Among the many topics discussed in our recent 2015 Year in Review program was the highly anticipated and much debated Synod of Bishops part two, on the vocation and mission of the family today.
It was easily the biggest news story in the Catholic world last year, and could very well carry over into 2016. That’s because we’re still awaiting the definitive conclusion to the Synods on family life in the form of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation.
Since the 1960’s, an apostolic exhortation has been the traditional form of teaching that concludes a Synod of Bishops; a teaching document written by the Pope alone but factoring in the deliberations and propositions of the Synod Fathers. There’s no scheduled date for the release of Pope Francis’ exhortation on the family, but it is expected to drop sometime before the end of the Year of Mercy (November 20, 2016).
In the meantime it’s a good idea to read, study and discuss the Final Report from the 2015 Synod of Bishops, recently translated into English. This is the result of the more than two-year reflection that took place in the universal Church and among the Bishops gathered in Synod during October 2014 and 2015.
About a third of the 265 bishops who voted on this Final Report were also present at the Synod in October 2014. In that sense there was a great deal of continuity between the Synods. To get a sense of the content and tone of the Synods, this Final Report is key. Here are 6 things to consider as we await Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family:
- This will be Pope Francis’ second exhortation. This doesn’t seem that important until we recall how revolutionary his first exhortation was. Evangelii Gaudium dropped in November of 2013, less than a year after his election. It was supposed to be an exhortation based on the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization under Pope Benedict. Then Cardinal Bergoglio wasn’t present at that Synod. So instead of using the draft text that was prepared for him when he became Pope, Francis simply wrote his own document on evangelization. The document is unlike any papal teaching we’ve seen. It’s full of practical ideas that are easily understood by everyone. It also contains some profound challenges for the Church like this programmatic line from paragraph 49: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” If the new exhortation on the family is anything like Evangelii Gaudium, we’re in for another rollercoaster ride.
This will be the second exhortation on the theme of the family. There have only been fourteen general Synods since their inception back in the 60’s. So it might be surprising to learn that two have dealt with the same topic: the family. The first took place under Pope John Paul II in 1980 from which came the influential document Familiaris Consortio. Now Saint John Paul II is widely regarded as “the Pope of the family” because of the frequency and depth of his teaching on the subject. Many in the Church still consider this body of teaching to be relevant, so the question can be asked, why was it necessary to have another Synod on the family? Along with the Final Report from the 2015 Synod, a reading or re-reading of Familiaris Consortio is vital for anyone interested in seeing where and how Francis might develop the teachings of JPII.
An exhortation is official Catholic teaching. Considering what was just said in #2, it’s important to remember that all exhortations are “official” Catholic teaching. It wouldn’t make sense to say that Francis’ exhortation will diminish or discredit John Paul’s. History has shown that Popes will build on previous papal teachings rather than nullify them. Certainly there will be differences in tone, style and content between Francis’ and JPII’s exhortations, but don’t expect a complete whitewash. At the same time, we have to remember that Francis is the Pope, Peter, the Vicar of Christ, and whatever he says about family life at this moment in history is highly consequential for every Catholic.
There is a clear shift in tone and approach. As with everything Francis, we witnessed at the 2014 and 2015 Synods a clear shift in tone and approach to important theological and pastoral issues. One example is the kind of language used to describe complex situations people find themselves in today and the Church’s pastoral attitude in response. In paragraph 70 the Synod Fathers wrote that in complex situations, “Pastoral ministry on behalf of the family clearly proposes the Gospel message and gathers the positive elements present in those situations, which do not yet or no longer correspond to this message.” Throughout this Final Report we find this type of pastoral approach: to begin the conversation by pointing out what’s good in people’s lives as opposed to where they fail to live up to the Christian ideal. Look for nothing less in Francis’ exhortation.
The Final Report says a lot in what it doesn’t say. Navigating the 2014 and 2015 Synods can be difficult. It’s not always clear where developments happened. I often say that if a Catholic who didn’t follow the Synod picked up the Final Report out-of-the-blue and read it, he or she would conclude that nothing has changed. The Catholic Church doesn’t change drastically overnight—even under Pope Francis—rather many of the important developments in our understanding of teaching and practice happen subtly. Perhaps the best example of subtle development in the Final Report concerns the highly contentious issue of the reception of Communion by divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. From the time of Familiaris Consortio the Church has articulated very clearly and directly its position of not admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion. The issue reignited at the 2014 and 2015 Synods. Some Bishops advocated for re-examining the Church’s position in some cases, others defended the established teaching unequivocally. Interestingly, the Final Report did not mention at all the reception of the Sacraments by divorced and remarried Catholics. It simply did not make a definitive statement one way or the other. But considering the Church’s aforementioned categorical denial of the possibility of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, the fact that the Synod Fathers did not reaffirm this established position is highly significant. So generally speaking, in order to understand what’s happening we must read between the lines and see that something consequential can be said by not saying anything. In any case, it’s up to Francis as the Pope to make an authoritative decision.
There’s much more in the Final Report than the issue of the reception of the sacraments by divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Considering what was just said in #5, it’s important to remember that the Synods were about much more than the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The Final Report consists of 94 paragraphs that address countless challenges facing families today. They also express much hope and faith in families and promote a spirit of encouragement and accompaniment among the pastors of the Church. One of the great developments of the 2014 and 2015 Synods often overlooked was the call for a new kind of language that reaches people today. The mission of evangelization is still at the heart of the Catholic Church, and what permeates the Final Report is that positive and hopeful spirit that we’ve come to know and love in the Church under Pope Francis. We should remember that before getting bogged down in any one particular issue.
On Further Reflection
In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation. For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice for dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the church and society. Sebastian Gomes is a producer and host at Salt+Light TV.