Many breathed a sigh of relief when the summary document of the extraordinary Synod on the Family was much improved and the seriously flawed sections (which no one seems to know who wrote!) were removed. But in this case we cannot allow the better to become the enemy of the best. And frankly the relatio, though improved, ought not escape sober scrutiny by those who seek to allow the upcoming (Ordinary) Synod to become what it really ought to be: a synod on families, not on dysfunction.
No doubt the family is in grave crisis, not just in the West, be really throughout most of the world. But to focus only on the dysfunction and to make it the main matter of discussion is to miss the solution which comes from focusing on what is functional and healthy.
Consider the medical world. It is clear that they must look to the pathologies and diseases that afflict the human family. But the definition and picture of what is healthy must drive everything doctors do (except perhaps in the palliative care department). The role of doctors is not to make sick people feel better about being sick, it is to make them well; it is to restore them to good health. I suppose it is not a bad thing that doctors make patients feel welcome and comfortable in the office or hospital, but that is secondary. If I go to the doctor with cancer and all the doctor says is “I affirm you! Don’t feel embarrassed or hurt; lots of people are sick. Heck, I get sick too.” Well then I am going to have to say, “Thanks Doc, but how about the cancer? What are we going to do about that?”
Yet too often in the Church today those entrusted with the care of souls talk like that chatty, affirming doctor. Too easily it’s all “bedside manner” stuff, and not enough good, strong medicine that calls disease what it is is and points to the charts and indicators of what true health is.
It would seem that an awful lot of the time at the Synod, at least in the discussions that were most publicized, was spent talking about what is dysfunctional and trying to make people in dysfunctional situations feel better and “included.” It would seem that less time has been spent looking at what true family health and functionality is and working to rebuild that by insisting on it, preaching it, and getting people used to it again. Where is the focus on functional families? How have they succeeded? What are the elements that most contribute to family health? Where are the panels of couples married 25, 40, and 50 years being consulted for solid advice? Where is the pointed and solid exegesis of scriptural texts, teachings from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and witnesses to married love down through the centuries?
Sadly, most of the oxygen thus far has gone toward what is not working. The “Synod on the Family” might need to be renamed the “Synod on Divorce, Remarriage, and Alternative Families.” As such, we seem more like the “cheerful” doctor above who spends all his time welcoming and reassuring but misses his most essential role: combating pathology and restoring health.
A recent article in Catholic World Report highlights the seemingly skewed emphasis in the Relatio and in current discussions. The article highlights what the Synod did NOT say and focuses on two specific omissions. Here are some excerpts from the article (by Matthew Christoff) in bold italics, with some additional commentary by me in plain red text. The full article can be found here: The Bishops and the Man-Crisis.
Christoff begins by listing two serious omissions he sees and then detailing them. (Remember I am presenting excerpts.)
The Synod completely ignored the essential importance of men in the faith lives of the family and the broader Catholic “man-crisis.” The second shocking omission is that the Synod failed to acknowledge and address the majority of families in the pews, families with married moms and dads who are facing crushing challenges with successfully passing on the faith to their children.
Omission 1: Men
In the Relatio Synodi, the Synod Fathers offered only one sentence with 25 words addressed to men and fathers who represent about half of Catholics. For perspective, homosexuals, who represent 1-2% of Catholics, merited two whole paragraphs. Wow, ONE sentence, ONE.
Rather than recognize the contributions of fathers or their unique spiritual and evangelization needs, the Synod Fathers offered this short, critical admonishment to men and fathers:
Fathers who are often absent from their families, not simply for economic reasons, need to assume more clearly their responsibility for children and the family (Paragraph 8).
Well, admonishment is good. A lot of men are sinfully absent and/or passive husbands and fathers.
But admonishment without instruction is ineffective. This is especially true today when many men hear the message that seeking to be the head of their household, to provide for their wife and children, and to be be a leader are bad things. Men who talk like this are often scolded for being patriarchal, insensitive, misogynistic, etc.
Thus scolding without teaching men, women, and even children of the biblical vision of a man as the head of his family, is ineffective because it does not provide men or families with a framework that clarifies the “responsibility” the bishops speak of and how it is to be properly described and fulfilled.
