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October synod to address family issues

By John Burger

The Church considers the family so important that it will be devoting the next two years to intensive discussions about the challenges the basic unit of society is facing today.

Pope Francis has called an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2014 on “pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelization.” An extraordinary general assembly has been convoked only twice since the Synod of Bishops was established in the wake of the Second Vatican Council to foster greater collegiality among the pope and the world’s bishops.

But October’s two-week meeting won’t be the end of it. The pope also wants the synod to meet in 2015 to seek guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family, according to the preparatory document for this October’s meeting.

That preparatory document notes that there are concerns today “which were unheard of until a few years ago,” including cohabitation, same-sex unions, a rise in inter-religious marriages and single-parent families, and a “culture of non-commitment.”

John S. Grabowski, associate professor and director of Moral Theology/Ethics in the School of Theology and Religious Studies of The Catholic University of America, said that the synod is timely. “In the United States, we have a post-marriage culture, with the prevalence of divorce and the widespread practice of cohabitation, including among Catholics—70% maybe, according to some studies,” he said. “People are cohabiting prior to marriage, which actually increases the likelihood of later divorce, and within marriage we are facing challenges that just were not as prevalent 20, 30, 40 years ago.”

The number of marriages celebrated in Catholic churches in the United States has fallen from 348,300 in 1985 to 163,775 in 2011, according to the Official Catholic Directory and the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae. The Official Catholic Directory for 2013 shows a slight uptick: 163,976.

Grabowski and his wife, Claire, are members of the Pontifical Council for the Family, which met last October to discuss issues relevant to the upcoming synod. Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and his wife, Dorian, are the only other member-couple of the pontifical council from the United States.

Timothy T. O’Donnell, president of Christendom College in Virginia, serves as a consultor to the council. He also attended the meeting last October.

“There was a real sense that in many instances marriage is in crisis because there’s not much marriage formation,” he said. “And everybody seems to be calling out for the need for formation, not only in pre-Cana, but even after marriage. After the wedding has taken place there can be communications problems or difficulties, so that there should be some type of ongoing marriage formation.”

Family’s Role in Evangelizing 

The theme chosen for this year’s synod meeting, the family and evangelization, points to perennial concerns for the Church. It’s not difficult to see how important it is for the Church to foster stable families.

“The family is, so to speak, the domestic church,” says Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church. “In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state.”

The preparatory document for the synod notes that “the social and spiritual crisis, so evident in today’s world, is becoming a pastoral challenge in the Church’s evangelizing mission concerning the family, the vital building-block of society and the ecclesial community.” Parents “assume the responsibility of raising and educating other persons for the future of humankind.”

If the faith is not passed down from one generation to the next—in the family context—the universal Church suffers.

“By simply calling 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, then we understand just how urgent are the challenges to evangelization arising from the current situation, which can be seen in almost every part of the ‘global village,’” says the preparatory document.

Pope Francis also addressed the challenges facing today’s families in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), issued last November. “The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds,” Francis wrote. “In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children. Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. But the indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.”

To help guide the synod’s deliberations, the Vatican has provided a list of questions that bishops are asked to consider as they view the situation in their dioceses and consult with the faithful.

Fathers for Good hopes to contribute to the conversation as we move closer to the October synod. In coming months, we will feature articles and interviews on a variety of themes that are covered in the preparatory document.

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