Working paper for synod on the family due this month

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

by Thomas Reese

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To help prepare for the October Synod of Bishops on the family, a working paper written by the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops will be released before the end of the month, according to Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. Wuerl, a member of the synodal council that approved the paper for distribution, said it will be released as soon as the Italian version is translated into other languages.

The working paper, technically called the instrumentum laboris, is a distillation of the material sent to Rome from bishops, bishops' conferences, and others in response to the questionnaire sent out by the secretariat in October 2013. It is supposed to stimulate further discussion of the synod topic rather than attempt to be the first draft of any conclusions coming out of the synod.

Thirty-four years ago this October, more than 200 bishops from some 90 countries met in Rome for the first synod on the family. It was the first synod of the papacy of John Paul II and ultimately resulted in Familiaris Consortio, his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family.

The 1980 synod on the family also had an instrumentum laboris and, not surprisingly, it focused on some of the same issues that are alive today.

It began with a review of the social, economic, political and cultural movements affecting family life at that time. While it acknowledged the progress made in science, education, medicine and living standards, it also noted that many in the world suffer from a lack of food, housing, health care, education and employment. Still true.

It applauded efforts to "improve the condition of women and to obtain the fullest possible affirmation of their own fundamental rights" while at the same time expressing concern "these movements toward the affirmation of woman's rights have occasionally lessened her role in married life itself and in domestic life and have thrown into the background those cultural traditions which in more societies than one have conferred a particular status on and have been of definite advantage to women." Let's hope that language is improved.

It acknowledged that "the human sciences have greatly increased our knowledge and evaluation of human sexuality" and agreed "that sexual maturity is the one aspect of human maturity." Nevertheless, "one result of the present upheaval in the domain of sexuality is the separation of the sexual act from conjugal love and from its proper place in marriage," the paper said. It complained of "a widespread and almost total permissiveness in sexual matters."

Gay marriage was not an issue in 1980, but the paper argued that "homosexuality and recourse to the sexual faculty before or outside wedlock are attempts to reduce the sexual function to self-satisfaction purely and simply." Not quite "Who am I to judge," but we will have to wait to see what the new document will say about homosexuality.

The document goes on to list aspects of contemporary life that challenge Christian principles and the teaching of the church on marriage and family life. These include extramarital unions, contraception, divorce and abortion. It noted that in 1980, "almost 40 percent of the people of the world live in cities where abortion can be had on demand alone." That number is certainly higher today.

Finally, the instrumentum laboris looked at the Catholic family in the world of 1980. It noted that many Catholic families live in religiously pluralistic cultures and that "the Catholic family has to contend" with "the multiplicity and plurality of opinions within the church herself." At this point, the document becomes very defensive:

The multiplicity can be ascribed to efforts of investigators of certain questions in the light of a theology renewed and more coordinated with biblical themes; the plurality arises as much as anything from rejection of or dissension from the teaching of the magisterium, especially in the domain of sexual morality. This plunges Catholics into much confusion which, in the first place, affects families which see their religious heritage openly impugned or impaired. It even poses great difficulties to the bishops who, together with the Roman pontiff, are "authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ who preach to the people assigned to them the faith which is to be believed and to be put into practice."

The working paper concludes with a discussion of pastoral attitudes of new importance for the family. These included:

  • The family as the "school of love," in which each member is fully and unconditionally loved.
  • Efforts to foster family spirituality as well as the role of the family in the pastoral mission of the church.
  • The family as the "domestic church," the place where Christian religion is learned, experienced, lived. 

The 1980 instrumentum laboris is both timeless and dated. The issues are still with us, but the language is often negative and judgmental.

The document, however, encouraged the bishops to issue a declaration that was not a "stark and hopeless recording of the state of affairs but an announcement culminating in joy." That still sounds like good advice.

Stay tuned for this year's working paper. 

[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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