The Corner

Re: Cardinals Fight; Putting the Upcoming Synod on the Family in Perspective

The family is in crisis, as Pope Francis has said, and the world’s press is fixated on, of course, conflict, much of it distracting, even as it involves important practical and pastoral concerns and pain in the lives of Catholics wanting to live lives according to Church teaching.

The pope has expressed the need to find pastoral solutions for divorced and remarried people who often feel outside the reach of the Church. He has also expressed his disappointment that so much media attention has focused largely on divorce.

(Cardinal Burke has suggested a media “hijacking” is underway.)

At this coming meeting in Rome on the family, there is an extraordinary breadth and depth of concerns about the family to discuss.

Note this exchange the pope had with a journalist on the plane ride back to Rome from the Holy Land this past Memorial Day weekend:

Q. You have become a spiritual leader, and also a political leader, and you are raising many expectations, both within the Church and in the international community. Within the Church, for example, what is going to happen with communion to the divorced and remarried, and in the international community, this mediation with which you surprised the world, for which this meeting will take place in the Vatican… My question is whether you are afraid of failure, after having raised so many expectations. Aren’t you afraid of somehow failing? Thank you.

A. First of all, let me clarify something about this meeting in the Vatican. It will be a meeting to pray, not to mediate or to seek solutions, no. We will meet to pray, only. And then each one will go home. But I believe that prayer is important and that praying together without discussions of any kind is helpful. Perhaps I did not explain things well, before this, about what it will involve. It will be a prayer meeting: there will be a rabbi, there will be a Muslim and myself. I have asked the Custos of the Holy Land to organize some of the practical matters.

Second, thank you for your question about the divorced. The Synod will be on the family, the problem of the family, the treasures of the family, the present situation of the family. The preliminary talk which Cardinal Kasper gave had five chapters: four of them were on the family, the beauty of the family, its theological foundations, and problems facing families; while the fifth chapter dealt with the pastoral issue of separations, declarations of marriage nullity, divorced persons… Part of this issue is that of communion. I have not been happy that so many people – even church people, priests – have said: “Ah, the Synod will be about giving communion to the divorced”, and went straight to that point. I felt as if everything was being reduced to casuistry. No the issue is bigger and wider. Today, as we all know, the family is in crisis, it is in crisis worldwide. Young people don’t want to get married, they don’t get married or they live together. Marriage is in crisis, and so the family is in crisis. I don’t want us to fall into this casuistry of “can we” or “can’t we”? … So I thank you so much for this question, because it gives me the opportunity to clarify this.

The pastoral problem of the family is complex, very complex. And it has to be looked at case by case. Something Pope Benedict had said on three different occasions about the divorced has been very helpful to me. First, in Valle d’Aosta, another time in Milan, and a the third time in the consistory, the last public consistory which he called for the creation of cardinals. [He said that there is a need] to study the annulment process; to examine the faith with which people enter marriage and to make clear that the divorced are not excommunicated, [even though] they are often treated as if they were. This is something serious: the casuistry of the problem.

The Synod will be on the family: both the rich reality of the family and the problems faced by families. Solutions, annulments, all of this. This problem too, but as part of a larger picture. Now I would like to tell you why the Synod will be on the family: this has been a very powerful spiritual experience for me. During my second year as Pope, Archbishop Eterović, then the Secretary [General] of the Synod, approached me with three themes that the Post-synodal Council had proposed for the forthcoming Synod. The first was very striking, very good: what Jesus Christ brings to contemporary men and women. That was the title, following up on the Synod on evangelization. I agreed, we spoke for bit about changes in the method of the Synod, and at the end, I said: “Let’s add something else: what Jesus Christ brings to contemporary men and women and to the family”. Good. Then, when I went to the first meeting of the Post-synodal Council, I saw that the title was there in full, but gradually people were saying: “Yes, yes, “what he brings to the family”, “what Jesus Christ brings to the family”, and so, without realizing it, the Post-synodal commission ended up speaking about the family. I am sure that it was the spirit of the Lord guiding us even to the choice of this title. I am sure of it, because today the family truly needs so many forms of pastoral assistance. Thank you.