It is strategically flawed to believe that the Church can bring the New Evangelization to the family without addressing the Catholic “man-crisis”. The New Emangelization Project has documented that there is a Catholic “man-crisis” that is widespread and serious. Fully one in three baptized Catholic men in the U.S. have left the Church … Of those who remain 50-60% are … men who don’t know the faith, don’t practice the faith and are not committed to passing the faith along to their children … Men are essential in the passing along of faith to the children. Various studies have been published that underscore the essential nature of the father in the transmission of the faith. The active involvement in the faith of an evangelized and catechized father is the single biggest influence on whether the children will remain in the faith when they become adults. The reason the Church is losing so many young people is that the fathers have not been evangelized and catechized. This is the essence of the Catholic “man-crisis.”
OK, are we clear: the Synod has to focus a LOT more on men and their role as husbands and fathers. One sentence is NOT enough. Some teachings regarding men that should be emphasized for the restoration of good, healthy families should include: What does scripture teach of the role of a man as a husband and father? What does scripture mean in calling a man the head of his wife? How is this role properly exercised (and not set aside as outdated)? What are ways the Church can once again summon men to leadership roles in the parish and community? How can we better form young men to be husbands, fathers, priests, deacons, or religious?
ONE sentence? Really? Major omission! Much more has to be said and done about the “missing man syndrome” in the Church and in the family.
Omission 2: Intact Families
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (Marriage in the Catholic Church: A Survey of U.S. Catholics – 2007), sacramentally married Catholics represent the single biggest portion of Catholics (some 35-40%). These Catholics received no pastoral emphasis by the Synod. N.B. There are still a lot of functioning families. Not enough to be sure, but there ARE still a good number.
[Instead, the Relatio] focuses on five [other] types of families for pastoral care: engaged couples, married couples in their early years, couples who are not sacramentally married, divorced and remarried couples and single parent families, and homosexual persons. Here is the relative emphasis based on word count:
Those to be married (7% of the word count)
Those newly married (7% of the word count)
Those living together or civilly married (17% of the word count)
Those who are divorced or single (61% of the word count)
Homosexuals (7% of the word count)
Each of these groups are certainly worthy of evangelization and are rightly acknowledged in the document. What’s missing is the largest portion of those families who are Catholic: sacramentally married with intact families.
Once again, WOW! 61% of the word count on the divorced or still single and almost nothing on functioning, traditional families. True, the engaged and newly married receive 14% of the word count. But the skew is clearly toward what is at variance with God’s plan and is dysfunctional: cohabiters, the divorced, and those with same-sex attraction. Hence the wonderment as to whether this really is the “Synod on the Family” and not the “Synod on Divorce, Remarriage, and Alternative Families.” I will admit that I am not sure how these percentages were determined, so I am just assuming the count as reliable, though I suppose what category every word goes into may be a matter of some debate, at least at the margins.
Intact [traditional] families face grave issues that desperately require the Church’s attention. Many of these families are casual in their faith and will not be able to successfully transmit the faith to their children without dramatic new enthusiasm, catechesis, and skills. All the trends suggest that the Church is failing in helping intact families pass their faith along to their children: since 2000 in the U.S., 14 million Catholics have left the faith, parish religious education participation of children has dropped by 24%, Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19%, baptisms of infants has dropped by 28%, baptism of adults has dropped by 31% and sacramental Catholic marriages have dropped by 41%. Something is desperately wrong with how the Church is evangelizing and catechizing existing families.
To use a common sense analogy from business: Businesses that flourish are extremely attendant to their loyal customer base (for the Church, those sacramentally married couples with children in the pews); great emphasis is placed on helping these customers grow in their loyalty (for the Church, helping parents grow in their faith and successfully pass their faith along to their children) and increasing their use of the product (increased Mass attendance and participation in Reconciliation). A losing strategy in business is to focus marketing efforts on wooing back those customers who don’t like the product (for the Church, those who reject the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality) and have stopped using the product (those who have left the Church).
Admittedly, this analogy is only partially correct for the Church; Christ teaches that the lost sheep should be pursued, and so they should. But Christ’s last words to Peter are repeated three times: “feed my sheep.” Sadly, in the Relatio Synodi, the largest portion of families are completely ignored; the sheep in the paddock are not being fed. Amen!
Christoff concludes with a plea to Bishops:
As fathers, bishops, and priests must begin to take responsibility for their own families (their dioceses, their parishes) and develop new ardor, methods, and expressions to successfully evangelize and catechize men and intact families in the pews….it is imperative that the Church realize and correct the Synod’s shocking omissions and realign attention to the evangelization and catechesis of men and those intact families who are in the pews. Without a new and dramatic hands-on effort to “feed the sheep” (i.e., men and intact families), the flock will continue to wander off in the coming decades.
Here’s a complex song. But among other things, it celebrates the formation that takes place in families.