The Synod On The Family - A Mother's Perspective
Jacqueline Stewart FAITH MAGAZINE January - February 2015
When the synod entitled “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the context of Evangelisation” was announced by Pope Francis back in 2013, I thought it sounded like a very good idea. The rich truths of the teachings of the Church on marriage and the family are now comprehensively supported by a wealth of sociological evidence. Indeed, if we read the website of the Family Education Trust (which does not make its appeal to any text or creed) we find, under the heading “The Importance of the Family”, the following:
There is no area in social science in which the evidence stacks up so completely on one side: marriage and traditional family life are associated with good outcomes in terms of health, wealth, and other indicators of well-being. A community of stable families has fewer problems with crime, antisocial behaviour and isolation than a community in which short-lived relationships are the norm.
We simply cannot afford to formulate public policy on the assumption that all living relationships are of equal value to society. Rather, we need to allow public policy to be shaped by the facts and promote marriage and responsible parenthood. (www.famyouth.org.uk)
The academic research exists in the secular arena and I could only see that Holy Mother Church would seek gently but firmly to re-propose the beauty of her teachings to our society, so confused about the truths of the human vocation to a married or celibate life. Surely the pursuit of the Common Good, and more importantly the salvation of souls, would demand such.
A Shock for Catholic parents
Fast forward to the apparently rather hurried and somewhat awkwardly constructed “Relatio post disceptationem” of 13 October 2014, issued as the interim report from the synod fathers, and the headlines around the world caused many faithful Catholic parents much anguish: “Could the Catholic Church be liberalising on divorce, contraception and homosexuality?” (Christian Today); “Welcome gays, non-marital unions” (Catholic News Service).
Indeed, a few of the headings in the Relatio itself were none too comforting vis-à-vis “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation” and the extensive discussion on making the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist available to the divorced and remarried. It was a confused and confusing document, which the secular media lapped up.
Why would the Church want to be seen to be liberalising its approach to cohabitation and other irregular situations? There are swathes of evidence to support the increased risks to children, both born and unborn, within cohabiting situations. What length of time would make cohabitation valuable in the eyes of the Church? What about serial cohabitees and the damage left behind? Surely we must find ways of leading couples gently and lovingly towards the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony, and never shy away from why marriage matters.
Equally, the teachings on divorce and remarriage are clear and unambiguous. As a lay Catholic wife and mother, I simply do not understand why this is such a preoccupation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognised by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery.” Indeed, the former Tory MP Louise Mensch wrote on this subject: “I’m a divorced (and remarried) Catholic and I’m sure it would be a mortal sin for me to take communion…nobody in a state of serious sin…is able to receive Christ worthily. To receive Him unworthily is to commit a further mortal sin.”
The teachings on homosexuality are equally unambiguous. Why the gross doctrinal confusion? And what of sin, mortal or otherwise, the Sacrament of Confession and a firm purpose of amendment? Christ’s teachings on sexual purity and the indissolubility of marriage? The sixth and ninth Commandments? Are these impolite observations? Judgmental even?
What message was the Church offering my teenage children as they reach such a crucial stage of their formation as young Catholics considering their vocation? The simplicity of “chastity before marriage and fidelity within” almost takes the breath away of parents with teenage children when they realise how easy it can be to explain what the Church teaches to young minds. The mass media never promote such thinking and parents need the Church to shake off any reluctance or bashfulness in proclaiming these very clear teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Familiaris Consortio: Clarity with Compassion
I did not encourage my children to read anything of the Relatio post disceptationem – how strange! And I found myself agreeing with Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia when he said: “I think confusion is of the devil and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.” For these teachings of Holy Mother Church come from the words of Christ himself. They cannot be changed. And the Pope of the Family, Saint John Paul II had already offered his apostolic exhortation on the pastoral challenges facing the family in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. I would urge all readers to seek out this document, which is written with great clarity, depth of discernment, insight, love, compassion and integrity.
