There is so much at stake at next month’s family synod

Pope Francis (AP)

I have three hopes for the extraordinary synod on the family. First, that it does no harm to those efforts in parishes around the world to propose the blessed and demanding vocation of Christian marriage. Second, that it fulfils the wish of the Holy Father that marriage and family be thought of anew in the context of evangelisation. Third, that it leads to a deeper appreciation that Christian marriage is a sacrament.

The first hope – that it do no harm – may seem too pessimistic, but a proper humility in undertaking any pastoral initiative means the first task is not to make things worse. The stakes are high on marriage and family life. It is more evident than ever that contemporary culture considers the Gospel tradition on sexuality, marriage and family life utterly unacceptable in shaping our common life together. That is a sharp challenge which the lead-up to the synod has failed to meet, generally conceding to the culture that the Church’s sacramental and moral tradition is more of a burden to borne rather than good news for our happiness and holiness.

Perhaps for this reason Pope Francis has decided to beatify Paul VI at the conclusion of the synod. Paul VI heroically defended the ancient Christian teaching on the divine plan for love and life, but the process that led up to Humanae Vitae and its aftermath were a decades-long pastoral disaster. The dual synods on the family likewise may set back the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel of life and love for years to come. A few senior cardinals have raised precisely that prospect publicly, and one hears that fear expressed privately almost continuously. If the dominant perception of the synod is a replay of Humanae Vitae – expectations about a “relaxation” of the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage “disappointed” by a “conservative” resistance – then the resulting bitterness could lead to waves of vigorous dissent, and poison the remainder of Francis’s pontificate, as it did for Paul VI.

The Holy Father himself seems to be worried about just that, for he told journalists on the flight back from Israel: “I do not like the fact that many people, even within the Church, have said that it will be the Synod about remarried divorcees, as if it could simply be reduced to a case study: can they receive Communion or not? The issue is much broader. Today, as we all know, the family is in crisis, and it is a global crisis. Young people no longer want to get married, or prefer simply to live together; marriage is in crisis, and therefore the family is too. The problem of family pastoral care is very broad.”

So my second hope is that the Holy Father will get the synod he wants, rather the one that he “does not like” but seems likely to get. The problem of remarried divorcees is – as Francis points out – very much secondary to the “global crisis” in the family. The core problem is that too few couples seek Christian marriage and even of those that do, only a small minority appear to understand it as a Christian vocation and mission, strengthened by sacramental grace.

The title Pope Francis chose for the synod looks at the family “in the context of evangelisation”. Evangelisation means nothing if it does not include preaching the evangelium – the Gospel text itself. What Jesus says about marriage in the Gospel – to the Samaritan woman, in response to the question about divorce, to the woman caught in adultery – was difficult for his hearers then and widely ridiculed now. Remember that the Apostles thought that Jesus’s teaching on marriage was so difficult that it would be better not to marry. If the synod is faithful to the Gospel it will meet the same reaction, and its task will be to offer confidence that the adventure of Christian marriage is still possible.

Hence my third hope for the synod – that it renew in the Church an appreciation that Christian marriage is a sacrament. Much of the confusion about divorce and remarriage stems from forgetting that marriage is a sacrament. It is not because people make lifelong promises that marriage is indissoluble. The Church can dispense people from their promises – even religious vows – and does so regularly when dissolving natural marriages. What she cannot do is to undo
a sacrament, for God acts directly in the sacraments. Marriage is indissoluble for the same reason that we have tabernacles; the Eucharist cannot be unconsecrated, any more than a baptism can be removed, sins forgiven can be restored or a man can be unordained – which is why even a “laicised” priest is still a priest, even if he does not exercise that priesthood.
No power – not even a synod, not even a pope – can undo a valid sacrament.

Very few Catholics think about marriage as a sacrament – let alone the only sacrament that only lay people administer, the bride and groom to each other. Not only would a deeper sacramental awareness help couples understand indissolubility, it would also bolster confidence that marriage according to the teaching of Jesus is indeed possible, and that marriage can be an image of Christ and the Church, as St Paul teaches. Even some very good marriage preparation programmes give short shrift to the sacramental dimension of marriage. Yet is precisely that sacrament that guarantees couples the grace which makes keeping their marriage promises possible and transforms the “bonds” of marriage into encounters with God’s love, which alone endures.

Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly about how baptism means that Christians are to be missionary disciples, including all the lay faithful. Baptism – and the Eucharist – belong to the entire Church. Marriage alone is only available to the lay faithful (a deacon or priest cannot marry after ordination, even in the Eastern Churches). It is the great sacrament of lay mission and lay discipleship. If the synod were to advance that idea in the Church, it would be no small thing.

Do no harm; do some good. That would be enough for two weeks in Rome.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine (