With a mixture of good tactics and tenacity, the group has made its way through Part III of the Instrumentum Laboris. Again it was clear how our very different cultural backgrounds shaped much of what we had to say. That was part of the challenge and richness of our work.
One thing that struck us in Part III was that so much attention is paid to families in trouble that there is not enough focus on the need to support all families. This seemed to us especially true of Chapter 3 on “The Family and Accompaniment by the Church” where little is said of walking with families who persevere in the ups and downs of everyday life, especially perhaps those in the early years of marriage. We felt there may be a need to provide a new chapter speaking of this, or at least to split Chapter 3 into two parts, the first stressing the need to accompany all families and the second focusing on the particular needs of families in difficulty. Our sense was that the final document should stress that all families, troubled or not, need to be accompanied in an ongoing way. It also needed to make the point that families should minister to families, especially to those in difficulty. We were conscious that families ministering to families is at the heart of the mission of the family.
Paragraph 106 speaks of “the urgent need to embark on a new pastoral course”; and we were keen to identify – and have the Synod identify – concrete elements of such a new pastoral course, always keeping in mind the primacy of God’s grace. We spent considerable time in sharing experiences from our own countries, and then moved to consider the question of what new we might do in the future. This is a challenge to our pastoral imagination. One clear element is a new dialogue with the new discernment this implies. Such a dialogue needs to be an evangelising exchange, even a call to conversion; but it has to begin with an attentive listening, in the attempt to identify and work from shared values. It is important to find common ground so that we can journey on together.
This presumes the language of journey which is a striking feature of the Instrumentum Laboris. Such language recognises the cultural shift from static to dynamic language in thinking and speaking of marriage and the family. The Instrumentum Laboris recognises this, and the final document might consider the practical implications of this recognition.
We discussed the question of marriage preparation, which we agreed needs to be more comprehensive and concerted, especially in cultural contexts where there is a kind of counter-preparation for Christian marriage. Married couples again need to take the lead in this, and to see it as a genuine process of discernment rather than last-minute input on practical matters.
On the question of responsible parenthood, the discussion focused on the need for a pastoral approach which both promotes the teaching of Humanae Vitae and deals with the reality of people’s lives, providing ongoing formation of conscience which looks to a harmony between Church doctrine and personal decision
We considered the special needs of families in irregular or difficult situations. We agreed that those cohabiting are in a quite different situation from those who are divorced and civilly remarried. We also agreed that cohabitation, though very widespread in many cultures now, could not be considered a good in itself. We were prepared to recognise that there may be good in the relationship of those cohabiting rather than in cohabitation in some quasi-institutional sense.
With regard to those divorced and civilly remarried, we agreed that relationships of many kinds come under this heading. There was general agreement that we needed to provide more effective pastoral accompaniment for these couples, and especially perhaps for their children who also have rights. There was, however, little enthusiasm for what the Instrumentum Laboris calls “a penitential path”. On the question of whether there should be further study of the question to see if the Church could move in this direction, the vote was evenly divided. In the end we voted to replace paragraphs 122-125 with an affirmation of the Church’s current discipline and recommended the forms of participation mentioned in Familiaris Consortio, 84.
The group was also divided on the question of support for families with homosexual members and for homosexual people themselves. Some wanted to delete any reference to homosexuality, but this won little support in the group. We opted for a briefer treatment, but also asked that the final document include at an appropriate point a clear statement of Church teaching that same-sex unions are in no way equivalent to marriage. We were clear, however, that in this Synod we were not addressing homosexuality in general but within the context of the family. We were equally insistent that we address this issue as pastors, seeking to understand the reality of people’s lives rather than issues in some more abstract sense.
Another important point in our discussion concerned mixed marriages and disparity of cult. We thought that because these are so different and require such different approaches it would be better if they were dealt with in two separate paragraphs. Some were keen to stress that mixed marriages, while they present challenges, also present great opportunities; and in general we felt that there was need to speak more positively about both mixed marriages and disparity of cult. Disparity of cult can present great challenges in some situations – more so with some religions than others – but such marriages can also be a prime locus of an interreligious dialogue which has its feet on the ground. That is a value in itself. We proposed that the Synod recommend that a special rite for the celebration of interreligious marriages be devised.
It was also pointed out by some in the group is that, though the poor had been much mentioned in Parts I and II of the InstrumentumLaboris, they virtually disappear from Part III. Yet a key element in the mission of the family in the world of today is surely the mission to the poor, whose marital and family life is often seriously undermined by the economic and political factors which create the poverty of which they are victim. The Church as a whole and Catholic families in particular need to have a special concern for the families most stricken by injustice.
Our work on Part III has been slow enough – in part because, under the heading of “The Mission of the Family”, there are many themes of such weight and complexity. In addressing the theme of the family, we have in fact addressed a range of the most pressing and perplexing issues facing the Church and the world today. In two and a half weeks, we have come a long way, but in the few days that remain to us there is still a long way to go. Procedamus in pace.