Familiaris Consortio presents a wholly compassionate yet objectively truthful account of the Magisterium of the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family and in its introductory paragraph states: “In a particular way the Church addresses the young, who are beginning their journey towards marriage and family life, for the purpose of presenting them with new horizons, helping them to discover the beauty and grandeur of the vocation to love and the service of life.” Amen. Amen. And later in the same document: “The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”
Fast forward to the final synod document – the “Relatio Synodi” of 18 October 2014. This is much less controversial in its content and more authentically, if not perfectly, aligned to the Truth (although it has yet to be officially translated out of Italian by the Vatican). The re-alignment was very much the result of the work of the 10 smaller working groups who feverishly drafted their amendments to the Interim Relatio, which many participants suggested did not reflect the tone or content of the synod at all. Deo gratias.
The Challenges Facing Young People
And yet my overriding impression of the 2014 synod was that it failed to demonstrate an understanding of many of the issues that Catholic young people, parents and families struggle with in their daily lives (a view similarly expressed by Catherine Pakaluk in an article for Aleteia, 24 October 2014). Many of these are a result of Church teaching not being taught clearly in the first place. The Church should be honest and truly repentant about this – if people do not hear the Word then they cannot live by the Word.
Chastity and fidelity Our young people deserve to be taught the importance of chastity before marriage and fidelity within for the good of their souls and their life in Christ. We must teach and encourage them to discern whether they are being called to marriage or celibacy and that nothing in between can serve their call to holiness. Dating is for discernment, yet parents are very confused and fearful of being seen to judge “irregular situations”.
Marriage deferral and infertility Society is facing a retreat from marriage as young people are encouraged to defer marriage and family until economics and security are just right. The cost of this deferral of marriage and childbearing is greatest for young women. The demands on a woman to obtain the roundest education, the most fulfilled career, the highest promotion, the perfect relationship, and to “squeeze in two children” – all these are set against a backdrop of her diminishing fertility. Female fertility is a precious gift, taken so much for granted by a deceitful society which cares little about the demographics of plummeting fertility levels and the ultimate cost to human happiness.
At a time when young men are increasingly reluctant to commit to marriage and family, the Church must engage in this dialogue between the sexes. Diminished fertility, or indeed infertility, is a deeply painful suffering, as is the constant fear of not being able to meet someone open to marriage and children.
Cultural resistance to marriage In certain sections of society, marriage has been almost eliminated from the culture; increasingly it has become the privilege of the middle classes. How does the Church re-propose Christ’s teachings on marriage and human sexuality in such situations for the good of individuals and society? The Church cannot passively accept that “simply to live together is often a choice based on an overall attitude opposed to anything institutional and definitive” (Relatio post disceptationem). It is the Church’s job to make the voice of Our Lord Jesus Christ loud and clear, otherwise she compounds the pain of young Catholics struggling to find like-minded potential spouses, even within the Catholic community.
Secular sterility The Church’s vision of marriage and family is so hard for young Catholics to encounter, yet it offers them the key to true human happiness and fulfilment. Witness is crucially important, but so is the pulpit – especially where there are no longer any witnesses! Marriage and children and grandchildren are deeply longed for by most and have been taken for granted by previous generations. We are now bombarded by the language of secular sterility and seem reluctant as a Catholic community to counter such attitudes. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God told us, and yet Catholics seem unable to discern the truth of their calling. The Church teaches responsible parenthood, of course, but what about generous discernment as co-operators with the love of God the Creator – keeping Christ at the centre of marriage and the deep joy this brings?
Contraception The meaning of “openness to life” is not taught and is therefore poorly understood. There are amazing apostolates out there to explain these teachings (One More Soul, based in the US, is a fine example), yet few know of these and even fewer talk openly about this issue within the Church. We are wealthier than ever as a society, yet why are we so reluctant to have children?
Artificial contraception is not an option in conscience for a practising Catholic. Indeed many of the challenges facing the family in the modern world are probably symptoms of the mostly uninformed rejection of this beautiful teaching, held as truth by the entire Christian community until the 1930s.
The Church must help the faithful reconnect with Humanae Vitae. The science behind natural fertility regulation is now irrefutably reliable (I am most familiar with the Billings Ovulation method) and makes one wonder at the perfection of creation itself. We must teach this to young people and help them encourage one another to live a life of generosity with all of God’s gifts – “…human life and the duty of transmitting it are not limited by the horizons of this life: their true evaluation and full significance can be understood only in reference to man’s eternal destiny” (Catechism 2371).
