Reflections from the Small Groups on the second part of the Instrumentum laboris at the Family Synod

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The Synod of the family continues and this morning, 14 October, we see the the second set of reports from the working groups that came together earlier in the week to reflect on the second part of the Instrumentum Laboris, in light of the contributions made in classroom during the debate held in the previous General Congregations.

Below you will find the text of the reports made by the four English speaking Small Groups from the second working session:

Group “A”

Moderator: Card. George Pell 

Relator: S.E. Mons. Joseph Kurtz 

In Jesus, the fulfilment of God’s revelation, the family uncovers its calling within the universal call to holiness. For the disciple of Jesus, every vocation calls the person and the community in two distinct and complementary dimensions. We are called to communion and we are called for mission. We see this in the call of the 12 Apostles. They are called to be friends of Jesus and sent out to preach. The same is true of those disciples who are called to family life. Our group reflected on this gift and vocation, and on prayer and discernment as means to foster it.

While the sense of the word “vocation” is clear when applied to the priesthood, more clarity is needed when we talk about the phrase “vocation to the married life.” We must recognize that the family itself also has a vocation.

Seen through the lens of the Holy Family of Nazareth, the text would benefit from a more abundant use of Sacred Scripture, notably Luke Chapters 1 and 2, as well as examples from the Old Testament. So many Old Testament couples, such as those from the Book of Tobit, responded beautifully to the vocation to marriage and family life.

The Church’s vision of the vocation of the family captures the beauty of God’s self-giving love. Considerable attention was given to locating a firm theological base for the Divine Pedagogy, flowing from the outpouring of love from the Trinity. At the core of the family is the original act of creation, the redemption by Jesus Christ and the orientation to eternal life.

The priority of listening to the Word of God and following Jesus opens up the good news for the family, which leads to a life of joy as well as an ever-deepening conversion from selfishness and sin.

The baptismal identity of every Christian matures in the seedbed of the family, which is often the first and primary evangelizer in which one discerns a vocation to a particular state in life. In this Year of Consecrated Life, we give special thanks for the gift of men and women in religious life and their families.

The final document would benefit from a consideration of “best practices,” which would show families how to more fully and faithfully live out their vocation. At the heart of such “best practices” is the receiving of the Word of God in the family. We make special mention of the great strides within the Church over the past 50 years in which study and reflection on Sacred Scripture has been integrated into the lives of families. While much remains to be done, such progress needs to be acknowledged. These “best practices” should also address proper catechesis and prayer and worship, including prayer within each family. Such a call would wisely and explicitly encourage the use of para-liturgical prayers and rituals within the setting of the family.

We also addressed questions related to methodology. In the past, the Holy Father often used the final approved texts as a basis for an Apostolic Exhortation and we spoke of the fruitfulness of this approach. However, we recognize the limitations of a document that will be approved at the conclusion of this Synod. Though every effort should be made to provide for streamlined, attractive language, a primary concern was the clarity of well-grounded explanations of Church teaching on marriage and the family.
With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we give thanks for the vocation of the family – a call to communion with Him and with each other and a call for mission in the world.

Group “B”

Moderator: Card. Vincent Nichols 

Relator: S.E. Mons. Diarmuid Martin 

The group took an innovative approach in its examination of Part II. We recognize the centrality of this part to the entire reflection of the Synod. In addition to examining the Instrumentum Laboris paragraph by paragraph, the group sought first to identify a number of the basic themes of the Church’s wisdom on marriage and the family which we feel ought to be given prominence in the final document. A renewed and deeper reflection on the theology of marriage should be one of the fruits of the Synod.

These themes included: The Divine Pedagogy, the Word of God in the Family, Indissolubility and Faithfulness, The Family and the Church, Mercy and Brokenness. The group proposed individual modi to some paragraphs, but above all it sought to reorder the succession of paragraphs in order to restore the natural flow of the paragraphs of the Relatio Synodi.

The group strongly recommends that the entire Part II should be introduced by a much more detailed reflection on the Family and Divine Pedagogy. This reflection would constitute a new paragraph 37.

The reflection should illustrate how the Divine Pedagogy for marriage and the family has accompanied the entire history of salvation and continues right until our day. We propose that the paragraph begin with Genesis, which already provide a definition of marriage as a unique union between a man and a woman, so total and intimate that because of it a man must leave his father and mother in order to be united with his wife. This account of the creation of marriage presents also the three basic characteristics of marriage, as it was in the beginning – monogamy, permanence, and equality of the sexes.

