Synod on family is about more than sex, according to Francis

This story appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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Despite Pope Francis’ desire not to obsess over sexual issues, for many people in the church and the media that is what the synod on the family is all about. All his attempts to stay on message fell apart under the onslaught of sex-related stories in the run-up to the synod.

First, there was the now famous encounter with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refuses to register gay marriages. The pope and his immediate staff were blindsided by the Sept. 24 meeting, which was arranged by the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Vigano. The nuncio has still not explained why he set up the meeting or who requested it.

After news of the meeting leaked on Sept. 30, the Vatican issued a statement saying it did not deny that the meeting may have taken place. Two days later, the Vatican finally said that the meeting should not be seen as a show of support by the pope for the clerk.

Next, there was the meeting between the pope and his former student Yayo Grassi, a 67-year old Argentine. The Vatican confirmed this meeting took place and that Grassi presented “his mother and several friends to the pope.” The Vatican did not mention that one of the friends was Grassi’s gay partner of 19 years, but everyone knew.

Grassi himself says that the pope called him from Rome to setup the meeting before he arrived in Washington where Grassi lives. The pope greeted members of the party in the Argentine fashion with a kiss on the cheek.

"As noted in the past, the pope, as pastor, has maintained many personal relationships with people in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue," explained Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi.

Meanwhile, Twitter, the blogosphere, and the media were going crazy interpreting the meetings. Conservatives were at first elated by the pope’s meeting with Davis, but soon turned sour as the Vatican distanced itself from her, and word of the Grassi meeting got out. Likewise, supporters of gay rights were at first infuriated and then somewhat pacified by the same news.

Finally, just days before the opening of the synod, Polish Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa decided to come out of the closet with his partner. This would have been little noticed except for the fact that he has been working at the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith since 2003. He appears to have been doing a satisfactory job at the congregation where he had been appointed assistant secretary to the International Theological Commission.

What especially miffed the Vatican was his decision, which Lombardi called “very serious and irresponsible,” to come out right before the opening of the synod in an obvious effort to influence the discussions at the synod. He was quickly dismissed, as would be any priest who was publicly violating his promise of celibacy.

For Pope Francis, this has all been a distraction from the issues on which he wants the synod on the family to focus. The pope had an opportunity to lay out some of those issues while he was in the United States visiting the World Meeting on Families in Philadelphia. What did he say?

Pope Francis’ first words about the family to the American bishops in Washington was to thank them for the “unfailing commitment of the church in America to the cause of life and that of the family.”

Specifically, he mention the American church’s efforts “to welcome and integrate those immigrants who continue to look to America, like so many others before them, in the hope of enjoying its blessings of freedom and prosperity.” He believes that helping immigrant families is an essential ministry for the church. He also mentioned the church’s work in education and charity.

Francis clearly understands that families have economic, social, and educational needs that are essential to their survival and growth. These factors are often forgotten by first world, middle class commentators in the church and the media when opining on family issues.

But for the former Argentine archbishop, who frequently walked through the slums of Buenos Aires, these are critical issues. As Pope Francis told those attending the prayer vigil in Philadelphia, he thinks about “all those families which lack housing or live in overcrowded conditions. Families which lack the basics to be able to build bonds of closeness, security and protection from troubles of any kind.

“I think of all those families which lack access to basic health services. Families which, when faced with medical problems, especially those of their younger or older members, are dependent on a system which fails to meet their needs, is insensitive to their pain, and forces them to make great sacrifices to receive adequate treatment.

“We cannot call any society healthy when it does not leave real room for family life. We cannot think that a society has a future when it fails to pass laws capable of protecting families and ensuring their basic needs, especially those of families just starting out. How many problems would be solved if our societies protected families and provided households, especially those of recently married couples, with the possibility of dignified work, housing and healthcare services to accompany them throughout life.”

These are the issues that many third world bishops felt were ignored at the last synod.

It was not surprising that Pope Francis called on government leaders at the United Nations to “do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family.” For Pope Francis, the essential material and spiritual goods include: “housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education” and other civil rights.

Likewise to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis stressed the need to support and encourage families. He briefly noted that “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” but quickly focused “attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young,” who are “trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”

Pope Francis is concerned that so many young people are unable or unwilling to start families. He sees some young people pressured “not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future,” while others are presented “with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.”

