by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
The working document of the Synod, like all documents, has strengths and weaknesses which the Synod Fathers and other participants are presently discussing until at last the Commission established by Pope Francis will integrate their contributions into a "Final Document." Ultimately, however, only the Pope can decide if this "Final Document" of the Synod will serve (or perhaps not) as the basis for his own "Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation" (if he chooses to produce one).
The work of the Synod is extremely important and very exhausting. The three weeks of the Synod may seem to the participants like three months. Nevertheless, their work will not be in vain if they can improve upon the "Instrumentum Laboris" (hereafter, IL) by more closely relating the contemporary pastoral challenges concerning the family to the answers we readily find in Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church.
Reading the IL for the first time can be an overwhelming experience. Like the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), the IL immediately immerses the reader in the contemporary context full of problems and challenges (the Italian word "sfida" for "challenge" occurs numerous times throughout the document). For this reason, I can understand why, at first glance, certain Synod Fathers critiqued the IL as overly "negative" in its presentation of the family.
Instead of first laying out all the positive elements of the Christian family as it is supposed to be lived and is, in effect, lived out by many couples and their children, the IL immediately throws a wet blanket on the fundamental goodness and effectiveness of the Christian family by underscoring only its problems and challenges – a point made by New York’s Archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in his intervention.
The IL would have been a better document – one not only richer in content but also more practical and user-friendly – if it had first established as its firm foundation the Church's Scripture-based doctrinal and moral teachings on the family before tackling all the thorny issues like cohabitation, separation, divorce and remarriage and homosexuality which they pose to the family and, therefore, likewise to the Church in our present day.
While the document does make reference to and explain portions of the Bible that deal with marriage and the family as well as the reconciliation of sinners called to repentance, this aspect of the IL could certainly use reinforcement. It is to be hoped that the Synod’s "Final Document" will result in not only a quantitative but also a qualitative improvement in this area.
While the IL does cite several noteworthy documents of the Magisterium and so too the writings, discourses and catecheses of Pope Francis, the "Final Document" also needs to incorporate more than just a single citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see IL, 58, citing CCC 1657), which is arguably the single most important contribution of the Magisterium to the Church's life since the close of the Second Vatican Council – the 50th anniversary of which coincides more or less with the celebration of the XVI General and Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (October 4-25, 2015).
I found it odd that, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single citation of a Father or Doctor of the Church in the entire IL.
Furthermore, there is a conspicuous absence of any mention of the lives of the saints. It is certainly necessary to tackle the sociological problems and challenges the family is facing in the contemporary world, but why not also highlight for the family via the IL real-life models of holiness like St. Gianna Molla, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, and the Quattrocchi couple (beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2001), to name but a few, who stand out for the way they incarnated the authentic joy and love that are meant to characterize family life and marriage, the lives of young people, and the defense of human life in all its stages from conception to natural death?
Some of the most felicitous expressions found in the IL are derived from the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the writings of two popes who, thanks to Pope Francis, are now respectively. beatified and canonized, Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II.
What are some of these expressions?
"Gaudium et Spes" (52) refers to the family as "a school of humanity" (cited in IL at paragraphs 2 & 11). That second citation also identfies the family as "the foundation of society."
In paragraph 91 of the IL, there is a concise definition of the family as the "first and vital cell of society," a noteworthy phrase taken from the Second Vatican Council's Decree "Apostolicam Actuositatem" (11).
Time and again, the IL refers to "the Gospel of the Family." We will recall that this expression was one quite dear to the late great Pope John Paul II who, when canonized by Pope Francis, was rightly lauded as "the Pope of the Family." Thankfully, due to many interventions of Synod Fathers following the controversial "Interim Report" of last year's Extraordinary Synod, the IL has numerous citations of St. John Paul II's landmark document "Familiaris Consortio," in which we find beautifully articulated "the Gospel of the Family." And, as the IL in paragraph 49 relates, it is in Pope John Paul II's "Familiaris Consortio" where we discover another very exquisite phrase describing the family as the "way of the Church" (in Latin: "via ecclesiae").
We should also note the important contributions of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis to the IL.
For example, in paragraph 50, two significant quotes of Pope Benedict's Magisterium highlight how the profoundly human love of a man and a woman united in the indissoluble bond of Holy Matrimony is intimately linked to and is a visible expression of divine love: "Marriage, based on exclusive and definitive love, becomes the icon of the relationship of God with His people and vice versa: the way of loving God becomes the measure of human love" (11).
Again, in that same paragraph 50 of the IL, Pope Benedict's encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate" (44), is mentioned as teaching us that the family makes evident the importance of love as the principle of life in society and is the place in which one learns the experience of the common good.
Pope Francis' writings are cited throughout the IL. We even find a reference in paragraph 43 to the very simple pastoral advice that Francis frequently gives us about making sure that we say with certain regularity in our familial relationships: "Please," "Thank you," and "I'm sorry."
The encyclical "Lumen Fidei" (53) is quoted in paragraph 52 of the IL, in which the nexus between the family and faith is underscored: "The encounter with Christ, allowing ourselves to be grasped and guided by His love enlarges the horizon of our existence, it gives our existence a solid hope that does not disappoint. Faith is not a refuge for people without courage, but the expansion of life. Faith allows us to discover a great calling, the vocation to love, and assures us that this love is trustworthy, that it is worthwhile to entrust ourselves to it, because its foundation is found in the fidelity of God, which is stronger than our every fragility."
With all this in mind, let us continue our Synodal journey, praying and hoping that the "Final Document," and whatever else may flow from it, will guide us throughout the upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, so as to have greater love for the authentic Christian family.
To be sure, the family is arguably the most profound and complex sociological reality that exists on earth. And yet we can only truly appreciate the mystery of the family, let alone comprehend its inner workings, when, despite all the vicissitudes of the present moment in which the family's own integral joy and beauty are strongly challenged, we allow the light of the Gospel's fullness, the cohesiveness of the timeless Apostolic Tradition, and the clarity of the Church's sapiential Magisterium to shed the brightest light on the family available this side of Heaven.