Advise the Bishops about Marriage and Family Life

Among other things that have been going on while I’ve been too busy to blog has been the announcement of an Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the family to be held in October 2014, accompanied by a preparatory document with a questionnaire that was supposed to be used to gather input at the parish level. This announcement was immediately followed by a flurry of media and blog coverage about whether this was the first time such a thing had ever been done, whether it amounted to a survey on church doctrine, which bishops’ conferences and individual bishops were posting the survey online for easy lay participation, which were not, which were posting something kind of like the survey but simplified (and possibly slanted), and which lay groups were doing the same.

Before I get into all that, let me say that providing this input appears to be a time-sensitive task: there’s no date in the preparatory document, but I’ve seen mention that the deadline specified by the USCCB is the end of this December. Presumably this is to allow ample time to process the input they receive prior to the synod in October.

If you are Catholic, you have both a right and a responsibility to advise the bishops on this matter, according to canon law, specifically Canon 212.3[1],
which is based on paragraph 37 of Lumen Gentium[2].

Whether or not this questionnaire has been made available to you by your bishop or your parish, you may access it directly on the Vatican website, and you may send it to your own bishop and/or directly to Archbishop Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops. You may also consider whether to send a copy to your pastor, or to the USCCB.

In addition to answering the questionnaire, you may wish to append additional testimony as to your experience with the teaching of the church on marriage and the family, and the ways in which you have observed or experienced that this teaching does, or does not, lead to human flourishing.

If you have ever wished that the bishops would listen to lay people, this is your opportunity.[3]

I strongly advise against providing your input by means of any of the unofficial versions of the questionnaires that have been put together online by lay groups, at least if you want your input to be taken seriously by the bishops. Justly or not, many of these groups are perceived by the bishops as dissenting voices, and I think it likely that their results will therefore be ignored. I have seen only one such version, which did indeed appear to me to be a biased, rather than an accurate, rendering of the actual questionnaire.

If you have not been offered another method by which to provide your input, the easiest way is probably to save the document as a web page (“HTML only”), then open it with your word processor and type your answers directly under each question. You can delete sections I and II of the preparatory text (but do read them first!), and replace it with a list of addressees and any introductory comments you might have. Then save the result and either email it, or print it out and mail it.

Even though it seems extremely peculiar (not to mention labor-intensive) in this day and age to be answering a questionnaire that is not administered online, remember that we belong to a 2000 year old church, which has for centuries obtained information by means of written questionnaires, and offer it up. 😉

A quick perusal of the Preparatory Document and its questionnaire makes it clear that, consistent with the original Vatican announcement, and contrary to the more sensationalized media coverage, this is by no means a popular opinion poll on whether and how to change church teaching. To the contrary, the questions probe whether, how, and why church teaching is presently understood and accepted, and how the church might pastorally respond to those who do not accept some aspects of church teaching.

It is also immediately clear that the intended audience of this document is not the ordinary Catholic, because it uses terms and refers to documents with which bishops may be familiar but most Catholics are not. Reading through the entire preparatory document, rather than just skipping straight to the questions, will help here. The document on the Vatican website contains links to other documents that it references, but not to the sections of the Catechism, which you can also read online at the USCCB website (The Sacrament of Matrimony and The Sixth Commandment are the sections that are referenced.)

Reading the preparatory document also makes it clear that it was drawn up for a worldwide church, and not exclusively for the American or Western church, as it raises concerns such as polygamy, dowries, and the caste system as well as divorce, reproductive technology, and the reformulation of the family. The questions themselves, though, don’t seem to be as globally intended, as they particularly emphasize the latter points with no mention of the former.

Before going on to the questions themselves, I want to pause and note the ecclesiology of the opening paragraph of section three, which introduces them:

The following series of questions allows the particular Churches to participate actively in the preparation of the Extraordinary Synod, whose purpose is to proclaim the Gospel in the context of the pastoral challenges facing the family today.