The heart of civilization is at risk. Men and women need support to build rebuild family life.

In an interview when he was in the U.S. in June for the commencement ceremonies at my alma mater, the Catholic University of America, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines (who was one of those much talked about as a possible pope, back in the pre-Francis conclave days), used the word “shocking” to describe what questionnaires in the run-up to the synod found about what Catholics know and understand about Church teaching on family life. He said about the synod:

This is my hope, not for change — how can you change the biblical teachings? But maybe a real pastoral and evangelical concern for the church: How do we present the good news of the family to this generation, with its limitations, with its greatness, with its unique experiences?

We should not be talking only to one another. The gospel of the family, the good news that is the family, should be presented to families where they are and how they are.

It’s hard to live life chastely, according to Church teaching, and even more so if you do not fully and clearly know what that means, if you have never been walked and talked through it, if you have not seen it in action.

On a radio show last week a Catholic priest friend of mine and I suggested they even throw out all the hot topics Western media has obsessed about in reference to the synod and focus entirely on the displaced families and orphaned Christian children of Iraq and Syria.

I don’t expect that will happen, but I think the thought helps, too, with perspective. 

My friend Matthew Bunson at Our Sunday Visitor has a good overview of what exactly this upcoming meeting on the family in Rome is all about.

It includes lay couples and experts, including an American husband and wife from Wisconsin to focus on what is working to help families and what is needed.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, gave an interview recently to reporter Inés San Martín (a smart young Argentinean, based in Rome, reporting for the new Boston Globe site Crux). His preview of the synod seemed clear and level-headed:

“We’re focusing on this issue that, though extremely important, isn’t really crucial. We have to consider the children, the elderly, the sick, adoption processes, [and] the lack of intergenerational dialogue.”

Paglia told Crux that, even though Pope Francis wants to have an honest debate on every issue concerning the family, those expecting a radical change should keep in mind that the Synod’s aim is to discuss the pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization, not redefining the institution.

“Problems will be addressed, but any change in doctrinal teachings would be hard, considering the diversity and complexity of these issues.”

From Paglia’s perspective, this doesn’t mean the Synod of Bishops will sustain the status quo: “I do believe bishops will find real pastoral alternatives, profound human problems deserve profound solutions.”

According to the Italian archbishop, the triplet of a man and a woman getting together, open to the possibility of having children and forming a family conform the beauty of a solid nation. Paglia quoted Cicero, who defined family as the foundations of a city, and the cities the foundations of a strong country.

“Instrumenting a policy of everything goes would be misleading.” The monsignor believes that simply changing the rules wouldn’t solve the problems either.

He expects the Synod to come up with real solutions, comparing the debate that will take place in Rome to a doctor who’s treating gangrene. “If he does a superficial cleansing, then the illness would get much worse.”

According to Paglia, the Church has to help families in every way possible, including those broken or hurt.

“Reaffirming the principles of what constitutes a family isn’t enough. But we can’t redefine those principles either.”

It’s worth noting too, that this meeting in October isn’t the end-all conversation on the family. This serves as preparation for next year’s meeting on families in Philadelphia, which Pope Francis is expected to attend.

If you’ve read this far, you might want to read some of my interview with Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, when I visited with him in his Louisville, Ky., rectory this summer:

LOPEZ: So what is going to happen at the synod? What are you looking forward to happening?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: One good thing about this synod is that it’s in the news! Every synod since the Second Vatican Council has had elements of consultation. But I don’t think there’s ever been the buzz that’s going on now. Of course, the buzz involves enormous expectations, so much so that even our Holy Father is saying, “now remember, this is not a synod bringing together concerns about doctrine; it’s about pastoral care of people in the light of the Gospel.”

