Catholic Church leaders are finally realizing what most Catholics in the pews have known for decades: the Church is not effectively communicating its teachings on key issues, especially in regards to marriage and sexuality. The Church is also seen as “out of touch” with the modern world and way of thinking. Yet, the fundamental doctrine and teachings of the Catholic Church in these matters have stood the test of time. Pope Francis, keenly aware of this disconnect, has called a synod, or meeting, to address the need for better spiritual guidance from Church leadership in key issues facing families today. He stated emphatically, “The synod will be about the family, on the problem of the family, on research about the family, on the present situation of the family.”
The Extraordinary Synod on the Family will be held in October 2014 and is titled Pastoral Challenges of the Family in Context of Evangelization. Attendees will include leaders of the Eastern churches, presidents of bishops’ conferences, and heads of offices within the Vatican Curia (the pope’s administrative staff). To underscore the importance of this meeting, only two other extraordinary synods have been called in Church history, one in 1965 and another in 1969. According to Catholic Canon Law, an “extraordinary general session” of the synod is held to “deal with matters which require a speedy solution.”
In preparation for the synod, the Vatican issued a worldwide questionnaire last November, inviting the faithful to share their views on key issues such as divorce, cohabitation before marriage, contraception, gay relationships and family issues. The survey results clearly reveal a conflict between Church teaching on these matters and the ordinary Catholic’s acceptance of them. The majority supported contraception, gay marriage, cohabitation and remarriage after divorce. There was also a universal appeal for guidance on family prayer and a more streamlined annulment process.
It is highly unlikely that the synod will result in any changes to fundamental Catholic doctrine. In fact, the special secretary for the synod, Archbishop Bruno Forte, clarifies, “It is not, therefore, a matter of debating doctrinal questions… The invitation deriving from this for all the Church is to listen to the problems and expectations of many families today, manifesting her closeness and credibly proposing God’s mercy and the beauty of responding to His call.”
What will the synod discuss then? Based on the Vatican’s working document, issued in June, three major topics will be addressed:
1. Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World
Subtopics include God’s plan for marriage and the family, knowledge and acceptance of Church and biblical teachings on marriage and family, natural law as related to the family, and the vocation of the person in Christ.
2. The Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges
Additional topics of discussion include the crisis of faith in family life, external pressures on the family, difficult situations facing families, and same sex unions.
3. An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing
Other issues in this category include challenges to openness to life, difficulties in acceptance of Church teachings in these areas, and Christian education for difficult family situations.
Pope Francis is encouraging all Catholics “to pray intensely to the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit may illumine the Synodal Fathers and guide them in their important task.” He has designated Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, as a worldwide Day of Prayer for the synod.
Peggy Bowes, a devout Catholic, is the author of The Rosary Workout and co-author of Tending the Temple.