Modern healthcare Catholic couples need the Church to equip them to deal with the moral maze of modern healthcare systems. Artificial contraception is promoted (after each birth, when we can feel vulnerable) and sterilisation may be suggested at some point, making it all the more important that the Church’s teachings are clearly proclaimed. With marriage and family deferred until later in life, around one in six couples will experience fertility problems. Certain contraceptives can actually damage fertility if used long-term. Catholics need to be aware of the problematic morality of many of the reproductive technologies they will be offered, something that is quite hard when you fear never being able to have children.
And what about prenatal testing? What if all is not well with baby? Abortion is now the first line of defence against babies with “foetal abnormality” – more than 90 per cent of Down’s syndrome babies are aborted. Where do Catholic couples get support and advice against what often sounds like a medically informed “opinion” to terminate? The Church must encourage Catholic doctors to help Catholics navigate their way to the moral truth. Humanae Vitae asks no less.
Mixed marriages The cultural challenges within mixed marriages, which have steadily increased in number over the last 40 years, are complex. The full weight of responsibility of the Catholic spouse becomes apparent with the gift of a child and it can feel like a lonely and burdensome job. “Each Christian family is called to be a domestic church – it is called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Christ. Daily prayer and the reading of the Word of God strengthen it in charity. The Christian family has an evangelising and missionary task” (Catechism 2205). Many Catholics now are so poorly catechised themselves that to educate their children and evangelise their spouse can seem overwhelming. The Church must walk closely beside such couples, and families have a responsibility to encourage each other in their life of prayer and sacrifice. Our faith life is spiritually weakened if confined to Sunday Mass. Parents and families need to be re-educated in Catholic family prayer and tradition, and in how to invite Christ into every aspect of their lives through prayer, penance and sacrifice – there is much to do.
Abortion We can never speak too often or too loudly against abortion, this greatest of evils. It is society’s answer to an “unplanned” pregnancy (married or otherwise) and we must proclaim the gift of chastity and the gift of life all the more strongly because of that. In the UK 200,000 abortions take place every year; some reports suggest that more than half of these are a consequence of failed contraceptive use. The Culture of Death awaits all of us and especially our young people. A contraceptive mindset leads stealthily to the road to abortion. The Church must understand this ubiquitous danger to our mortal souls and preach loudly against it.
Family breakdown and poverty The breakdown of stable family life, and the consequent rise in single-parent families, usually run by the mother, is one of the greatest contributors to poverty. The Church cannot disconnect these issues, which affect children’s prospects so fundamentally. If the Church were to offer the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried would any investigation be carried out to see whether previous spouses and families were still being supported, materially and spiritually, and not abandoned to poverty of both kinds. How can the Church walk faithfully beside such families, both materially and spiritually, and re-propose the beauty of married fidelity to their next generations? They deserve no less.
Pornography Incredibly, pornography was not mentioned in any of the synod documents. Yet so much research now exists to demonstrate the destructive effects of its ready availability on the internet. Anyone, at any age, can fall prey to its allure at the click of a button. Young people do so in vast numbers and the damage to their future marital happiness has begun. Just as a contraceptive mentality has fractured the link between the unitive and procreative aspects of human sexuality, so pornography is now slowly eliminating the need for even the unitive. Truly this is the work of Satan, and the Church must address the problem.
Family versus the state Finally, Familiaris Consortio acknowledges that the “ideal of mutual support and development between the family and society is often very seriously in conflict with the reality of their separation and even opposition….For this reason, the Church openly and strongly defends the rights of the family against the intolerable usurpations of society and the state.” With state authorities making ever increasing attempts to encroach on the primary educational responsibilities of parents, the Church must always proclaim the primary rights of parents and families.
A Longing to Hear the Truth
In discussing homosexuality and Communion for the divorced and remarried, the synod seems not to have touched on what is “arguably the most pressing humanitarian crisis of our day: the epidemic failure to live marriage and family in a manner consistent with authentic human flourishing” (Catherine Pakaluk, Is the Pope’s “Accent on Mercy” the Solution to the Culture Wars?, Aleteia, 24 October 2014).
As Pope Benedict taught in Caritas in Veritate: “Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realise it fully. In this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf Jn 8:32). To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, ‘rejoices in the truth’ (1 Cor 13:6).” The world is longing to hear the Truth taught gently and with love.
Jacqueline Stewart is a stay-at-home mum to five children whose ages range from 5 to 16.