Prelates attend the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the family celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 4. CNS/Paul Haring

Synod’s challenge

  • October 8, 2015

Pope Francis has energized debate about the threat to the planet’s natural environment. But now he faces an even greater challenge — mobilizing Catholics and society in general to tackle the man-made threat to the bedrock of our social environment, the family.

That’s what more than 300 cardinals, bishops, priests and Catholic laypeople are addressing at a Synod of Bishops on the Family, which runs in the Vatican until Oct. 25. Most pre-Synod headlines focused on the issues of annulment, communion for divorced and remarried couples and same-sex unions, but those topics hardly begin to scratch the surface of the bishops’ agenda. The matters to be discussed are far more fundamental and sweeping.

It’s important to keep that in mind in the coming days. For Francis, few issues are more pressing than nursing the open wounds the modern age has inflicted on family life. He has made family — in the traditional sense of the word — a priority of his pontificate and boldly asked his bishops to cast a wide net to examine several complex and interconnected pressure points that make family life difficult for so many in today’s culture.

He wants the Synod to delve into the impact of poverty, war, migration and unemployment; to explore the consequences of Earth’s changing climate, consumerism and mass media; to study challenges created by feminism, gender theory, infertility, artificial reproduction, abortion and aging; to reflect on marriage formation, counselling, the reasons couples delay or decline marriage and have fewer children; and to consider the role of faith, prayer and catechesis in strengthening the bond between Church and family.

The Pope has called family “the essential cell of society and the Church,” and he says that cell is in crisis. It is a crisis that inflicts spiritual and material “devastation” on countless people, he says. In particular, as society becomes blasé about marriage, procreation and family stability, the most seriously impacted are women, children and the elderly, the weak and vulnerable, who often fall into poverty. “It is always they who suffer the most,” he said.

The Church, he believes, is obligated to aggressively react to this emergency by developing responses that combine respect for Church teaching with pastoral support, encouragement and mercy. Judgmental approaches, he correctly states, only drive people away from a Church that should always be welcoming, particularly to those suffering most. So he is challenging his bishops to, yes, be faithful to doctrine, but to also be creative in seeking ways to comfort and sustain families enveloped in spiritual and physical turmoil.

Finding that balance in a world prone to hasty judgment and condemnation will require courage, humility and prayer, Francis said. That’s true. But families confronting so many challenges deserve nothing less from their bishops.

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