The Catholic Church presents a fascinating interplay of diversity and unity. In that sense, our journey through the week has been deeply Catholic, deeply ecclesial. We have spoken in different ways of our different experiences of marriage and the family; yet a profound sense of why they matter has emerged. The sense of diversity led us to ask if this or that analysis or argument would be best dealt with at the local or regional level rather than at the global level. There was decentralising tendency in much of our discussion; yet paradoxically this did not undermine our sense of unity in the task.
We spent considerable time discussing the ordering of the Instrumentum Laboris, beginning as it does with an analysis of the current situation of families before proceeding to reflect on the vocation and mission of the family. It was noted that the structure of the working document moved in the direction of See, Judge, Act, which seemed us sound because – at least in theory – it allowed us to be in touch with the family as it really is rather than with the family as we might wish it to be. In speaking of “the family”, we were conscious of the danger of lapsing into an idealised, removed and disembodied sense of family, which may have its own beauty and internal coherence but which can end up inhabiting a somewhat bloodless world rather that the real world of families in all their variety and complexity.
This led in turn to a larger consideration of the engagement of the Gospel and culture, the Church and history. The Church does not inhabit a world out of time, as the Second Vatican Council, “the Council of history”, recognised. Nor does the Church inhabit a world outside human cultures; the Church shapes cultures and cultures shape the Church. In considering marriage and the family here and now, we were conscious of the need to address the facts of history and the realities of cultures – with both the eyes of faith and the heart of God. That is what it has meant for us to read the signs of the times.
Through this week, we have been somewhat uncertain about the task presented to us, as we worked our way through the Instrumentum Laboris, at times falling into the trap of rewriting or into discussions that were more semantic than substantial. The going was very slow indeed at times, and we are left wondering how on earth we will manage to make our way paragraph by paragraph through the entire document before the end of the Synod. If the task itself has been unclear in this new Synod format, so too has been our method of working. We have had to shape the method as we have moved through the week, and this has challenged the resourcefulness and tactical sense of the Moderator, to say nothing of the patience of the group members. At times our work has seemed more muddled than methodical; but our hope is that focus, if not perfect clarity, will emerge as the Synod unfolds and we become more assured about both task and method.
We have spent considerable time discussing language in a way that looks beyond semantic quibbling. For instance, we had a lengthy discussion about what we meant by “the family”, which is nothing if not basic to this Synod. Some thought it would make more sense to talk of “families”, given the many different kinds of families we now see. Others preferred to think specifically of “the Catholic family”, but there was no perfect consensus on what that might mean. There are again many different kinds of Catholic families. In the end, we settled for a very general definition of “the family” as the unique form of human community based upon and flowing from the marriage of a man and a woman, linking this to a sense of God’s plan as attested to in Scripture.
We also considered certain phrases which have become commonplace in Church documents, among them “the Gospel of the family” and “the domestic Church”. These were vivid and illuminating formulations when they first appeared, but in the meantime they have become clichés, which are less clear in their meaning than they are usually assumed to be. We felt that it may be a good thing if they were given a rest and if we chose instead to use a language which was more accessible to those unfamiliar with our particular speak. In general and especially when speaking of marriage and the family, it was felt that we needed to beware of a kind of Church-speak of which we are barely conscious. The Instrumentum Laboris has a more than its share of it, and it would be good if the final document moved in a different and fresher direction. Like Vatican II, this Synod needs to be a language-event, which is more than cosmetic. We need to speak of marriage and the family in new ways, which has implications on both the macro and micro level, as it does on both the local and universal level.
Part of the newness, we felt, needs to be a less negative reading of history, culture and the situation of the family at this time. True, there are negative forces at work at this time in history and in the various cultures of the world; but that is far from the full story. If it were the full story, all the Church could do would be to condemn. There are also forces which are positive, even luminous, and these need to be identified, since there may well be the signs of God in history. It is also true that marriage and the family are under new kinds of pressure, but this again is far from the full story. Many young people still want to marry, and there are still remarkable families, many of them Christian, heroically so at times. To see and speak positively of things is not to indulge in a kind of denial. It is rather to see with the eye of God, the God who still looks on all that he has created and still finds it good.
To address the many issues that we have discussed will take more than the first week or even the three weeks of the Synod. A longer journey stretches before us, just as an earlier journey has led us to this point – not just from late 2013 when Pope Francis announced the journey of the two Synods but from the Second Vatican Council and all that led to it. It has taken patience to work our way through this first week of the Synod, and it will take even more patience for us to follow the path ahead. But, as the Holy Father has reminded us in Evangelii Gaudium, “time is greater than space”. The patience which is not anxious about imperfect process and which is prepared to wait on God will untie the knots, even those we have struck in the early days of the Synod.
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