Encouraging and Discouraging Elements of the Working Document for the Synod on the Family

Encouraging and Discouraging Aspects of working document for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family


On October 8, 2013, Pope Francis called on the bishops of the world to take up the topic, The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization in a two stage process invoking an Extraordinary Synod on the Family (October 5 – 19, 2014) in preparation for the Ordinary Synod on the Family (October 4 - 25, 2015) which will formulate appropriate pastoral guidelines.

The Preparatory Document for the Extraordinary Synod was issued on November 5, 2013 and received responses, not only from episcopal conferences, but also from Catholics around the world. 

Upon receipt, the General Secretariat categorized them into two types: a) those received bishops, synod of the Eastern Catholic Churches, Curial departments, Superior Generals and,  b) those categorized as “observations” sent directly to the General Secretariat by dioceses, parishes, academic institutions, movements, groups, etc. 

Those documents were analyzed and on June 24, 2014, the Vatican issued the Instrumentum Laboris (working document), a summary of responses from the world’s Bishops meant to aid in the work of the Synod and is used to begin discussions. 

NOTE!  this document was created  to help initiate the bishops’  discussion at the Extraordinary Synod and is by no means the final word.

Here is a link so you can read it yourself http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20140626_instrumentum-laboris-familia_en.html

The document is divided into three parts. 
Part I:  Locates the biblical and traditional teaching on the family and gauges the acceptance or knowledge of that teaching by Catholics.  
Part II:  Proposes some ideas for pastorally supporting families
Part III: Addresses marriage, reproduction, and education for families


Overall, it is discouraging that the document seems deaf to feedback from Catholics all over the world about unreceived aspects of Church teaching (for example contraception).  Instead it reinforces current teaching on the family and blames its dwindling influence on secular, individualistic culture. Church teachings are defended as being authoritative, but poorly understood.  There are encouraging aspects of the document that indicate a re-evaluation of some foundational frameworks, such as natural law, may be in order.  Here is a sampling of some of the salient points.


  1. Some episcopal conferences emphasize the need to exercise more widely, mercy, clemency and indulgence towards new unions in the case of divorced and remarried Catholics.  They note the practice of the Orthodox Church that opens the ways for second or third marriages, and recognize there is a question of doctrine vs. discipline involved.  The document weighs the annulment process, suggests streamlining it and acknowledges there is disagreement about its premise.  
  2. There is a call for a theological study “in dialogue with the human sciences to develop a multi-faceted look at the phenomenon of homosexuality (pt 2, ch 3, sec 116).”  It notes that bishops who are trying to find a balance between the Church’s teachings on the family and “a respectful, non-judgmental attitude” towards homosexual couples have not found an effective way of doing so.  
  3. The document acknowledges the role Bishops have played in contributing to the demise of moral authority in the Church.  It specifically names clergy sex abuse, and the  affluent lifestyles of some prelates as damaging the Church’s moral and teaching authority.
  4. This document does a pretty good job of addressing many issues that negatively impact families in light of Catholic social teaching.  It names the destructive effects of psychological, physical and sexual violence and the disproportionate damage to women and children.  Honor killings, trafficking, exploitation, pornography, addictions are also addressed as well as stresses caused by poverty, unjust labor conditions, migration, societal pressures to achieve, physical and mental illnesses, and the need for decent jobs, fair wages, and fiscal policies favoring families.  It also identifies the destructive impact of war on families and whole societies. 
  5. The document acknowledges a changing understanding of natural law.  Attempting to extricate it from a purely abstract Western construction, it acknowledges the implications of cultural context on meaning and the ramifications of scientific advances in evolution, biology and neuroscience on its usefulness.   It calls for a renewal in terms of language and foundational elements.
  6. The document discusses the challenges families face and the need for compassion and understanding from the Church.  Calling the parish, “the family of families” it stresses the need to attend to families in distress with “mercy and tenderness.” 


1. Unfortunately, the document reflects a hierarchal mentality and despite evidence that a sizable and principal selection of current teaching is failing Catholics in critical ways, the tone is often patronizing or critical of Catholics.  Teaching authority is fixed, flows downward, and does not begin to adequately incorporate the lived experience and faith of Catholics who contribute to the teaching and wisdom of the Church.

