Will the Synod change Church teaching on marriage?

Will the Synod change Church teaching on marriage?

 Have you ever been part of a discussion, knowing that you really didn’t know what you were talking about? Maybe you didn’t remember the relevant details, weren’t clear on definitions, were clueless as to the context of the situation….

That will be most people during the Synod in October, since the secular media frames popular discussion even of religious questions and events.

Here’s basic information that will help you feel comfortable reading about the Synod and discussing it with others:

What will happen at the Synod?

In the III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family in 2014, the synod fathers will thoroughly examine and analyze the information, testimonies and recommendations received from bishops, dioceses, parishes, movements, families, and specialists, who have shared their reflections and responses to the Preparatory Document distributed worldwide in November, 2013.

The document that synthesizes these reflections is the Instrumentum Laboris, a working document. The document offers a broad, yet by no means exhaustive, perspective on the present-day situation of the family, on the challenges of the family and on the reflections related to the family today. You can read the Instrumentum Laboris here.

The Synod is structured so there will be free discussion around the challenges facing families today. One of the questions that has gained the most media attention is the indissolubility of marriage and whether or not to give communion to divorced Catholics who have remarried in a civil ceremony.

Some advice when reading the news about the Synod (particularly secular news but also, unfortunately, some Catholic news providers):

You can be sure that the media’s reporting of the Synod will:

1) focus on questions that people feel strongly for and against, while missing the larger purpose of the Synod which is defined in this way: “The family is an inexhaustible resource and font of life in the Church’s pastoral activity. Therefore, the primary task of the Church is to proclaim the beauty of the vocation to love which holds great potential for society and the Church. To meet this urgency, the episcopate throughout the world is being called, cum et sub Petro, to listen humbly to the Holy Spirit and reflect on today’s pastoral challenges” (Preface of the Instrumentum Laboris).

2) speak in political terms: left/right; conservative/liberal; using division, categories, labels. Most of the media will not be able to grasp the purpose of the Synod, as stated here by Rev. Antonio Lopez, F.S.C.B.: “Pope Francis has had the courage to declare that now—precisely in the midst of the battlefields of human suffering that become more apparent every day—the Church must remember that she has received the healing love and the merciful truth of the Lord not for herself only, but for the whole world. She has the task to proclaim anew ‘the Gospel of the Family.’” (Marriage: Theological and Pastoral Considerations, Introduction, page 1).

Will the Synod change Church teaching on marriage?

Pope Francis summed up his vision for the Church with this memorable image:

What the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds…. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a serious injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds. Heal the wounds” (Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, page 66).

The Synod will provide an open discussion on how to make the Church this place of mercy for the family which is facing such challenges today. The members of the Synod will search in prayer and reflection for an authentic pastoral response particularly for families that have suffered the pain of divorce and couples who may now be in a new relationship with its own responsibilities and who nevertheless long to return to the sacraments. The media, even some Catholic media, have speculated that the Church will change its teachings. Bishop Demetrio Fernandez of Cordoba, Spain said that during their ad limina visit to the Vatican earlier this year, they asked the Holy Father about this, and he responded that a person married in the Church who has divorced and entered into a new civil marriage cannot approach the sacraments. Pope Francis spoke the following words to the bishops: "This was established by Jesus Christ and the Pope cannot change it.”

More and more frequently, Catholics today are settling for civil divorce and then remarrying rather than seeking an annulment. While some believe that annulments are simply a Catholic way to “divorce,” an annulment is actually “a declaration by a Church tribunal (a Catholic church court) that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.” It was announced this week that Pope Francis has appointed a group of theologians and canon lawyers to study ways to make the annulment of Catholic marriages – often a complicated and lengthy task – simpler, and more pastoral. The 11-member commission will attempt to “simplify the (annulment) procedure, making it more streamlined, while safeguarding the principle of the indissolubility of marriage,” the Vatican said in a statement.

We can be confident that the Holy Spirit will guide the assembly and that our prayers will assist those at the Synod and the entire Church grow in faithfulness to the Lord.

