VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Vatican officials on June 23 released a document on family values — a precursor to a major meeting in October — that underscores the ongoing tension between Pope Francis’ desire for a more “welcoming” church and the need to hew to long-standing tradition and doctrine.
“The Christian message should be conveyed using language that generates hope,” reads the 78-page working document, which compiles the responses of Catholics around the world on issues facing modern families.
“It is necessary to adopt a style of communication that is clear and inviting, open and not moralizing, judgmental and controlling, which witnesses to the moral teaching of the church while at the same time remaining sensitive to the situation of each individual person,” it reads at one point.
Yet the wide-ranging document also strongly reiterates church teaching on marriage as a sacramental, lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, and it attacks fertility treatment procedures and foresees no change in Catholicism’s views of gay couples.
At the same time, it holds out the possibility of an eventual “penitential road” so that Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment could receive communion — a topic that sparked unusually heated and public debates at the first meeting, called a synod, held last fall to discuss the church’s approach to families today.
The document is essentially a road map for this October’s followup summit of leading churchmen from around the world.
While the “instrumentum laboris” unveiled June 23 is expected to be a starting point for this fall’s debates, it also stresses that the more than 200 bishops and cardinals in attendance will be free — and, indeed, encouraged — to speak their minds.
Introducing the paper at a Vatican press conference, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, head of the Vatican’s office on the synod, said the contributions from Catholics around the world had been “extremely useful” in understanding opinions from different cultures globally.
The views “harmonize in a symphony of voices that express the richness of ecclesiastic experiences present in the world,” he said.
The document also highlights the challenges that economic inequality and environmental degradation pose to families in many societies.
Rocco Palmo, a popular Catholic blogger in Philadelphia, called the document a “fight card” for “the Vatican’s Main Event of 2015.”
But the paper is not meant to have a negative impact, Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte, a leading Italian theologian, said during the official launch.
“The intention of the text is not, however, to respond to the challenges in a moralistic or controversial way. Rather, (it is) that of proposing positively the beauty and the importance of the family,” he said.
In the newly released document, Vatican officials describe the family as a fragile unit suffering from “cultural and social crises” like never before.
Space is dedicated to bioethics, with scientific advancements in fertility treatment blamed for rendering human life “decomposable.” The Vatican also warns of such fertility treatments being used by “singles or couples, not necessarily heterosexual and properly married.”
In an earlier reference, officials also suggest in vitro fertilization treatment could damage people’s relationships:
“In advanced countries, the desire to have a child ‘at any cost’ has not made family relationships happier and stronger, but in many cases it has aggravated the inequality between men and women.”
The Vatican document reconfirms the church’s firm opposition to abortion, and in its discussion of violence against women forced sterilization is also criticized. Additionally, officials decry “the extremely negative consequences of practices tied to procreation,” specifically mentioning “wombs for rent or the market in embryonic cells.”
Catholics who gave feedback for the document requested greater importance be put on adoption and fostering, which officials say will be examined further. Yet in a nod to the Vatican’s opposition to same-sex relationships, officials underline that “the education of a child must be based on the difference between the sexes, as with procreation.”
Gay people are to be “respected in dignity and received with sensitivity and delicacy,” the document says, and priests are asked to support those with gay family members. But the Vatican leaves no room to welcome same-sex couples into the church.
The marginalization of gay Catholics was a key point of contention at last year’s synod, along with the position of divorcees in the church.
The path to opening communion to divorced Catholics is described in the paper as an ongoing conversation, while officials call on pastors to remind parishioners of “the irreversibility of the situation and the life of faith of couples in new unions.”
Officials also touched upon the role of women in the male-dominated Catholic Church, suggesting there should be “recognition of the decisive role of women (and) a greater appreciation of their responsibility in the church.”
On the issue of poverty, the working document noted “concrete family life is strictly linked with economic reality.” Rooted in the practical, it cited insufficient wages, unemployment and financial insecurity, lack of dignified work, job insecurity, human trafficking and slave labour as the “most relevant problems” facing families in the area of economics. The document said children suffer the greatest impact of these problems and called for “a structural change” in society, aimed at creating equality.
The document also cited “social contradictions,” where the lack of sufficient social and economic policies, even in welfare states, leads to the impoverishment of many families, resulting in various forms of social exclusion and an increase in gambling, alcoholism and drug addiction.
Aging, widowhood and death were also new to the document. The aging process and the “golden years” of a person’s life must be valued anew, said the document.
Recognizing the loneliness experienced by many elderly, the document said they must be more appreciated. Grandparents in particular have the important function of offering their children and grandchildren support, a witness of faith and a sense of their roots.
On the experience of loss, the document said some widows and widowers are able to take on an “educative mission” with their children and grandchildren and experience a renewed sense of purpose in life. But such is not the case for all widows and widowers, who need the support of a Christian community, the document said. The document also noted how the loss of a child can tear families apart.
Migration, and all of the traumas, cultural adjustments and losses associated with it, has also wreaked havoc on families, the working document said. Migrant families require specific pastoral care that takes these aspects into consideration. Many families flee from war and violence, embarking on treacherous journeys to reach safety. Other situations require family members to spend long periods of time apart until they can finally be reunited.
Families that have members with a disability are challenged not only by the disability, but also by the social stigma and the concern about how their loved one will be cared for once the main caregivers die, the document said, as it encouraged communities to be more welcoming of people with disabilities.
The document recognized that infertility is a suffering for some married couples and called for more pastoral care for couples who cannot have biological children.
The document also noted a number of ecological issues that pose challenges to families, including a lack of access to clean water and the degradation of arable land for cultivation.
— with files from Catholic News Service