The extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, which began at the Vatican Oct. 5, couldn’t have come at a better time. The church in the modern world faces many pastoral challenges relating to the family. While a two-week synod featuring discussions and speeches won’t resolve the long list of challenges, it will help plot a course for the church’s direction well into the 21st century.
What are some of those challenges?
In last week’s editorial, we mentioned the lack of respect for the elderly. Pope Francis has stated that we are called to cultivate a society where the elderly are never neglected or forgotten. He said a society should be measured by “how the weak are cared for.”
Marriage is another issue that has received plenty of attention. Society’s expanded view of marriage contrasts with the church’s traditional view of marriage between one man and one woman. A recent Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans believe same-sex marriages should be recognized — up from 26 percent in 1996.
Same-sex marriage continues to win legal challenges in courtrooms, with the most recent decision handed down Oct. 6. The U.S. Supreme Court let stand lower court rulings that overturned state bans on same-sex marriage. This decision impacts Wisconsin’s law that prohibited these unions. The 190 prelates attending the synod need to find sensible ways to address society’s changing attitudes about marriage while upholding the sacramental nature of unions.
Other issues that will be debated by the synod fathers include divorce, remarriage, single-parenting and cohabitation.
The rate of cohabitation for adults between 18 and 49 is more than 30 percent in some Central and South American countries, reported Catholic News Service. In the United States, a 2013 study by the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan found that nearly half of women ages 15-44 claim their “first union” was cohabitation rather than marriage.
Another survey showed that 48 percent of U.S. households include a married couple and 34 percent of households include just one parent or two or more people without family ties. Twenty-three percent of U.S. children now live with single moms.
The family structure has changed drastically and the church’s response needs to address these changes compassionately.
Early reports from Rome indicate that Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy is finding its way into synod discussions. For example, National Catholic Reporter quoted Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica as saying that discussion among synod members included how prelates label people with words that “are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to the church.”
Among examples Fr. Rosica said synod members offered were “living in sin” for cohabitation, “intrinsically disordered” for gay people and “contraceptive mentality” in reference to society that supports birth control.
“To label people … does not help in bringing people to Christ,” said Fr. Rosica, summarizing one of the synod participants, according to National Catholic Reporter.
Bridging the gap between church teachings and life in the 21st century requires compassion and understanding. As Pope Francis says, church leaders need to act like “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” Pray for the bishops as they continue their discussions at the synod. May they find ways to bring their fallen flock back into the fold.