However, as sin entered the history of humanity it brought with it the reversal of these basic characteristics. Polygamy, divorce, and submission of the wife to her husband became not just common place, but were even institutionalized in sectors of Jewish society. Through the prophets God constantly called for a change from this situation of sin and for the re-establishment of the original dignity of marriage, which was to come with Jesus Christ. The prophet Hosea found union and love between husband and wife as an appropriate paradigm to illustrate God’s love for his people.

The Song of Songs gave a unique reflection on human love as a dialogue between two lovers praising each other, yearning for each other, and rejoicing in sexual intimacy.

But the Divine pedagogy of salvation history concerning marriage and the family reached its climax with the Son of God’s entry in human history, as Jesus Christ was born into a human family. It was considered inappropriate for a Rabbi to speak with a woman yet Jesus dared to speak to a woman, who was a Samaritan – an “excommunicated” and a renowned sinner – something even more scandalous. To a woman who was brought before him prior to her being stoned for the fact that she had committed adultery, he said: “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” He dirtied his hands through work, but not with stones to throw at others.

The group presents this elaborated text recognizing that it is lengthy and new, and may not seem in line with the Synod methodology. Why do we do this? It is only through reflection on the Divine Pedagogy that we will understand our ministry as mirroring God’s patience and mercy. The Divine Plan continues even in our time. It is the Divine Pedagogy which provides content and tone for the teaching of the Church. It is the Divine Pedagogy which today continues the constant call of conversion, healing, and mercy to families as they struggle to realize their God-given vocation.

The group set out, then, to apply such a pedagogy into our search for a language accessible to the men and women of our times. We propose alongside the term “indissolubility” to use a language which is less legal, and which shows better the mystery of God’s love speaking of marriage as a grace, a blessing, and a lifelong covenant of love.

We recalled the testimony of couples who live a fully Christian marriage as a lifelong covenant of love, its permanence unto death being a sign of God’s faithfulness to his people. Indeed we can say that God recognizes the image of Himself in the faithfulness of his spouses and confirms with his blessing this fruit of his grace.

The deepest meaning of the indissolubility of marriage, is then, the affirmation and protection of these beautiful and positive qualities that sustain marriage and family life, most especially in times of turbulence and conflict. The Church, therefore, looks to married couples as the heart of the entire family, which, in turn, looks to Jesus especially to his faithful love in the darkness of the cross.

A stress on the divine pedagogy would also focus on the centrality of the Word of God in the theology of marriage, in the pastoral care of the family, and in family piety. The Christian community welcomes the Word of God especially when proclaimed at the Sunday Liturgy. Thus a goal for every couple and family would be to worship together faithfully at Mass every Sunday.

Married couples and families also encounter the Word of God in the array of devotions and celebrations that are part of our Catholic heritage. Such piety includes approaching together the sacrament of reconciliation, common prayer and reading of the Scriptures, and other encounters with God’s word in catechesis and prayer. It was stressed that Catholic schools are an extension of parish and family catechesis. The Synod should encourage parents to seek out these schools as a uniquely compelling way to enhance and deepen the religious education which begins in the family.

All of us need God’s mercy. In many societies today there is a sense of self-sufficiency, whereby people feel that they have no need of mercy and no awareness of their own sinfulness. At times this is due to an inadequate catechesis on sin, not recognizing sin as a wounding of our relationship with God and with each other, a wound which can be healed only through the saving power of God’s mercy.

On the other hand there can be a tendency for us to put human limits on God’s mercy.

The group felt a strong need for a deeper reflection on the relationship between mercy and justice, particularly as it is presented in Misericordiae Vultus.

As we move on towards our reflection on the difficult situations to be examined in Part III, we should always remember that God never gives up on his mercy. It is mercy which reveals God’s true face. God’s mercy reaches out to all of us, especially to those who suffer, those who are weak, and those who fail. “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel… My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hs 11:8-9) As Pope Francis stresses in Misericordiae Vultus, God’s anger lasts for a moment, but his mercy lasts forever.

Group “C”

Moderator: S.E. Mons. Eamon Martin 

Relator: S.E. Mons. Mark Coleridge 

After the travails of the first week, we decided to adopt a different approach to Part II of the Instrumentum Laboris and moved through it more briskly than we did through Part I. As our sense of the task has clarified, our modus procedendi has matured, and this is encouraging as we begin work on the long and complex Part III.