What I am looking forward to is genuine conversation, dialogues in the light of the Gospel and the traditions of the Church. And within that light, I hope we do what I think our Holy Father is saying: Take a wide-open look at the difficulties, the burdens, and the joys that today’s families are bringing to Christ and to the Church. Our Holy Father is very deliberately saying that the synod in October in many ways will prepare us for the general universal synod that will take place in 2015.

It’s a very intentional approach, something that will allow all of us to gradually come to understand the beauty and the vision of marriage and family and what efforts we can make, pastorally, to reach out to welcome and accompany people as we all come closer to Christ and seek to be converted to Christ.

LOPEZ: How do you see the challenges facing families? And not just families, but people maybe wanting to get married who aren’t, or people struggling with other issues? Have you seen it in a different light? You’ve obviously, pastorally, dealt with these issues since you were ordained, but what are you seeing, perhaps differently, as president of the bishops’ conference?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: I recently read a wonderful book that talked about taking a closer look at the reality — meaning the statistics — with regard to marriage and divorce. It’s a wonderful book that talks about the fact that the biggest threat to marriage today is discouragement. That there is what in social-work terms used to be called “the self-fulfilling prophesy”: If you tell people that their likelihood of success is not very great, they’re going to start to believe that.

What I have found in terms of both the joys and the needs within family is that where people are experiencing difficulties, there is a tremendous amount of discouragement. Some of that discouragement may come from the challenges within their own circumstance, but some of it also comes from the society in which we live. Part of our task as a Church is that when we say we accompany people, it really means to walk with people, to encourage them, to find ways in which families are able to find a home within our Church and receive support.

LOPEZ: Speaking of discouragement, what do you tell people when they say to you, “Archbishop, what’s becoming of our country? … What should we do?” How do we even approach people anymore when there seems to be a lack of a common understanding about foundational issues and institutions and language — and much seems a mess to a lot of people?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: In many ways the synod is calling us to return to the light of the Gospel. It’s very interesting that when we got feedback here in Louisville and throughout the world, this was the case. There was a very undeveloped, and even inaccurate understanding of natural law. It can be summarized as people saying: Natural law to them now is what that feels natural. Which, of course, is a sentiment that changes by the moment and is very influenced by what we read and the trends we encounter within a particular culture, as opposed to our clear understanding of natural law, of certain understandings of human nature that are written in the very hearts of the person created by God. And so the synod is going to approach things very much with an emphasis on Sacred Scripture and on getting back to the foundations of Genesis and the teachings of Jesus.

People are very impressed by going back to understandings from Sacred Scripture. And even people of goodwill, who are themselves not Christian, I think would at least give an ear to our speaking less abstractly and more in a manner that is personal and very human. That’s certainly how we see Jesus in Sacred Scripture. It’s very personal and human as a way of getting back to the basics.

Our Holy Father, for example, is saying we need a renewed anthropology, an understanding of the very essence of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and what conjugal love is. Those concepts have eroded within our culture, and they have eroded in general probably over the last 50 or 60 years, don’t you think?

LOPEZ: Yes, absolutely.

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: There is confusion, there’s no question about that. Many people said to us in response to our surveys: “We understand what the church is teaching, but now we don’t understand why.” We need to find new vehicles, new metaphors, to explain what is really the time-honored truth of our faith and really of human nature.

During our conversation, Archbishop Kurtz also noted that the preparatory document for the synod:

includes the very thoughtful messages of Pope Francis when he says, addressing parents and married couples: Don’t forget to say “thank you;” don’t forget to say “please;” and say “I forgive you,” and  “I’m sorry” before you go to bed.

As with much Pope Francis points to, the radical nature of the Gospel requires very fundamental routines of virtue. And the family is the domestic church that teaches these things. When it is in crisis, civilization is. The meeting in Rome is about trying to fix that more than it is about warring bishops. Or so I – and I know I am not alone – pray. (Here’s the prayer Pope Francis wrote for the Holy Family’s help.)


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