The Synod on the Family scheduled to convene in Rome this coming October is generating a lot of interest, much more so than such events generally do outside of official circles. In the wider Catholic world there are three main groups that are paying close attention. The first is the “progressives” who believe that Pope Francis is really one of them, and are convinced that the synod will liberalize Church practice and, who knows, maybe even doctrine in the area of sexuality and marriage (there has been a lot of loose talk about lifting the restriction on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion, for instance). The second group is composed of those of a more traditional bent who are nonetheless afraid that the first group is right both in its assessment of the current pontiff and in its expectations for the synod. Finally there are those orthodox Catholics who trust that the Pope is himself orthodox (despite some poorly thought-out comments in interviews with the popular press), and expect that the synod will do little harm, and might, possibly, do something toward improving the Church’s poor performance in communicating its teaching on marriage, family, and sexuality over the last few decades.
Last Thursday the Vatican released an Instrumentum Laboris, a document setting out the agenda for the synod, called The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization (a good commentary on the document from Lifesitenews is here, the official text here). This document will please the last of the three groups listed above, reassure the second, and cause anxiety for the first. Drawing on the results of a world-wide survey of Catholics, the document reaches two very interesting conclusions. First: “The People of God’s knowledge of conciliar and post-conciliar documents on the Magisterium of the family seems to be rather wanting” and that their teachings “do not seem to have taken a foothold in the faithful’s mentality.” In fact, “many Christians, for various reasons, are found to be unaware of the very existence of this teaching.” Second, the instrumentum notes that many respondents found the clergy in many cases “are not sufficiently familiar with the documentation on marriage and the family”, that “the clergy sometimes feel so unsuited and ill- prepared to treat issues regarding sexuality, fertility and procreation that they often choose to remain silent.” Not only that “Some responses also voice a certain dissatisfaction with some members of the clergy who appear indifferent to some moral teachings.”
There’s nothing terribly earth-shattering here; most of us have probably made many of these same observations (I myself did just last week in my post on St. John Fisher, here). There are two reasons, however, to find this document encouraging. First, it suggests that the planned focus of the upcoming synod is not to water down Church teaching, as many liberalizers hope, but to improve the effectiveness Church’s teaching; the final result may well come out differently, but this is a hopeful sign. Also, it appears that the Pope who is overseeing the process is, in fact, Catholic (who would have guessed?), a Catholic who believes in the Church’s doctrine on marriage and sexuality, and is serious about teaching it.
One could easily miss this last point if all you read about Pope Francis is the popular press. There are some more knowledgeable commentators (such as the inimitable Fr. Z) who have been claiming the Pope for the Church all along, and now even some some of the players on the other side are coming to the same realization; consider, for instance, this recent story from the left-wing Salon: “Pope Francis’ new clothes: Why his progressive image is white smoke and mirrors – Don’t buy his populist rhetoric. The new pope is every bit the sexist homophobe as his predecessors.” He must be doing something right.