Thursday, June 26, 2014

Instrumentum Laboris

Today the Holy See has published the Instrumentum Laboris for the 3rd Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will meet in Rome in October on the theme "The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization." As its title suggests, the Instrumentum Laboris is a "working document," which reflects the results of last fall and winter's world-wide consultation process. While consultation with the world's bishops and others is not unusual in these situations, the very public character of the questions asked and way in which many bishops and religious superiors solicited input from their constituencies made this an extremely extensive - and hopefully fruitful - consultation process.

The 2014 synod will be an "extraordinary: one, which means participation will be limited largely to the leaders of national episcopal conferences. According to the Instrumentum Laboris, it will "throughly examine and analyze the information, testimonies and recommendations received fromt eh particular Churches." The 2015 synod will be an "ordinary" one, which means participation will be broader, including elected representatives from each Bishops' Conference. Its mandate will be to "reflect further on the points discussed so as to formulate appropriate pastoral guidelines." so, whatever outcomes we may expect from this synodal process, there will be no attempt at some sort of "quick fix," but rather a deliberative assessment of the empirical situation and a discernment of possible pastoral applications.

The document consists of a Preface and 159 paragraphs concluding with a prayer to the Holy Family. It is divided into three parts: a report on the faithful's "knowledge and acceptance" of the Church's teachings on marriage and family, a look at "various challenges and actual situations" for families today, and the particular topics of "openness to life" and parents' responsibilities in bringing up their children.

Unless one has been living in a very particular kind of bubble, no one will be surprised to read that the teachings of the Church nowadays often meet with widespread incomprehension and non-acceptance. Reasons for this are many and various, and again anyone familiar with the trajectory of Church history for the past 50 years will find little surprising in this section. Perhaps the most intriguing observation is the "want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level, for which no doctrinal presentation, no matter how accurate, can substitute. In this regard, some responses poitn to the insufficiency fo a pastoral activity which is concerned only with dispensing the sacraments without a truly engaging Christian experience" (15).

Also unsurprising is the recognition that natural law - so central to the Church's tradition on this topics - has become "highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible." As I recall, I used a similar phrase myself in my response to the questionnaire. The document recognizes the problem, but it remains unclear whether an effective solution still exists. Given their importance of natural law in the Catholic moral tradition and its unique ability to articulate universal moral principles that ought to be accessible to all regardless of religion, I think this question deserves a very high priority.

Against modern tendencies to privatize everything but the state, the document does a good job of recalling that the family is about more than its immediate members, but is - as Pope Francis has recently reminded us (EG, 66) - "the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another."

The document also does a good job, I think, in highlighting some of the contemporary challenges - including the breakdown of communication exacerbated by contemporary electronic devices and external economic pressures. I was pleased to read this rather unambiguous statement: "In dialoguing with the Sate and related public entities, The Church is called to offer real support for decent jobs, just wages and a fiscal policy favouring the family as well as programmes of assistance to families and children" (71). Likewise in the third section - on openness to life -the documents asserts that "childcare, flexible working hours, parental leave and an easiness at integrating raising a family into a work situation appear to be essential. Christians, therefore, share a responsibility in promoting legislation and structures which foster a positive approach towards birth."

So much attention in the media has been devoted to trying to anticipate what the Synod might or might not say about couple in irregular situations. The working document definitely does not try to decide anything in advance  and does a good job of elaborating the various proposals and their potential impacts. Regarding the problem of requests for marriage by non-practicing couples, the document still sees support for the theory that this may prove to be an evangelizing moment (105), while also acknowledging the reality "that some of the clergy experience a certain frustration at often witnessing a failure in their pastoral endeavours, when only a very small number of couples continue some kind of relationship with the parish after the celebration of marriage" (106). As for the newer concern about same-sex marriages, the document seems to reflect the impasse that has been reached. Thus, it notes that "the extreme reactions to these unions, whether compromising or uncompromising" do not seem to have facilitated the development of an effective pastoral programme which is consistent with the Magisterium and compassionate towards the persons concerned" (113). On the other hand, on the question of baptizing and catechizing children of such unions and similar situations, the document seems unambiguously welcoming (120, 146, 149, 152).

The document is overly long, as such documents tend to be, but the big issues do surface from the forest of details. The coming synods will certainly have their work cut out for them!

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