synod. The document, which weighs in at 25K words is very much worth reading in its entirety, since it - in my opinion - presents a very interesting, world-wide and above all utterly frank look at the life of the family at the beginning of the 21st century and the Church’s relationship with it. Rather than an analysis or commentary, I would first just like to share with you the passages that found most important and that effectively are my favorite 10% of the text (each passage is prefixed with the number of the paragraph it was taken from; note that - with one exception for the sake of the extracts’ logic - the following is in the same order as in the original text):
Part I: Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World

(2) [T]he divine measure of conjugal love, to which spouses are called by grace, has its source in “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (EG, 36), the very heart of the Gospel.

(4) The “true love between husband and wife” (GS, 49) implies a mutual gift of self and includes and integrates the sexual and affective aspects, according to the divine plan (cf. GS, 48-49). […] Christ the Lord “comes into the lives of married Christians through the Sacrament of Matrimony,” and remains with them. In the Incarnation, he assumes human love, purifies it and brings it to fulfillment. Through his Spirit, he enables the bride and groom to live their love and makes that love permeate every part of their lives of faith, hope and charity. In this way, the bride and groom are, so to speak, consecrated and, through his grace, they build up the Body of Christ and are a domestic Church (cf. LG, 11), so that the Church, in order to fully understand her mystery, looks to the Christian family, which manifests her in a real way.

(6) “marriage based on an exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love” (DCE, 11).

(35) “Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us. Indeed, God is communion too: the three Persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit live eternally in perfect unity. And this is precisely the mystery of Matrimony: God makes of the two spouses one single life” (General Audience, 2 April 2014).

(36) A recurring subject in almost all the responses is the importance of the Holy Family of Nazareth as the model and example for the Christian family. The mystery of the Word of God’s becoming incarnate within a family reveals how it is the privileged place for God’s revelation to humanity. In fact, the family is acknowledged to be the ordinary and everyday place to encounter Christ. The Christian people look to the Holy Family of Nazareth as a model in relationships and love, as a point of reference for every family and as a comfort in time of trial.

(39) The role of parents as primary educators in the faith is considered vital and essential. Emphasis is often placed on their witness of fidelity, particularly on the beauty of their individuality and at times, simply on the importance of their distinctive roles as father and mother. At other times, the responses stress the positive character of the spouses’ freedom, equality and reciprocity. Still other responses, especially from Europe, stress the equal importance of both parents in the upbringing of their children and domestic responsibilities.

(43) The family is essential in the maturation of those cognitive and affective processes which are crucial to personal development. In addition to being a vital environment in personal formation, the family is also the place to experience the awareness of being not only a Child of God but also called to a vocation of love.

(7) 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. (LF, 53)

(11) The People of God’s knowledge of conciliar and post-conciliar documents on the Magisterium of the family seems to be rather wanting.

(13) Church teaching is more widely accepted, when the faithful are engaged in a real journey of faith and are not just casually curious in what might be the Church’s thinking in the matter of sexual morality.

(14) Ultimately, the responses and observations call for the need of establishing real, practical formation programmes through which the truths of the faith on the family might be presented, primarily to appreciate their profound human and existential value.

(15) the reason for much resistance to the Church’s teaching on moral issues related to the family is a want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level, for which no doctrinal presentation, no matter how accurate, can substitute. In this regard, some responses point to the insufficiency of pastoral activity which is concerned only with dispensing the sacraments without a truly engaging Christian experience.

(18) [V]arious episcopal conferences recall the importance of developing the insights of Pope St. John Paul II in his “theology of the body” series, in which he proposes a fruitful approach to the topics of family through existential and anthropological concerns and an openness to the new demands emerging in our time.

(24) Furthermore, much attention is given in the responses to the fact that what becomes established in civil law — based on an increasingly dominant legal positivism — might mistakenly become in people’s mind accepted as morally right. What is “natural” tends to be determined by the individual and society only, who have become the sole judges in ethical choices. The relativization of the concept of “nature” is also reflected in the concept of stability and the “duration” of the relationship of marriage unions. Today, love is considered “forever” only to the point that a relationship lasts.

(29) [T]his tendency accentuates the absolute right to personal freedom without any compromise: people are “formed” on the basis of their individual desires only. What is increasingly judged to be “natural” is more of a reference-to-self only, when it comes to their desires and aspirations.

(30) [M]ore emphasis [is to] be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and [...] greater reference to the Bible, its language and narratives [is recommended …] Moreover, this proposal insists on using language which is accessible to all, such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy. The recommendation was also made to engage young people directly in these matters.

(31) [T]he family is experiencing very difficult times, requiring the Church’s compassion and understanding in offering guidance to families “as they are” and, from this point of departure, proclaim the Gospel of the Family in response to their specific needs.