I now present the issues from Part II which were central to the group’s discussion:

  1. The need to speak a heartfelt word of appreciation and encouragement to couples who, by God’s grace, are living their Christian marriage as a genuine vocation, since this is a unique service to the Church and the world.

  2. The need to develop for couples and families catechetical programmes that are attuned to different cultures, to revise them periodically and to adapt National Catechetical Directories in the light of these where applicable.

  3. The need to develop resources in the vital area of family prayer, understood in both formal and less formal ways, both liturgically and devotionally. These resources would again have to be culturally sensitive.

  4. The need to explore further the possibility of couples who are civilly married or cohabiting beginning a journey towards sacramental marriage and being encouraged and accompanied on that journey.

  5. The need to present the indissolubility of marriage as a gift from God rather than a burden and to find a more positive way of speaking about it, so that people can fully appreciate the gift. This relates to the larger question of language, as the Synod looks to shape a language which, in the words of the Instrumentum Laboris, is “symbolic”, “experiential”, “meaningful”, “clear”, “inviting”, “open”, “joyful”, “optimistic” and “hopeful”.

  6. There is a need to draw more deeply and richly from the Scripture, not just in citing biblical texts but in presenting the Bible as a matrix for Christian married and family life. As at Vatican II, the Bible would be a prime resource for the shaping of a new language to speak of marriage and the family; and the Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini could serve as a resource for practical suggestions.

  7. In speaking of the joy of marriage and family life, there is a need to speak also of the life of sacrifice and even the suffering which this involves and so to set joy within its proper context of the Paschal Mystery.

  8. The need to see more clearly how the Church through the ages has come to a deeper understanding and surer presentation of the teaching on marriage and the family which has its roots in Christ himself. The teaching has been constant, but the articulation of it and the practice based upon that articulation have not been.

  9. The need for a more nuanced understanding of why young people these days decide not to marry or to delay marriage, often for a long time. The Instrumentum Laboris presents fear as the dominant motive. But it is also true that young people at times do not see the point of marriage or regard it as a purely personal or private matter which makes a public ceremony irrelevant to them. They are also affected in many ways by a culture of options which baulks at closing doors, and they prefer to test a relationship before making any final commitment. Powerful economic factors can also have their effect. We need to beware of a too simplistic reading of a complex phenomenon.

  10. One thing which the Synod might consider producing is a list of practical initiatives or strategies to support families and to help those that are in trouble. This would be something concrete and would be in keeping with the essentially practical character of this second Synod on marriage and the family.

On many of these points there was consensus, on others there was wide if not universal agreement, and on a few there was significant disagreement.

A great richness and challenge of our discussions continues to be the different modulations of marriage and the family in the various cultures represented in the group. There are certainly points of convergence, arising from our shared sense of God’s plan which is inscribed in creation and which comes to its fullness in Christ crucified and risen, as proclaimed by the Church. But the different ways in which that mystery takes flesh in different parts of the world make it challenging to balance the local and the universal. That remains an overarching task of this Synod.

Group “D”

Moderator: Card. Thomas Collins 

Relator: S.E. Mons. Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. 

Members of English circle D reviewed Section II far more quickly than Section I. The material was simpler. So was working together and offering commentary and modi.

On the family and divine pedagogy, members thought the text’s reflections on the reading of Scripture should be strengthened. They stressed that as we listen to God’s word, we need to encounter it in the context of the Church, sacred tradition and the teaching authority of bishops. Many customs of reading Scripture already exist in the various cultures of our English-speaking group. Some should be incorporated into the text. Several group members promoted Lectio Divina, even when read within an inter-faith context. Others thought the Lectio Divina process too complex for people of today. Some bishops felt that we need to better understand the relationship between the newness of the Christian sacrament of matrimony and the natural structure of marriage built into God’s plan from the start. The natural marriage of our original parents had its own order of grace.

