The mid-term report issued by the family synod on Monday is a peculiar sort of Vatican document. The 5,500-word text describes itself as “the fruit of the synodal dialogue” that took place last week. Its 58 paragraphs “are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view”. They hover, in other words, in that broad and indistinct territory between mere opinion and authoritative Vatican statement.
The document, known in Latin as the relatio post disceptationem, says it is “intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer” before the second family synod in October 2015. So the text is clearly open to criticism and refinement. That is just as well, as the report is currently far from being a sufficient response to the needs of struggling families around the world.
The report seems to hinge conceptually on what it calls the “law of gradualness”, an idea mentioned in St John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. The pope introduced the term in a discussion of the “stages of growth” which all Christians pass through as they increase in knowledge, love and the ability to accomplish moral good. But the passage cited in favour of the principle contains a stark warning.
“What is known as ‘the law of gradualness’, or step-by-step advance,” John Paul II wrote, “cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law’, as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.” The synod text seems oblivious to this danger, which would quickly become apparent if the Church adopted the “principle of gradualness” as the basis for its outreach to families in the 21st-century.
The report’s authors are clearly striving to echo the Pope’s emphasis on God’s presence in the heart of every single human being. As Francis expressed it memorably in his interview with Jesuit publications last year: “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life … Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.” Hence, the text’s commendable desire to recognise all that is positive in “irregular situations” and its emphasis on the tremendous contribution of gay Catholics to Church life.
But it seems to lack another critical dimension of Francis’s vision: his conviction that none of us can remain where we are in relation to God; we must be moving towards him with the greatest urgency, casting aside anything that impedes us. This notion that the Gospel is a challenge, as well as comfort, isn’t adequately brought out.
It is just as well, then, that the synod fathers have time to revise the text. We hope that, when the final report emerges at the end of the synod, it will be strengthened considerably. Francis is rightly seeking a revolution in the culture, rather than the content, of Catholicism. He wants us to be more joyful, outward-looking, merciful and humble – and supremely confident in God’s grace.
The synod fathers have not yet successfully translated this vision into a coherent pastoral plan for the family in the 21st century. But we trust that, with the continuing prayers and support of the faithful, they will.
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