Part II: The Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges

62. [I]n cases where the faith of family members is either weak or non-existent, both the parish and the Church in general are not seen as supportive. [...] Often, when the lay faithful sense the great distance between the ideal of family living and the impossibility of achieving that goal, the couple’s crisis in marriage and the family gradually becomes a crisis in faith. Therefore, the question arises on how to act pastorally in these situations, namely, how to make sure that the Church, in her variety of pastoral activities, can demonstrate that she has the ability of caring for couples in difficulty and families.

64. [O]ne of the many critical issues facing the family is a difficulty in relationships and communication. Whether it be tensions and conflicts in a marriage due to a lack of mutual trust and intimacy or the domination of one marriage partner over the other or the inter-generational conflict between parents and children, all hinder the building of family relationships and can even make them entirely impossible. The dramatic aspect of these situations is that they lead to the gradual disappearance of the possibility of dialogue as well as the time and opportunity to work on relationships. For want of sharing and communication, each one is forced to face difficulties in isolation without an experience of being loved and, in turn, loving others. [...] People who do not witness, live and accept love on a daily basis find it particularly difficult to discover the person of Christ as the Son of God and the love of God the Father.

66. The responses unanimously make reference to psychological, physical and sexual violence and abuse in families which has a particularly damaging effect on women and children, a phenomenon which, unfortunately, is neither occasional nor isolated, particularly in certain parts of the world. [... T]he responses also mention the appalling phenomenon of the killing of women, often caused by deep emotional trouble in relationships. Arising from a false culture based on possessions, this is particularly disturbing and calls for action by everyone in society and by the Church in her ministry to the family. Sexual promiscuity and incest in the family are explicitly cited in certain parts of the world (Africa, Asia and Oceania), as well as pedophilia and child abuse. The responses also refer to authoritarianism by parents, expressed in the lack of care and attention given to their children, a situation often leading to their children’s abandonment, and, on the parents’s part, a want of a sense of responsible parenthood which causes them to refuse to not only care for their children but also educate them, thereby leaving them totally to their own devices.

70. Increasing job insecurity, together with the growth of unemployment and the consequent need to travel greater distances to work, have taken their toll on family life, resulting in, among other things, a weakening of family relationships and the gradual isolation of persons, causing even greater anxiety.

71. In dialoguing with the State and the related public entities, the Church is called to offer real support for decent jobs, just wages and a fiscal policy favouring the family as well as programmes of assistance to families and children. In this regard, laws protecting the family in relation to work are frequently wanting, particularly those affecting working mothers.

75. Responses from almost every part of the world frequently refer to the sexual scandals within the Church (pedophilia, in particular) and, in general, to a negative experience with the clergy and other persons. Sex scandals significantly weaken the Church’s moral credibility, above all in North America and northern Europe. In addition, a conspicuously lavish lifestyle by some of the clergy shows an inconsistency between their teaching and their conduct. Some lay faithful live and practice their faith in a “showy manner,” failing to display the truth and humility required by the Gospel spirit. The responses lament that persons who are separated, divorced or single parents sometimes feel unwelcome in some parish communities, that some clergy are uncompromising and insensitive in their behavior; and, generally speaking, that the Church, in many ways, is perceived as exclusive, and not sufficiently present and supportive. In this sense, an open and positive pastoral approach is needed, one which can restore confidence in the institution through a credible witness by all her members.

80. “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open, [...] where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (GE, 47). [...] The mercy of God does not provide a temporary cover-up of personal misdeeds, but rather radically opens lives to reconciliation which brings new trust and serenity through true inward renewal. The pastoral care of families, far from limiting itself to a legal point of view, has a mission to recall the great vocation of love to which each person is called and to help a person live up to the dignity of that calling.

89. Generally speaking, the responses from various places in the world devote attention to divorced and remarried persons or those, at least, who have formed a different union. Those living in such canonically irregular situations display various attitudes ranging from their being entirely unaware of their irregular situation to their consciously enduring the difficulties created by their irregular situation.

90. A rather great number of people give no thought to their irregular situation.

91. Before treating the suffering associated with those who are unable to receive the sacraments due to their irregular union, the responses refer to a more basic suffering which the Church must take in hand, namely, the suffering of a breakdown in marriage and the difficulty of regularizing the situation.

92. Some Church members who are cognizant that they are in an irregular situation clearly suffer from the fact that they are unable to receive the sacraments. Many feel frustrated and marginalized. Some wonder why other sins can be forgiven and not theirs. Others cannot see how religious and priests can receive a dispensation from their vows and priestly obligations so they can marry, while divorced and remarried persons are unable to receive Holy Communion.