(emphasis mine) The “particular church” here means the parish, which is understood to be part of the “local church,” meaning the diocese, with the bishop at its head. The ecclesiology implied here is decidedly not a top-down corporate model with the Vatican as the head office, the Pope as the CEO and the bishops as franchise managers. Rather, it is a collegial model, in which each particular church, through the person of its bishop, brings its practice, its wisdom, and its experience to the attentive reflection of the universal church, through the college of bishops gathered “with and under Peter” (cum et sub Petro, last paragraph of section I) in the extraordinary synod. In this way, the particular church both enriches and is enriched by the church universal.[4] This is very consistent with the ecclesiology we’ve seen from Francis thus far.

Because the questionnaire was directed to bishops, it is written in the third person plural, asking about “people”, “the baptized,” and what “they” do. As one of the baptized talking to others, my commentary will replace all such language with the first person plural, to help us think about how we will respond. (You’ll probably want to have the document at hand as you continue to read here.)

Question 1 concerns church teaching on the family.

– Question 1a asks about how we understand church teaching on “the value of the family” as contained in the Bible, the Vatican 2 document on the church and the world, Gaudium et Spes, and to JPII’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris consortia.[5] If you have not read these documents, you could probably answer this question based simply on the sections of the Catechism linked above.

– Question 1b asks about what we actually do; question 1c asks about how church teaching is communicated at the parish level and higher.

– Question 1d is interesting because it’s asking for details about exactly how, and exactly what parts of, the teaching is “actually known, accepted, rejected and/or criticized in areas outside the Church,” so it’s focusing on the discrepancies between the teaching and culture of the Church, and the teaching and culture of the world outside the church.

To summarize question 1, then: Do we know it; do we accept and practice it; how is it taught to us; what makes it hard for us to receive it.

“Receive” is a significant word with respect to church teaching. While some strands of Catholic (and more broadly Christian) tradition interpret reception as simple obedience, or the religious submission of the will, other strands of the Catholic tradition identify the reception of church teaching as the definitive mark of the validity of that teaching, on the grounds that the Holy Spirit is given to all the faithful and not only to the Magisterium. Similarly, the definitive sign that an ecumenical council was valid is that its teachings were received by the universal church.

I believe, therefore, that things that “hinder the full reception of the Church’s teaching” on any subject may come in two categories: things that are in error, against which the church needs to preach; and things that are true, to which the church needs to listen. It requires prayer, discernment, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to distinguish between them.

Question two refers to natural law, on which much Catholic moral theology is based, following the framework set out by Thomas Aquinas, who followed Aristotle in observing the natural world and reasoning about what he observed.

– Question 2a asks, first, about the status of natural law in general, as an intellectual concept or framework in academia and in social discourse. If you have never heard natural law mentioned except in the context of church teaching, this would be an excellent thing to tell the bishops.

– Question 2a asks, secondly, about what “anthropological ideas underlie the discussion on the natural basis of the family.” I interpret this as curiosity about what science has to say about the family as an anthropological unit: perhaps openness towards incorporating contemporary anthropological findings (which is inherently consistent with Aquinas’ approach to natural law), and perhaps as an inquiry into what intellectual framework is being used in place of natural law. The two parts taken together make question 2a very interesting.

– Question 2b asks whether natural law is generally accepted as the basis for “the union between a man and a woman.”

– Question 2c asks how “the theory and practice of natural law in the union between man and woman” (I’ll be honest, I can’t figure out what that could mean. The practice of natural law??) is “challenged” in light of how families really form, and is “proposed and developed” in both “civil and Church institutions”. This might be looking for a mismatch between teaching and reality; it might be looking for support from traditional civil society, as in Benedict’s “affirmative orthodoxy” that serenely appeals to traditional civil practice as support for church teaching. All in all, it’s another balanced question: where does natural law struggle, and where does it work, as the basis for marriage and the family.

