Pope Francis is asking for prayers and hoping for miracles ahead of this October’s synod on the family.
On his recent trip to South America, the pope pleaded with an immense crowd in Ecuador “to pray fervently” that the church will “deepen her spiritual discernment and consider concrete solutions and help with the many difficult and significant challenges facing families today.”
For Pope Francis, the gospel story about a wedding was the perfect opportunity to speak about the crisis in family life and the synod, which will bring together around 400 bishops. It will be the second of two synods dedicated to how the church preaches, teaches and cares for families. This synod will gather under the title The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.
As with last fall’s synod on The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of the New Evangelization, Catholics can count on another round of heated and very public debate about some of the most contentious, emotional and difficult issues in contemporary Catholic life — communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, irregular unions, secularization, poverty, contraception, the welcome gay Catholics receive in church and homosexual unions.
The church simply isn’t heard on many of the sexual issues of our time, said Michele Boulva, executive director of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family.
“Obviously, the teachings of the church — including its teachings on life and the family — need to be presented anew,” Boulva wrote in an email to The Register. “We need to turn to Christ to be empowered to live out the teachings He has entrusted to his church, so she can propose them to our freedom.”
Getting people to listen to the church on sex and family life is no easy task, said Carolyn Chau, a theology professor at London, Ont.’s King’s College University.
“It starts with individuals and who they will give moral credence and a moral hearing to,” said Chau. “That’s the order of authority now.”
While neither the pope nor any of the bishops is talking about changing essential teachings of the church, the language and terminology that emerges from the synod will be the key, said Chau.
“What is said, how it is said, will determine (the synod’s) significance,” she said. “One of the options is that tradition is reiterated in a way that continues to keep the door closed for people who are lapsed, uninterested, disaffected or wounded to begin with. Then we can say it doesn’t really matter. Another possibility is that what is done at the synod is something that begins to invite people into the conversation, give people an openness in terms of their receptivity that wasn’t there prior to the fall synod.”
Many Canadian Catholics are used to framing debates about abortion, contraception and living together before marriage as questions of individual, moral choice. But that’s not the way the Vatican frames the debate in an outline of synod issues recently sent out to the world’s bishops. Time and again, the instrumentum laboris (working document) puts the issues in the context of economics, culture and public policy — often looking at the issues from the point of view of poor people who in the last two generations have been herded into the crowded, booming cities of Latin America, Africa and Asia.
“Basically, families live in the social, economic context,” said Chau. “It’s not sufficient to tell people to have families. Societies need to find a way to help make that life sustainable. People need to be supported in this choice to begin a family . . . Families are essential to societies and societies are essential to the well-being of families. There needs to be social and economic constructs, supports in place to nurture this thing that has become vulnerable and weak and fragile.”
This isn’t just a message for the people living in the crowded megacities of the emerging world. Even in the rich world, people have come to distrust any officially sanctioned idea of marriage and have lost confidence in their ability to make a permanent commitment, said Boulva.
“One of the means of overcoming the (quoting the instrumentum laboris) ‘general attitude opposed to anything institutional or definitive’ is definitely the witness of happily married couples,” she said. “I know many young couples in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada who have not only chosen to get married, but who are raising big families — up to eight children. These young parents are strong believers and they are counting on God, trusting that he will sustain their family.”
While Chau hopes for new modes of communication, she’s not looking for a soft-focus, sugar-coated take on sexual morality.
“At a minimum, we shouldn’t drop the concept of sin,” she said. “If you lose the concept of sin you end up with a pretty sad, emaciated notion of grace. . . . There are huge risks with not talking about sin and thereby not really understanding who God is and what God is doing and has done.”
“Miracles are performed with what little we have, with what we are, with what is at hand,” Pope Francis told the crowd in Ecuador. “And many times it is not ideal, it is not what we dreamt of, nor what should have been . . . Christ can take even what might seem to us impure, like water in the jars scandalizing or threatening us, and turn it into a miracle. The family today needs this miracle.”