What is the relation between Marriage and the Eucharist?

For the next several works we will share with you the work of The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America as presented in a booklet to English-speaking readers as a simple text to accompany the Church on this path of reflection and renewal. The points below are taken from the article by Cardinal Angelo Scola in the book, and the page numbers are printed for easy reference if you’d like to read further. You can download the booklet here.

Marriage and Family Between Anthropology and the Eucharist: Comments in View of the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family

Cardinal Angelo Scola

What is the challenge in a nutshell?
The Church’s teaching is seen as an “ideal” that although desirable is unsuitable to the modern couple’s experience. (page 3)

What does Cardinal Scola perceive as the origin of the problem?
Today’s mindset sees the Church’s teaching as arbitrary or reformable moral guidelines instead of an authentic vision of the human person which corresponds to human experience and desire for the individual to break out of his or her bonds, to grow beyond oneself, and to model one’s personal love on the mystery of love that is intrinsic to married life.  (page 3, 7)

What is the basis of what Cardinal Scola presents as an adequate response?
A pastoral response would re-formulate a holistic proposal that springs from the experience of every human heart: the insuppressible need to be loved and assured of a love that is forever; an authentic response of mutual self that offers the gift of self, open to life, forever. (page 4)

What is the relation between marriage and the Eucharist and how does it provide for a couple’s deepest desires?
In the Eucharist Christ entrusts to the believer his self-gift, the gift of Christ the Bridegroom to the Church. In the Eucharistic sacrifice is the paradigm of the couple’s own matrimonial consent to be faithful to their spouse unto death. The sacrament of Matrimony offers the love of Christ the Bridegroom for the Church his Bride to the married couple:

  • as the resource that they can draw upon especially in the trials and wounds of their conjugal union,
  • as the criterion of a self-gift that loves the other unto the end,
  • as a guarantee that Christ will never leave the spouses lacking the gifts they need to be able to live out their love fully, and freely opt for Christ in every circumstance of  life. (page 5)

“When they make their promises, the spouses are not relying on themselves—the shifting [sands] of their own freedom—but rather on the form [ultimately Jesus Christ] that chooses them because they have chosen it… [T]his form extends through all the levels of life—from its biological roots up to the heights of grace and of life in the Holy Spirit.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol 1: Seeing the Form, page 27; quoted page 7)

How does this understanding of sacramental love inform the Church’s understanding regarding those who have divorced and remarried without annulment?
There is an inseparable bond uniting the Eucharist and marriage. The Eucharistic mystery is a guarantee that Christ will love his Bride the Church “to the end” no matter how we fail our part of the Covenant. In the sacrament of Matrimony the spouses receive a real participation in Christ’s exclusive, faithful, and fruitful love for the Church, to the point that an ontological transformation of sorts takes place in marriage. Cardinal Ratzinger referred to it as the spouses becoming a “single new existence.”

“…[T]he state in which those who have established a new bond [through divorce and remarriage without annulment] find themselves—[is] a state that in itself contradicts what is signified in the bond between the Eucharist and marriage. The grace of the Eucharistic mystery effects the unity of the Church as the Bride and Body, and this requires in the recipient of sacramental Communion the objective possibility of allowing himself to be perfectly incorporated into Christ.” (page 5-6)

What options does Cardinal Scola offer as pastoral ways to approach the challenge of persons in the difficult situation in which they have created a new family after divorce without annulment?
Five options are offered by Cardinal Scola:

  • Promoting the practice of spiritual Communion with the Eucharistic Christ, offering to him in prayer one’s desire for his Body and Blood;
  • Promoting practices suited to expressing the virtue of repentance: works of charity, reading the Word of God, and pilgrimages;
  • The company of the person’s pastor and the ecclesial community as a much needed support and aid;
  • Seeking for a way to expedite cases of nullity and to make the intimately pastoral nature of the processes more clear; (page 6)

Learning from the witness of many, many spouses who have lived their married life in love and fidelity even as they have had to address situations of suffering and difficulty. (page 6-7)

Read the entire article by Cardinal Scola here.

By Sr. Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP







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