103. Pastoral charity impels the Church to assist people who have suffered the breakdown of their marriage and are living with their situation relying on the grace of Christ. A more painful wound results when these people remarry and enter a state of life which does not allow them to receive Holy Communion. Clearly, in these cases, the Church must not assume an attitude of a judge who condemns (cf. Pope Francis, Homily, 28 February 2014), but that of a mother who always receives her children and nurses their wounds so they may heal (cf. GE, 139-141). With great mercy, the Church is called to find forms of “accompaniment” which can support her children on the path of reconciliation. With patience and understanding, she must explain to these people that their not being able to celebrate the sacraments does not mean that they are excluded from the Christian life and a relationship with God.

109. Generally speaking, pastoral care, preparation and planning of formation sessions prior to marriage are having a limited and uneven success everywhere. In almost every case, everything depends, for good or for ill, on the initiatives of each priest.

110. On unions of persons of the same sex, the responses of the bishops’ conferences refer to Church teaching. “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. [...] Nonetheless, according to the teaching of the Church, men and women with homosexual tendencies ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided’” (CDF, Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, 4).

113. Every bishops’ conference voiced opposition to “redefining” marriage between a man and a woman through the introduction of legislation permitting a union between two people of the same sex. The episcopal conferences amply demonstrate that they are trying to find a balance between the Church’s teaching on the family and a respectful, non-judgmental attitude towards people living in such unions. On the whole, the extreme reactions to these unions, whether compromising or uncompromising, do not seem to have facilitated the development of an effective pastoral programme which is consistent with the Magisterium and compassionate towards the persons concerned.

115. Episcopal conferences supply a variety of information on unions between persons of the same sex. In countries where legislation exists on civil unions, many of the faithful express themselves in favour of a respectful and non-judgmental attitude towards these people and a ministry which seeks to accept them. This does not mean, however, that the faithful give equal status to heterosexual marriage and civil unions between persons of the same sex.

Part III: An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing

122. The Church is called to proclaim the fruitfulness of love in light of that faith which “helps us grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person” (LF, 52).

131. The responses recommend that the synod can be of assistance in rediscovering the deep anthropological meaning of the moral character of conjugal life, which beyond every type of moralism, appears as a true desire to live the beauty demanded by the Christian love between a man and a woman and given value by considering the greatest act of love which comes from laying down one’s life for a friend (cf. Jn 15:13).

132. “Parents are called, as Saint Augustine once said, not only to bring children into the world but also to bring them to God, so that through baptism they can be reborn as children of God and receive the gift of faith” (LF, 43).

137. In general, families participating in ecclesial movements are the most active in seeking to transmit the faith to newer generations.

138. [F]amilies with children who may be particularly affected by the so-called “irregular” situation of their parents deserve greater pastoral attention in Christian education. In this regard, words and expressions need to be used which create a sense of belonging and not exclusion, ones that can better convey the warmth, love and the support of the Church, so as not to generate, especially in the children and young people involved, the idea of rejection or discrimination against their parents, fully aware that “irregular” is a word applied to situations, not persons.

146. When parents, usually after an absence from the Church for some time, request from the ecclesial community the sacramental preparation of their children, the most recommended approach in all the responses is to readily accept them without making any distinctions. Receiving them with a basic attitude of respect, a friendly disposition and a willingness to listen to their human and spiritual needs creates a proper and beneficial atmosphere for communicating the Gospel message.

159. After examining the responses and observations and gathering from them not only the hopes and joys but also the griefs and anxieties, this work concludes by returning to the sources of faith, hope and charity, namely, the Blessed Trinity which is the mystery of absolute love, revealed in Christ and made accessible by the Holy Spirit. The love of God shines in a particular way in the Holy Family of Nazareth, the sure point of reference and comfort for every family. The Holy Family, the beacon of true love, is to be contemplated in every family situation so as to draw light, strength and consolation.
I have to say that this document makes me very optimistic and it does so for three reasons: first, the complete frankness of the assessment of today’s reality that doesn’t shirk either from pointing out failings of the Church or from recognizing a disconnect with regard to some aspect of her teaching (the entire document being evidence for this), second, the insistence on the importance of mercy and accompanying: “With great mercy, the Church is called to find forms of “accompaniment” which can support her children on the path of reconciliation.” (§103), and, third, that what is at stake here is not some rejigging of rules, but the very heart of men and women being called to love: “The pastoral care of families, far from limiting itself to a legal point of view, has a mission to recall the great vocation of love to which each person is called and to help a person live up to the dignity of that calling.” (§80). A consequence of these three features is, in my opinion, a chance for the upcoming Synod to bring the joy of the Gospel to families “as they are.”