To help set the agenda for the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family, the Vatican is sending the world’s Catholic bishops’ conferences a list of questions on a range of topics, including matters of marriage and sexuality that proved especially controversial at the 2014 family synod.
Together with the final report of the 2014 assembly, the 46 questions published by the Vatican on December 9 comprise a preparatory document, known as a “lineamenta,” for the October 4-25 synod, which will have the theme: “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world.”
Bishops’ conferences are being asked to consult with “academic institutions, organisations, lay movements and other ecclesial associations” in preparing their responses, which are due at the Vatican by April 15. The bishops’ responses will serve as the basis for the synod’s working document, to be published by summer.
A list of 38 questions, sent to the world’s bishops in October 2013, was widely circulated on the internet and helped generate advance interest in the 2014 synod.
The questionnaire for 2015 instructs bishops’ conferences to “avoid, in their responses, a formulation of pastoral care based simply on an application of doctrine,” in favour of what it describes as Pope Francis’s call to “pastoral activity that is characterised by a ‘culture of encounter’ and capable of recognising the Lord’s gratuitous work, even outside customary models.”
Yet the questions echo the relatively conservative tone of the 2014 synod’s final report, which emphasised traditional Catholic teaching by comparison with the same assembly’s midterm report. The earlier document had stirred controversy with remarkably conciliatory language toward people with ways of life contrary to Church doctrine, including the divorced and civilly remarried and those in same-sex unions and other non-marital relationships.
Regarding the pastoral care of “persons with homosexual tendencies,” the questionnaire repeats the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s admonition against “unjust discrimination” and asks: “How can the demands of God’s will be proposed to them in their situation?”
Referring to a controversial proposal to make it easier for a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic to receive Communion, even without an annulment of his or her first, sacramental marriage, the questionnaire asks: “What is possible? What suggestions can be offered to resolve forms of undue or unnecessary impediments?”
A related question asks how the marriage annulment process can be made “more accessible, streamlined and possibly free of charge” — the mandate of a commission that Pope Francis established in August.
While acknowledging that positive elements can be present in a civil marriage or in non-marital cohabitation between a man and a woman, the questionnaire asks how such a couple can be encouraged to marry in the church.
Consistent with Pope Francis’s emphasis on social justice, the questionnaire repeatedly solicits thoughts on the social, economic and political causes of stress on the family. But it also asks how the Church should respond to the “diffusion of cultural relativism in secularised society and to the consequent rejection, on the part of many, of the model of family formed by a man and woman united in marriage and open to life.”
In asking how to “guide the consciences of married couples” with respect to contraception, which is forbidden by church teaching, the questionnaire emphasises the practice’s impact on birth rates, asking: “Are people aware of the grave consequences of demographic change?”
The questionnaire alludes to in-vitro fertilisation, which was not a prominent topic at the 2014 synod, asking how the church can uphold the “human ecology of reproduction” in its dialogue with the “sciences and biomedical technologies.” It also asks how to “combat the scourge of abortion and foster an effective culture of life.”