Marriage enrichment: Focus on the family

Synod of Bishops preparing to deal with a world of challenges facing family life

Families come in all shapes and sizes and every one of them has its own particular set of challenges. Luckily for us, Pope Francis understands the challenges of family life and has decided to see how the Church can better respond to the realities of the family in today’s culture.

Beginning Oct. 5 through Oct. 18, Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops will convene in Rome to discuss “The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” To prepare for this extraordinary Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis asked all bishops’ conferences around the world to complete a series of questions on how Catholics perceive church teachings on marriage and family.
Global responses to these questionnaires showed that there was great difficulty in accepting Church teachings on subjects like the use of contraception, annulments, remarriage, cohabitation and same sex marriage.
There also was a general lack of understanding of these teachings and on all of the other Church teachings regarding family life. A guiding document, instrumentum laboris (which means working document or instrument), was developed as a result of the answers provided in the questionnaires and will be used by the synod to lead the discussions in which the bishops will be involved.
The 2014 synod is the first of two back-to-back yearly meetings at the Vatican of the world’s Catholic bishops to discuss the issues outlined in this guiding document. The synod in 2014 will be attended mainly by leaders of national bishops conferences. The 2015 meeting will be much larger, consisting of leaders of national bishops conferences and several elected bishop-representatives from each country.
Both synods will be an opportunity to rearticulate the Church’s teaching on the family, but there is great speculation that some reform regarding these teachings will be discussed and maybe put into place after the conclusion of the 2015 meeting.

Families and their wellbeing are a strong focus of Pope Francis. The instrumentum laboris emphasizes the need for the Church to respond to families “with great mercy” and to “find forms of accompaniment which can support her children on the path of reconciliation.”

Some of the issues facing the synod include:

    • Cohabitation of couples before marriage has become a way of life in our culture and not all of our Catholic engaged couples are immune to society’s powerful influences. Anyone working in the field of marriage preparation is certainly swimming upstream in trying to articulate the beauty of the Church’s teaching regarding cohabitation.
    • The form and detail of the annulment process is another issue that I deal with frequently. The Church court (Tribunal) uses canon law on the subject of the sacrament of marriage to review each petition. The process is labor intensive, confusing, and by no means a guarantee that the court will be in favor of the declaration of nullity.
    • A Catholic cannot remarry in the Church without an annulment. A negative outcome can be devastating for people who want to remarry and remain a fully participating member of the Catholic Church. This issue can get even more complicated when a couple who may be in a second or third marriage wants to become Catholic.
    • The Church’s teaching on contraception and focus on how married couples can remain open to life is another example where the teaching on the subject can be confusing and unclear.

The Catholic Church does not teach that couples must have as many children as possible, but many couples going through our marriage preparation courses believe this to be what the Church says and wants. We always get nervous laughter when presenting information on natural family planning and we explain that the Church does not say you must have as many children as possible, but rather that the Church does wish married couples to bring their faith with them when making family planning decisions.

Our Church teaches responsible parenthood. Birth regulation is then based on prayerful discernment, self-observation and the use of infertile periods commonly known as natural family planning, which is not the old rhythm method. It is scientifically based and conforms to the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood. Couples can be open to life without the use of artificial contraceptives.

The synods on “The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization” will address many of these significant issues but we won’t know the full outcome for some time. In the meantime, we can pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the bishops in their discussions.

If you would like to review the instrumentum laboris, you can find it in its entirety at: 

Mrs. Christiana is coordinator of the diocesan Marriage Preparation and Enrichment Office.