– Question 2d looks misplaced: it would seem to me to belong better in question 3 on pastoral care. It does not mention natural law except implicitly: “non-practicing Catholics [and] declared non-believers” presumably don’t believe what the church teaches, including natural law as the basis for marriage: so what happens when such persons ask for a Catholic marriage?

Summing up question 2, it seems to be exploring the degree to which natural law as the basis for marriage remains a viable concept in society at large, as well as among the faithful.

Moving a bit more quickly through the next sections:

Question three concerns the pastoral care of the family, and covers marriage prep, family prayer, transmitting the faith, fruitfulness in creating role models for couples and families, and pastoral care both in preparation and in crisis. Some further notes:
– recent experience with marriage prep: is your local church doing anything new and different in this area? if so, how is it working?
– and isn’t it interesting that “marriage preparation” is not described as “sacramental preparation” or “preparation for the sacrament of marriage”? I think this is telling: both that we tend to have a pedagogical model of some sacraments but not others, and that we tend to emphasize the importance of the practical preparation for married life over specific doctrinal preparation for receiving[6] the sacrament itself. Is this another symptom of the state of affairs lamented in section I, that “Within the Church, faith in the sacramentality of marriage . . . show[s] signs of weakness or total abandonment”?
– the family as the “domestic Church”: this is a concept I grew up with, but would like to see strengthened (if and only if it can be done without further marginalizing single adults)
– the “current generational crisis”: this is not explicitly mentioned in the preparatory text, but I infer that it refers to the final paragraph of section one, “For example … many children and young people will never see their parents receive the sacraments.” I like the mention of the “vocation [of the Christian family] of transmitting the faith.”
– local churches, and movements on family spirituality, should “create ways of acting which are exemplary”: this is a test of fruitfulness in these areas.
– 3e: “What specific contribution can couples and families make to spreading a credible and holistic idea of the couple and the Christian family today?” What an interesting question! I hope that couples and families will respond to this with very specific ideas for how we are, or how we believe we could be, walking the talk.

Question four concerns pastoral care in certain “difficult marital situations”:
– 4a asks about “cohabitation ad experimentum” (that is, living together before marriage in order to determine whether to marry), and 4b asks about “unions which are not recognized either religiously or civilly.” Note that the assumption that there are such real unions proceeds directly from the natural law teaching on marriage.
– 4c asks about separated couples, and divorced and remarried couples (but oddly, not about divorced persons who are not remarried), and how such situations are addressed in “appropriate pastoral programmes.” I suppose that might mean either programs devoted to the subject, or how the subject is treated in programs about the family more broadly.
– 4d asks about the experience of those of us who are living in such situations with respect to our identity as baptized Catholics: how do we feel about it? do we care? do we hurt? do we feel marginalized?

– Questions 4e, f, and g all pertain to those of us who are divorced (and mostly remarried) persons: what questions do we ask about the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation? How many of us ask for these sacraments? Would it help to make it easier to get an annulment? if so, what specifically should be changed? Is there a ministry for us, and if so what does it do? How is God’s mercy proclaimed to us and “how does the Church put into practice her support for [us] in [our] journey of faith?”

Question 5 concerns “Unions of Persons of the Same Sex”
– 5a and 5b ask about civil society: are same-sex civil unions legal and are they “equat[ed] in some way” to marriage? What is the local church’s attitude towards those of us who are in such unions, and towards the state as “promoter” of such unions?
– 5c and d is about pastoral care: what kind of “pastoral attention” can be provided to us if we are in such unions, and “in the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children,” what can be done in terms of transmitting the faith to those children? (Sadly, there is no recognition here that some of us are people in samesex relationships whose children are biologically their own, perhaps from previous relationships or by artificial insemination.)[7]

Question 6 is about “The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages” – presumably that would be all the cases in question 4: how many are there, what do their parents ask for (sacraments only or also formation), how do parishes respond, how are the sacraments prepared for and administered.

