The Instrumentum laboris: First impressions

The Holy See released the Instrumentum laboris for the upcoming Synod on the Family today. The document is long and will require more in depth analysis to be sure. But, a quick reading of the text this morning suggests that the document is uneven. Parts are provocative, parts are stale, and much of it could have benefited from greater input from the people being discussed.

For example, in paragraph #31 we read this:

Real-life situations, stories and multiple trials demonstrate that the family is experiencing very difficult times, requiring the Church’s compassion and understanding in offering guidance to families “as they are” and, from this point of departure, proclaim the Gospel of the Family in response to their specific needs.

Highlighting the real-life situations as the point of departure is noteworthy. If you are familiar with various catechetical materials on the market today, you will know that this is not always the point of departure. Some Catholic school books are all doctrine, all the time, which is bad pedagogy.

The text also has an entire section, paragraphs 20-30, on the natural law and its relation to the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life. The text states, “In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible.” Ya think? I have often heard some Catholic apologists invoke the natural law to explain Church teaching in such a way that if I were inclined to question Church teaching beforehand, I would find myself rejecting when the apologist is finished. The document calls for a renewal of language in this area, but I think more than the language of natural law needs renewal. For starters, it would help if those who invoke the natural law use it, as they claim it can be used, to furnish the basis for a universal discussion of human values, instead of using it as a sledgehammer to beat other people over the head with.

The Instrumentem laboris spends a fair amount of text detailing the socio-economic pressures on families today. Paragraph 70 states:

 All responses, treating the impact of work on the well-being of the family, make reference to the difficulty of coordinating the communal aspects of family living with the excessive demands of work, which require of the family a greater flexibility. The pace of work is fast and sometimes even exhausting, and work hours, often excessive, can sometimes include Sundays, all of which hinders the possibility of a family’s spending time together. An increasingly hectic life leaves little opportunity for moments of peace and family togetherness. Some parts of the world are showing signs of the price being paid by the family as a result of economic growth and development, not to mention the much broader effects produced by the economic crisis and the instability of the labor market. Increasing job insecurity, together with the growth of unemployment and the consequent need to travel greater distances to work, have taken their toll on family life, resulting in, among other things, a weakening of family relationships and the gradual isolation of persons, causing even greater anxiety.

This could have used more of Evangelii Gaudium’s trenchant critique of modern market economies. There, Pope Francis said, “This economy kills” and it might be noted here that this economy can kill family life. Still, the very next paragraph calls on the Church to work with the State and other public entities to enact laws that protect the family from the vagaries of the job market. I am sure that this section will cause some free-marketers a bit of agita. Good.

The document also squarely challenges the consumerism and hyper-individualism of some societies, and how these pathologies afflict family life. Paragraph 74 states:

 In treating the cultural pressures on the family, the responses consistently mention consumerism, which is gradually focusing more on “what I have” rather than “who I am”. This consumer mentality, cited especially by respondents from Europe, is the driving force in the idea of “having a child at any cost” and the consequent methods of artificial fertilization. Careerism and a competitive spirit are also pointed out as crucially affecting family life. Relegating life, faith and ethics to the private sphere is also noted, particularly in the West, to have a decisive effect. In other words, an individual’s conscience and free choice determines the ultimate value of whether something is good or bad. A culture based on the senses and immediate gratification is also having an influence. In this regard, the words of Pope Francis on a tendency today to “waste” and “live for the moment only” come to mind, both of which, having a major impact on the fragile endurance of emotional relationships, are often the cause of deep discomfort and instability in family life.

There is a lot to unpack there, but the synod will be well advised to spend a good deal of time analyzing the corrosive effects of consumerism and hyper-individualism on family life in greater detail. When children know more about how to use the television clicker than how to gauge the emotional reactions of their siblings, when relationships hit a bump and one of the partners looks for the other’s “on/off” switch, when the hook-up culture explicitly and aggressively brings consumer attitudes into intimate relations, well, this is a culture that cannot sustain, let alone encourage, family life.

Much of the discussion about the synod so far has focused on the issue of divorce and re-marriage. This section of the Instrumentum laboris (Paragraphs 100 ff.) does a fine job of not pre-judging the issue. Obviously, many bishops want a stream-lined process for annulments, although the text notes that other bishops raise concerns about making the process too easy. As well, the text notes the relative absence of meaningful pastoral outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics. These paragraphs will generate more discussion which is precisely what is needed.

Paragraphs 110-120 treat the issue of same-sex relations. It is distressing to read that:

The responses are clearly opposed to legislation which would allow the adoption of children by persons in a same-sex union, because they see a risk to the integral good of the child, who has the right to have a mother and father, as pointed out recently by Pope Francis (cf. Address to Members of the International Catholic Child Bureau (BICE), 11 April 2014 ). However, when people living in such unions request a child’s baptism, almost all the responses emphasize that the child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children. Many responses indicate that it would be helpful to receive more concrete pastoral directives in these situations.   

I do not understand this fear about same-sex adoption when, in my conversations with social workers, it is clear that many gay couples are among the best foster care and adoptive parents available, especially in situations where the child has experienced trauma and, so, placing him in a home with other children may be impractical.

On the other hand, there is no denying that this entire section on same-sex unions shows that the Church is trying to find its way towards a more humane stance. The emphasis on the dignity of gay persons is affirmed at several points. And, the document clearly contradicts the position taken by some bishops in the U.S. forbidding the children of same-sex parents from attending Catholic schools. The text states:

 Particular Churches are well aware that children or young people are not to blame for the choices and living situation of their parents. Consequently, children are welcome everywhere, without distinction with respect to others and with the same love and attention. The Christian formation offered to them is no different from the initiatives in catechesis and pastoral activities intended for the other children in the community, namely: catechesis; schools of prayer; introduction to the liturgy; associations, especially the Missionary Childhood Association in Latin America; biblical acting schools and church choirs; parochial schools and camps; and youth groups. (#149)

It is also to be hoped that the synod fathers take to heart Paragraph 117: “Many responses and observations call for theological study in dialogue with the human sciences to develop a multi-faceted look at the phenomenon of homosexuality.” We have learned a lot about homosexuality that we did not know fifty years ago. The Instrumentum laboris’ treatment of the issue of same-sex unions does not put it this way, but reading it, I think the authors acknowledge, as I have argued in these pages previously, that the Church’s theology on this issue is currently inadequate.

This document attests to the fact that the synod will have a lot on its plate when it meets this autumn. The issue of family life is central and integral to the proclamation of the Gospel and family life, as we Catholics understand it, has been permitted to deteriorate in many cultures in the West and now faces different challenges in those parts of the world where the Church is growing fastest, such as Africa and parts of Asia. If you think we have problems in the U.S., note the number of times the text refers to polygamy!

No one should lose sight of the fact that the most important part of this text is how it came to be. The observations are based on a wider consultation than has preceded any other synod in the history of the universal Church. That consultation could – and should – have been even wider and undertaken in greater depth. Now, we must hope that the structure of the Synod permits a real discussion of the issues raised in this working paper, and that there is room left for the Holy Spirit to do Her work too. This text is a good, if uneven, first step.

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