The Extraordinary Synod on the Family–Processing the Explosion

The Catholic world exploded the other day with the release of the Relatio the summary document intended to highlight the progress of the Synod Fathers so far.  There is another week ahead of course, bishopsand then the Synod will adjourn until next October when the conversation will pick back up up again with the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family.  But the first week was, depending upon whom you ask, either the absolute end of the world, or nothing much to write home about.

I’ll admit that my eyebrows have been raised by what I’ve read so far about the Synod, but I’m not quite ready to crawl into my bomb shelter.    As a friend pointed out the other day, it was only a little more than 40 years ago when the world was sure the Church was going to endorse artificial birth control.  Nobody expected Humanae Vitae.

A Clear Theology of Family

My own sense of the summary report is that it is disappointing, but not so much for what it says (although I do have issues with this as well, and Robert Royal speaks to those concerns here) as for what it doesn’t say.  Specifically, the summary provides no clear sense that the bishops are even trying to articulate a clear theology of family.  Such a thing exists.  Perhaps the bishops are taking it for granted that everyone knows about it. I think the reaction to the Relatio shows that this is most definitely not the case.

My impression, so far, is that the Synod Fathers are tinkering.  They’ve been trying to address ad hoc problems within the family without really adequately addressing the fundamental problems that necessitated this Synod in the first place.  When one looks at the world, one sees rather clearly that “the family”, whatever that is anymore, is deeply broken.  Before we can get around to talking about how the Church can better respond to the needs of this particular irregular family situation or that, we have to clarify what the family is supposed to look like in the first place.

In other words, in this first week, the Synod Fathers have been so busy redirecting the smoke that they’ve forgotten the need to put out the fire.

The Big Questions

It’s still early in the game, of course and, as I say,  I’m not that concerned about where the Synod Fathers are at right now.  I also think the almost universal freak out is probably a good reality check for the Church.  So, while I can’t exactly march in that parade, I appreciate the floats and the band.   That said, I sincerely hope that the Synod starts to get its bearings and the real work can continue over the next year or so.  As the process moves forward, we’re going to see more discussion of the following…

What is a family, really?

Why is that definition of the family objectively superior to all other visions?

What is the mission of the family?   That is, what is the ultimate goal of  family life and what is its proper role in the Church and in the world?

How are Catholic families, and the Catholic Church in general, called to witness to the fullness of family life in the Church and in the world?

And then, finally, after we’ve done all that, we can finally answer the question we started with: How can we minister more effectively to those individuals whose personal circumstances are far from the ideal for which the Church stands?

Until we answer those first questions, we’re simply not equipped to answer that last question.

First Things First

It would be nice to think that the Church could just go in, tweak some pastoral practices, and call it a day.  But that clearly is not going to happen, because it was an impossible mission from the start.  The response to the Relatio by bishops, laity, and the world’s media alike shows that the problems are much more fundamental–and inescapable–than anyone would like them to be.

As the process moves forward, let us pray that our bishops find the courage to minister to the fundamental problems with the family now that they’ve discovered that sticking a finger in the dike won’t work.


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