A Guide to the Family Synod, Part III: ‘The Gospel of the Family’

[The third in a series by Elizabeth Howard considering the questions that have been put to the world’s bishops’ conferences in the run-up to the Synod of Bishops in October. The previous posts are here and here.]

Part II of the discussion document or Lineamenta is entitled ‘Looking at Christ: the Gospel of the Family’. Part I set the scene by outlining the “context and challenges of the family”; Part III (“Pastoral perspectives”) deals with some of the more contentious topics concerned with family life.

Part II reiterates the need for Christians to keep their gaze fixed on Christ and to follow his example of “love and tenderness”, “patience and mercy” as they accompany the people around them (paragraph 12, wrongly numbered 11 in the English translation).

Marriage is both a natural good and a sacrament made new in Christ (paragraph 13); marriage and family life (the domestic church) bring new members to the Church via baptism. Jesus himself teaches us that marriage is the indissoluble union between a man and a woman. The indissolubility of marriage is reiterated several times in this section, and we are reminded that the union of man and woman reflects the covenant love and union of Christ and the Church. The other thread running through this section is mercy towards those people living in situations that fall short of the ideal. The virtue of mercy will of course be marked in a particular way by the Year of Mercy from 8 December 2015 to 20 November 2016, announced by the Bull Misericordiae Vultus. It is clear that Pope Francis sees mercy as framing the reception of the synod’s conclusions.

The awe-inspiring nature of the history of the family is underlined: “The Gospel of the Family spans the history of the world from the creation of man in the image and likeness of God […] until it reaches, at the end of time, its fulfilment in the mystery of Christ’s Covenant with the wedding of the Lamb” (paragraph 16). The Church’s teaching on the family has been unchanging throughout the centuries (paragraph 17); the teaching of various Popes over the last fifty years has provided the Church with a treasury of wisdom to ponder. (Indeed, despite widespread ignorance and misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching on the meaning of human sexuality, even Business Insider could announce not long ago that it was “Time to admit it: the Church has always been right on birth control”.)

Pope Francis has focused on the family in his recent Wednesday audiences. Many of his themes recall those of the Lineamenta. He sees society’s masterpiece as “the family: a man and a woman who love each other!” However, the Lineamenta recognises that many families are “broken and fragile”, either because of marriage breakdown or because the partners were never married in the first place. Interestingly, recent research has confirmed the wisdom of Church teaching that marriage should precede parenthood. In this study, for example, those who married before having a child were three times more likely to be together by the time the child was 16 compared to parents who had never married.

Many of the questions for reflection arising from this section focus on the need for the Church better to communicate the beauty and truth of her teachings on marriage and the family, all the while accompanying in love and mercy those whose situations may fall short of the ideal. It is clear that, in the experience of many people, the Church has failed to educate the faithful on the meaning of marriage. (Most recently, the passing of the referendum on same-sex “marriage” in Ireland, a once staunchly Catholic country, demonstrates that the Church has failed to communicate what marriage really means. See David Quinn’s article.)

Yet it may be that precisely in this moment of crisis for families, and for the Church in communicating her message, that there is an opportunity for the liberating truth of the gospel of the family to be proclaimed. Perhaps it is only when the treasure of family life is threatened that people of goodwill may rise up in its defence. After all, marriage is a good that transcends boundaries of time, culture and religion. Indeed, the Humanum conference in the Vatican in November last year brought together Christian leaders of various denominations as well as Jewish and Muslim leaders. In an interview about the conference, Dr Helen Alvare observed:

Pope Francis is gorgeously Catholic on marriage, period. His marital views don’t fit into a single political category—they’re simply Catholic. His presence at the Humanum conference indicates he meant what he has repeated over the last couple years: the Church needs to find the truest, most beautiful, most creative language it can find—reaching out widely to find it—in order to speak to the human heart. It must speak what the heart needs to hear about the most important human relationship in the life of most people. It needs to ‘go out’ and meet people in all their need and suffering.

The Humanum videos, gorgeously produced by Hollywood-class filmmakers in breathtaking locations round the world, may be a first step towards recovering the meaning of marriage in western society.

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