The Instrumentum Laboris nowhere defines marriage. This is a serious defect. It causes ambiguity throughout the text. Most bishops agreed that the document should add the definition of marriage from Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes 48, as a correction. (The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other a relationship arises which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one. For the good of the spouses and their off-springs as well as of society, the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone. For, God Himself is the author of matrimony, endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes. All of these have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole. By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown. Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love “are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matt. 19:ff), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them.[GS 48])

Taken as a whole, the text has many good insights on marriage. But the Catholic doctrine on marriage stretches over too many paragraphs. It needs to be brought together in a more concise, compelling way. One person felt the text’s grasp of Scripture could be improved by embracing newer scholarship. The person worried that many of us were reading Scripture in too fundamentalist a manner, and other ways of interpreting Scripture might be more fruitful. Others disagreed and thought that the understanding of Scripture in the text was adequate.

Some said the text needs to frame the notion of “indissolubility” more positively, rather than treating it as a burden. Others saw a danger in referring to Catholic teaching as simply an “ideal” to be pursued and honored but not practical for the living of daily life. They described this as an approach that implies that only the “pure” can live the Gospel, but not ordinary people. Some stressed that we should always speak of virtues, not just values. They are not the same thing.

In the material on family and God’s salvific plan, the text lacks grounding in the Book of Tobit and the Song of Songs, which is vital to the Scriptural presentation of marriage. Bishops voiced concern that the document seems to present Mosaic divorce as one of the stages of God’s plan, yet we know that divorce is never part of God’s will for humanity, but was a consequence of original sin.

In several of the document’s confusing passages, a better translation of the Italian text led to clarity. Several bishops focused on the notion of “seeds of the Word” or “seeds of the Logos” in the world around us. In the tradition of the Church, this reflection – which dates back to Justin Martyr — has always focused on cultural issues rather than on people’s personal lives. The text tends to treat irregular relationships as somehow also containing “seeds of the Word.” Some bishops felt this was inappropriate and misleading.

Some discussion ensued about the meaning of arranged marriages, where this practice still commonly occurs. Such marriages are sometimes seen as lacking the agreement of the persons being married. But what the practice more typically means is that whole families get involved in the entire process of marriage and family life. Various cultures believe that “families marry one another,” not just the individuals making marital promises. Some bishops saw this as a rich concept. It should be better appreciated.

Various bishops questioned the use of the expression “The Gospel of Family.” What does it actually mean? The text offers no answers. The expression comes from St. Pope John Paul’s Letter to Families 1994, number 23.

Regarding No. 48 of the text, much discussion took place on the various forms of witness that families might give in living out their communion as a domestic church. Along with the ones listed in the document, the following were suggested:
The witness of holiness in prayer.
The witness of not being self-referential.
The witness of being sensitive to environmental issues.
The witness of simply living together in charity, in shared, everyday life.

Bishops felt that these actions should be seen as the fruit of baptism and confirmation.

Some in our group spoke about the need for the text to list devotions that both enhance and express family life and spirituality. The rosary was central to the discussion; so was the importance of parents reading Scripture to children, and siblings reading Scripture together. Bishops stressed the value of families attending Sunday Eucharist and other liturgical celebrations together, and were surprised the text didn’t focus on this in greater detail. Some suggested that various practices of popular piety be listed as concrete expressions of family devotions.

Various bishops noted the importance of women in the life of the Church and the need to focus more attention on giving them appropriate leadership roles. Some felt the document should be more
sensitive to women abused by their husbands or within their families, and who therefore carry extra burdens. One person felt that exemplary families are sometimes difficult for people in painful circumstances to see as positive. Exemplary families may intimidate them rather than helping them to see the possibility of living that way themselves.

Bishops said the text should present the canonical reasons for separation of spouses and reasons for seeking an annulment. We need to be realistic about marital problems rather than simply encouraging people to stay together. Again, violence against women was a key part of the discussion.

One of the bishops emphasized that priests are not trained to be marriage counselors. If they present themselves as such, they risk legal problems for their local Churches. Priests should move away from marriage counseling and do clearly defined spiritual guidance instead.

On the question of why young people fear to marry, many bishops observed that young people are afraid to fail in any area of life. Youth ministry in parishes and dioceses should help young couples understand the value of marriage. We need to focus on Pope John Paul’s exhortation not to be afraid and also to be aware that in the Gospel, Jesus took care of a young married couple whose marriage celebration was about to run out of wine. The Lord will always take care of young couples who trust in him in the way.

Circle D accepted this report unanimously. Our group is marked by great diversity and many different perspectives – 29 persons, 21 of them bishops, coming from 20 countries. Bishops made many suggestions for changes in the text. They will bring these forward in the various modi.