If what the document issued by the Vatican as the basic discussion paper for this coming October’s Synod on the family says is true, massive numbers of Catholics around the world are ignorant of what the Church teaches on marriage and family and why – explaining why so many reject the Church’s teaching as an unwarranted intrusion into their personal lives and decisions.
In other words, faced with the choice between the Church’s magisterial faith and whatever contemporary society regards as fashionable they will pick contemporary society every time. The situation is serious.
But the news is not all bad. A good number of bishops’ conferences around the world have told the Vatican that when an overall view of marriage and the family is clearly communicated in its authentic human and Christian beauty, it is enthusiastically received by the faithful.
These are just some of the insights to emerge from a document with – for the average Catholic man and woman – a baffling name, an Instrumentum Laboris, prepared by the Vatican for the Synod on the Family to be held at the Vatican in October.
Entitled The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelisation, the document is a summary of the responses to the questionnaire circulated to dioceses around the world last November. It will effectively serve as the agenda for the Synod’s discussion of the family in modern life.
Catholic ignorance is traceable to a number of causes, the document said.
“… [A] vast majority of responses highlight the growing conflict between the values on marriage and the family as proposed by the Church and the globally diversified social and cultural situations [of modern life],” it said.
“The responses [from bishops’ conferences] are also in agreement on the underlying reasons for the difficulty in accepting Church teaching, namely the pervasive and invasive new technologies; the influence of the mass media; the hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; the growing secularism; the prevalence of ideas that lead lead to an excessive, selfish liberalisation of morals; the fragility of interpersonal relationships; a culture which rejects making permanent choices … and [a society] with a ‘throwaway’ mentality … one seeking immediate gratification,” it said.
Some bishops’ conferences argued that a basic reason for resistance to Catholic teaching in matters to do with sex, marriage, gender and openness to life stemmed from “a want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level”, the document reported.
Meanwhile, Catholics’ knowledge of Church teaching on the family “seems to be rather wanting”, it observed. “The documents [of Vatican II and since] … do not seem to have taken a foothold in the faithful’s mentality,” it added.
Some of the responses said responsibility for this situation was due to the lack of knowledge of clergy who are not familiar with existing Church documentation; some observations inferred that clergy feel unsuited and ill-prepared to treat issues regarding sexuality, fertility and procreation and so remain silent.
Some responses also voiced dissatisfaction with clergy who seem indifferent to some moral teachings.
“Their divergence from Church doctrine leads to confusion among the People of God,” it said.
Many responses received by the Vatican had emphasised the critical importance of academic centres of research and formation to help redress the problem of widespread ignorance with one often-cited example being the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome and its several campuses around the world.
If the institute is as important as some of the responses received by the Vatican indicate, then Australia is a lucky country; it is one of only seven in the world where a campus of the Institute exists – in Australia’s case in Melbourne.
Other issues addressed by the Instrumentum Laboris include the growing number of fatherless families in society, family breakdown, violence and abuse within families and the proliferation of pornography, especially via the growing influence of the media and social media.
The tectonic pressures being placed on family life and marriage from consumerism, an increasingly dominant and all-encompassing economic and work model which eats into family time, and the scandal of sex abuse within the church which effectively weakens its moral credibility were among other factors addressed by the document.
Considerable attention was given by bishops’ conference to the situations of cohabiting Catholics as well as those who are separated, divorced and/or remarried. With massive numbers of Catholics living in such situations, it is clear the Church around the world sees their situation as requiring both compassion and guidance as well as a clearer game plan.
Catholics often mistakenly assume that being divorced means they are unable to participate in the sacraments, the document observed. On the other hand, those who have divorced and remarried without first seeking an annulment appear not to grasp the intrinsic relationship between marriage and the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation, it said.
Some responses from bishops’ conferences had also urged more attention to the needs of those who are separated or divorced but have remained faithful to their marriage vows – “oftentimes these people seem to have the added suffering of not being given proper care by the Church and thus overlooked”, the document observed.
The general insufficiency of marriage preparation programs was another key theme to emerge from the document.
It is clear the questionnaire sent out by Pope Francis last year has touched many nerves in the Church. At the same time, the Synod signals that the Church sees the family as vital in its own right as well as to the Church and wider society and understands that the family and marriage are at the heart of a global conflict between the Church’s understanding of the human person and an increasingly toxic global culture – especially in affluent societies – that has rejected the idea of responsibility for anything other than the pursuit of money and pleasure. As the world’s bishops gather to consider the complex range of issues confronting Catholic families, the Church and modern society in October it’s also clear they will have plenty to mull over.