There is also a spiritual component that Francis continually brings up. Again speaking to the American bishops, he calls on them “to feed God’s family with Christ.” He wants the church to be “a humble home, a family fire which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love.”

But it was in Philadelphia where Pope Francis spoke most eloquently about the family. In the vigil of prayer he said, “The family is the great blessing, the great gift of this ‘God with us’ [Emmanuel], who did not want to abandon us to the solitude of a life without others, without challenges, without a home.”

“God does not dream by himself,” the pope said, “he tries to do everything ‘with us’. His dream constantly comes true in the dreams of many couples who work to make their life that of a family.”

“That is why the family is the living symbol of the loving plan of which the Father once dreamed,” he continued. “To want to form a family is to resolve to be a part of God’s dream, to choose to dream with him, to want to build with him, to join him in this saga of building a world where no one will feel alone, unwanted or homeless.”

But while presenting such a beautiful dream, Francis does not forget reality.

“Perfect families do not exist,” he said. “This must not discourage us. Quite the opposite. Love is something we learn; love is something we live; love grows as it is ‘forged’ by the concrete situations which each particular family experiences. Love is born and constantly develops amid lights and shadows.”

Francis argues that love can even flourish in conflict, as long as we do not “make conflict the last word, but rather a new opportunity. An opportunity to seek help, an opportunity to question how we need to improve, an opportunity to discover the God who is with us and never abandons us.”

Loving through conflict is a great legacy that parents can give their children. “We make mistakes, yes; we have problems, yes,” explains Francis. “But we know that that is not really what counts. We know that mistakes, problems and conflicts are an opportunity to draw closer to others, to draw closer to God.”

In Philadelphia, Pope Francis asked the bishops of the world to see the family “not first and foremost a cause for concern, but rather the joyous confirmation of God’s blessing upon the masterpiece of creation. Every day, all over the world, the church can rejoice in the Lord’s gift of so many families who, even amid difficult trials, remain faithful to their promises and keep the faith!”

But this does not blind him to “the unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society, with their social, cultural -- and now juridical -- effects on family bonds.” He notes that civil and sacramental marriage are no longer “interrelated and mutually supportive.”

But he sees the cultural threat to marriage as even more important.

“Today’s culture seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust,” he explains. “The most important thing nowadays seems to be follow the latest trend or activity.”

“Today consumerism determines what is important,” he continues. “Consuming relationships, consuming friendships, consuming religions, consuming, consuming … Whatever the cost or consequences. A consumption which does not favor bonding, a consumption which has little to do with human relationships. Social bonds are a mere ‘means’ for the satisfaction of ‘my needs.' The important thing is no longer our neighbor, with his or her familiar face, story and personality.”

Such a culture, which discards everything that is no longer “useful” or “satisfying,” is not supportive of marriage or family. Rather it contributes to a sense of isolation and loneliness. “Running after the latest fad, accumulating ‘friends’ on one of the social networks, we get caught up in what contemporary society has to offer. Loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized” is the result.

But Francis believes it would be a mistake for the church to simply rehearse “the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity. ... A Christianity which ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced.”

Rather, a shepherd must be “capable of standing ‘in the midst of’ the flock” unafraid “of questions, contact, accompaniment,” says Francis. “A pastor keeps watch first and foremost with prayer, supporting the faith of his people and instilling confidence in the Lord, in his presence. A pastor remains vigilant by helping people to lift their gaze at times of discouragement, frustration and failure. We might well ask whether in our pastoral ministry we are ready to ‘waste’ time with families. Whether we are ready to be present to them, sharing their difficulties and joys.”

In short, a pastor who “devotes himself to the loving care of the men and women of our human family” is a sign for the eyes of faith.

He acknowledges the “demanding task of reflecting God’s love, cultivating infinite patience and serenity as we strive to sow its seeds in the frequently crooked furrows in which we are called to plant.” But if done well, “then even a Samaritan woman with five ‘non-husbands’ will discover that she is capable of giving witness.”

In his homily at the concluding mass for the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis had practical advice for families. “Happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures,” he said.

“These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.”

What Francis had to say about the family in the United States shows that he is concerned about the economic and cultural challenges to families as well as their spiritual needs. He sees a role for government, the church, and family members in responding to these challenges and needs. Yes, the synod on the family is about more than sex.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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