The Synod on the Family

Furrow-Dec2013Gerry O'Hanlon SJ

The Secretary General of the October 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on ‘Pastoral challenges to the Family in the context of Evangelization’, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, wrote a letter dated October 18th 2013 to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences world-wide asking them to share the accompanying ‘preparatory document’ and questionnaire ‘immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received…’1  The English and Welsh bishops have responded by inviting every diocese, parish, Catholic organization, and individual Catholic to give their input, providing an online survey form for that purpose, and asking that responses be given by December 20th, 2013.2 It seems that local feedback (from bishops and Conferences) is required by the end of January 2014, in order to facilitate the work of the organizing group for the Synod which is meeting in February 2014.


Significance of this initiative
This consultative initiative is of major significance. It goes way beyond the somewhat limited and perfunctory nature of consultations prior to most previous Synods and bears the imprint of the desire of Pope Francis expressed recently in his major interview3 that consultation in the Catholic Church be real and not just token or ceremonial. The deep theological roots of the consultation were expressed in the same interview: the Church is the People of God, and there is a supernatural sense of the faith (LG, 8) possessed through baptism so that ‘all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief’. And so, when we speak of ‘thinking with the Church’, this does not mean ‘only thinking with the hierarchy of the church’ or even with theologians, but must involve all the baptised. This, as Francis goes on to clarify, is not a form of ‘populism’, but rather an expression of the church ‘as the people of God, pastors and people together’.

It is well know that Newman recognized the value of ‘consulting the faithful’ as source of truth and as criterion of its reception, not least because of his historical judgement that in the course of the Arian controversy in the early centuries of the Church, when many bishops faltered, ‘…in order to know the tradition of the Apostles, we must have recourse to the faithful…Their voice, then, is the voice of Tradition’.4 This kind of ‘consulting the faithful’ has not been a prominent feature of more recent practice in Catholic ecclesial life, however, even if there has been considerable theological exploration of the issue since the Second Vatican Council in particular.5 It would seem, then, that the current Vatican initiative is a much needed attempt to re-introduce and formalize in a concrete way a neglected element of the church’s way of proceeding. It is greatly to be welcomed.

The Questionnaire
The questionnaire is preceded by an explanatory text which contextualises family life in modern times and gives a brief summary of Catholic teaching on the issue. Of particular interest here is the recurring challenge of how to reconcile the widely accepted teaching on divine mercy with those who find themselves in peripheral situations with regard to family – so, for example, we need to ‘…call to mind the fact that, as a result of the current situation, many children and young people will never see their parents receive the sacraments….’.

There follows the questionnaire itself with 9 sets of topics, articulated in 39 questions. The topics include the diffusion of the teaching on the family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium, pastoral care in difficult marital situations, on unions of persons of the same sex, the education of children in irregular marriages, the openness of the married couple to life, and other challenges and proposals (which is limited to one question, n. 39, and is a kind of open ‘any other business’ question, giving ample opportunity to respondents to raise issues of existential concern not already covered). Particular questions include is the Church’s teaching accepted fully (2), is it known and accepted/rejected in areas outside the Church (4), is cohabitation ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular church, do separated and remarried divorced people feel marginalized or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments and what questions do they pose to the Church concerning the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation (18, 19), what pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in same sex unions (24),  and is the moral teaching of Humane Vitae accepted (30,31).

Some of the questions involve matters of fact (e.g., are reliable statistics available re unions which are not recognized either civilly or religiously-16) and will require bishops to engage appropriate experts in compiling answers. Some are quite technical (see the section on Marriage according to the Natural Law) and will probably not appeal to many ordinary believers. However many others are clearly of the kind that people will have strong opinions on. Some people may prefer to answer only those questions which are of particular personal interest. Again, one can see how all this represents an ideal opportunity to build on the Pope’s desire for a more ‘horizontal’ church,6 very much along the lines of the vision of the Second Vatican Council. The pastoral emphasis throughout is clear.

Down the line one would wish for a simpler, more user-friendly questionnaire form. And already one French bishop (Mgr Herve Giraud of Soissons), noting that the questionnaire represents a welcome ‘real approach to democratic dialogue in the Church’, has wondered aloud about the possibility of distilling four or five points of refection from the 39 questions for use in parishes, while another (Mgr Pierre D’Ornellas of Rennes) has noted the desirability of creating spaces of ‘mutual listening’ in parishes so as to work through the questions and avoid a ‘dialogue of the deaf’.7 What these observations point to is the kind of infrastructural deficit that has built up over a millennium in the Catholic Church around the more consultative and synodical way of proceeding common to church life in the first millennium. The long-term solution will require the patient building up of habits of listening and speaking in our church, for which there are ample resources to be drawn on from neglected parts of our own tradition (for example, the practice of prayerful communal discernment), from other Christian churches, and from secular expertise and best practice in facilitation and the setting of basic ground rules to ensure respectful dialogue.