2. The document wrestles with the decline in the influence of Church teaching on the family by restating well-worn arguments that exhibit defensiveness rather than openness to dialogue.   Blame is assigned to:

  • Clergy who don’t teach adequately or who voice dissent from official teachings which, “leads to confusion” (pt 1, ch 2, sec 12)
  • Catholics who are not properly prepared to understand the Church’s teachings or cultivate an appreciation for the “essential character of truth” affirmed in the Magisterial documents on the family
  • The growing influence of hedonism, relativism, materialism, individualism, secularism, selfish liberalization of morality, fragility of interpersonal relationships, cultures which reject making permanent choices, the demand for instant gratification, etc.
  • On a more realistic note, it does take note of the fact that Catholics are not engaged in communal life and that sometimes pastors are reduced to sacramental distributors, but the unfortunate solution offered for increasing the influence of Church teaching on the family is to re-produce it more effectively and efficiently. 

3.  Most importantly, the document casts serious and repeated suspicion on contemporary gender theory by presenting it as an ideology that ignores biology and turns sexual difference into a product of social conditioning.  This oversimplification and distortion shortchanges a useful analytical tool in identifying root causes of sex stereotyping.  It illuminates the effects of rigid social conditioning with the accompanying assignment of roles in families and societies based on biology alone.  Gender theory helps illuminate the serious shortcomings of John Paul II’s theology of the body, which in fact is another misguided attempt to reinforce traditional roles for women and men based on biology. 

  •  Further, the document equates uncertainty in gender identification in children with imbalances in the family caused by the lack of a father-figure (pt 2, ch 2, sec 64), a notion that has been challenged by psychologists and feminists.
  • And finally, when it comes to homosexuality, gender ideology is once again pegged as a culprit in undermining sexual identity (pt 2, ch 2, secs 117, 119). 

4. While the synod is seen as a place to encourage participation of the family in creating just societies where people learn how to live according to the common good despite differences, the document also exhibits the Church’s blindness to its own stated goals by seeing this ministry as belonging strictly to families where marriage is between heterosexuals.   Those who live in “irregular” relationships are in need of mercy and compassion, but only Church sanctioned heterosexual marriages can serve as models of Christian familial love.  Most Catholics have experienced and understand that some of the most profound love passes between those who live in familial relationships that fall outside of the official Church’s accepted set. 

5.  In addressing divorced and remarried couples wish to receive the sacraments, the document sadly suggests a reinforcement of a two-tiered community where those in “irregular” unions who cannot receive the sacraments or Holy Communion are encouraged to accept their status in the community.  There is even a suggestion for replicating a second-tier treatment at the Eucharist; an individual blessing at communion. (pt 2, ch 3, sec 104). 

6.  The language used in describing the pastoral challenges associated with homosexual couples is often demeaning and reflects a mistaken moral superiority by Church leaders. 

  • Section 116 (pt 2, ch 3) is especially offensive in stating,
    when considering the possibility of ministry to these people… 
  • This same section also suggests there is a distinction and explicit approval for those who live “discreetly so as not to give scandal to others” rather than those whose behavior “promotes and actively – often aggressively – calls attention to it.”   This language is reflective of the strong predisposition against homosexuals the great conundrum presented when the notion of a pastoral approach to homosexuals and the transmission of faith to their children is coupled with current Church teaching that really sees them as deficient and, further, tacitly encourages closeted behavior as the solution.  
  • And in section 20, the distrust for homosexual parents is blatant when the discussion turns to the transmission of faith to children.  While it is accepted that children of same sex union couples can be baptized, the question of how to transmit the faith (i.e., the church’s teaching on homosexuality) arises.  As such, the pastor is to “carefully oversee the preparation for the possible baptism of the children, with particular attention given to the choice of the godfather and godmother (pt 2, ch 3, sec 120).”   All the softened language in the world will not conceal the potential harm done to children in such a setting or cover the blatant disregard for the faith of same sex parents.

7.  Part 3 of the document is devoted to promoting Humane Vitae’s teaching on contraception through education, even though it has been rejected by the vast majority of Catholics for over 50 years.  While it acknowledges dissent, it blames non-acceptance on secularization and misunderstandings of the teaching.  Again, gender ideology is seen as a major culprit in dissent.  

Written by:  Deborah Rose-Milavec