Question 7 is about openness to life:
– 7a is about Humanae Vitae, the encylical by Paul VI that rejected the use of artificial birth control: are we aware of this teaching, do we understand how to “morally evaluate” methods of birth control, and “Could any insights be suggested in this regard pastorally?” (I love this last question; it strikes me as a more formal way of saying “you got any ideas?”)
– 7b asks whether it is accepted, and which aspects of it pose the most difficulty for most of us
– 7c asks what methods of natural family planning are promoted by the parishes to help us put this teaching into practice
– 7d asks how it interacts with the sacraments of reconciliation and eucharist: presumably, do we confess using artificial birth control, and do we consider using artificial birth control a bar to receiving communion?
– 7e asks about differences between church teaching and civil education
– The second part of 7f seriously startled me: “How can a more open attitude towards having children be fostered? How can an increase in births be promoted?”

Question 8 is titled “The Relationship Between the Family and the Person.” It’s a bit of a catchall to ask about the relationship between the individual’s life of faith, and the family. I’m surprised not to see more anthropology here; certainly some of the best sermons I’ve heard on the family have emphasized the importance of the (good-enough) family in learning the human art of getting along in close quarters, and the Christian art of self-giving love.

Question 9 is the “anything else” question, but I like its wording:
– “What other challenges or proposals related to the topics in the above questions do you consider urgent and useful to treat?”

Overall, I am encouraged to see the (reasonably) comprehensive approach taken here to exploring matters concerning marriage and the family. I’ve been explaining to people for years now that it’s really not possible for the Catholic church to change just the teaching on birth control, or just the teaching on homosexuality, or just the teaching on divorce, because all those pieces and more are integrated into a (reasonably) coherent structure of theological anthropology. So it all has to be thought through together, and that’s what this preparatory document appears to be doing, which bodes well for the Extraordinary Synod.

I’d like to have had the time and energy to do an even closer read of the questions, as well as of the introductory preparatory text; but I hope this has been enough to aid and encourage you to respond to the questionnaire if you haven’t already. Make it part of your Advent journey.

And remember, too, to pray:
– for all who are offering responses, or thinking about whether to offer responses
– for all who are collecting, collating, and analyzing responses
– for all the bishops who will receive this input, and especially for your own bishop
– for Archbishop Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, who will oversee the Extraordinary Synod
– for the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout the process, and that the synod may bear great and good fruit
– for all families to whom the church ministers

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

[1] Canon 212.3:

[The faithful] have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church.

[2] Lumen Gentium 37 (emphasis mine):

37. The laity have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God and of the sacraments. They should openly reveal to them their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers [and sisters] in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be done in truth, in courage and in prudence, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.

[3] I’ve seen a fair bit of commentary in the Catholic blogosphere that this is all a PR job, a misleading marketing campaign that throws the sop of “lay input” to quiet the grumblers, while in reality all the input will be ignored. While it is possible that this cynical view will be accurate in some or all cases, it is certainly true that if you do not provide your input, it will be ignored.

[4] Here I reluctantly follow the usual Catholic practice of referring to “the universal church” as if the term is identical with “the worldwide Catholic church on earth in communion with the Bishop of Rome.” In my own writing, I try to avoid this term, because of ecumenical concerns and theological confusion as to the relationship between the worldwide Catholic church and the church of Christ on earth.

[5] An “apostolic exhortation” is the same kind of document that Francis just released, Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel. (Yet another thing that has happened while I’ve been too busy to blog.)

[6] Preparation to administer and to receive, actually: Catholic sacramental theology teaches that the ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the bride and groom, and that the priest is a (required) witness.

[7] I wonder if this is because the default image of a samesex couple is andronormative, that is, consisting of two gay men rather than two lesbian women; combined with the assumption that if a couple divorces, the children are raised by the mother.

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4 Responses to Advise the Bishops about Marriage and Family Life

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