However, one starts from where one is at. This questionnaire represents a real opportunity to take our first ‘baby steps’ towards a new way of being church – and first baby steps are always a cause for great rejoicing!

Our Irish Response- the Dog that didn’t bark?
You will recall that in Conan Doyle’s well-know short story Silver Blaze (1892) Holmes uses the curious incident of the dog that didn’t bark in the night to solve the riddle of the disappearance of the star racing horse.

When the news first broke about the consultative initiative taken by the Vatican it was reported that ‘…A spokesman for the Irish Bishops’ Conference was unable to confirm last night that the Irish bishops had received the synod document, adding that any such document would be discussed at the bishops’ December plenary session’ (I. Times, Saturday, November 2, 2013). Since then (on November 6) an invitation to respond to the questionnaire has been posted on the Conference web-site, with links to the text of the questionnaire itself and to contact details of each diocesan office. However, at Episcopal level at least, up to time of writing (November 13, 2013), the impression has been given of  a rather flat-footed response, with  little evidence of the type of urgency and mobilization which this kind of initiative warrants. This is in stark contrast, incidentally, to the speed with which a response was given on the day after the government’s decision to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015. Why are our bishops not out in the national media promoting this initiative, and calling for each parish and every Catholic to respond?? Or perhaps the media itself has been resistant or indifferent to the significance of this iniativie? In any case, it is still not too late for the Bishops as a group to make a more concerted effort to mobilize the faithful and to facilitate more widespread involvement in the process.

Of course it is only fair also to allow for a certain ‘learning curve’ by the Episcopal Conference, and by us all, with respect to a new approach, which is so radical that it represents a real paradigm shift within the recent history of the Catholic Church. Habits of decades, and indeed centuries, will not be forgotten and un-learned over-night. And experts in organizational theory alert us to the fact that resistance to change is to be expected and may often take the form of a kind of passive aggressive, minimalist kind of compliance. It is to be hoped, however, that this ‘curious incident’ of relative inaction will alert the Bishops as a group to the kind of cultural time-lag they may be inhabiting, in which they are not only disconnected from their own faithful but also from the authorities in Rome.

Again, to be fair, much good work has already been done in some Irish Dioceses (one thinks of Down and Connor, of Killaloe- and there are others) along the lines of a more participative, consultative Church and these will reap the benefits now of structures and skills already in place and may help other Dioceses and the Conference itself to get up to speed.

And, most importantly of all, it is up to all of us – groups like the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), the Association of Catholics in Ireland (ACI), CORI, the IMU and others have a particular opportunity here- to do all we can to respond positively. And it would be wonderful if parish priests and parish administrators could promote this response. We need to challenge our Bishops to give more active leadership, but we need also to recognize that we and they together make up God’s People, and we too have to shed our habits of co-dependency and begin to take our own steps in adult Christian discipleship, claiming our canonical right to be heard on important issues, a right now recognized by the Synod of Bishops cum to sub Petro (together with and under the Bishop of Rome).

The 2014 Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is intended to define the ‘status quaestionis’, the state of the issue at hand, while the Ordinary General Assembly in 2015 will seek to provide working guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family. This is a real kairos moment for our Church. New questions will emerge around this whole approach – how more precisely does one assess the ‘sense of the faithful’, what exact weight does it carry within a teaching and learning context in which the Magisterium and theologians have their indispensable roles. But for now Archbishop Nichols struck the right note in encouraging people to respond to the questionnaire: ‘Your participation is important…’8 Let us open our ears and hearts to the ‘whispers of the Spirit’ – and then, metaphorically at least, pick up our pens and write!


  1. I.Times, Saturday, November 2, 2013
  2. The Tablet, 9 November 2013, 10-11
  3. Interview of Pope Francis with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., Sept 19th, 2013
  4. J.H. Newman, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, ed J. Coulson (London: Collins, 1986), 76
  5. G. O’Hanlon, Whispers of the Spirit – the Church of the Future, The Furrow, 64, June 2013, 338-340 (332-341)
  6. Scalfari interview with Pope Francis, La Repubblica, October 1, 2013
  7. La Croix, November 5, 2013
  8. I.Times, Saturday, November 2, 2013

Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J.
Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. 

 The Furrow, December 2013, Vol. 64 No. 12

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