Last month’s Synod on the Family in Rome was an attempt to “lend an ear to the rhythm of our time,” as Pope Francis put it. The synod was certainly “extraordinary” because it was a prequel to an “ordinary” synod that will take place next year that will also be devoted to the family. And, it was certainly “extraordinary” because of the huge media interest it generated.
That was understandable since it focused on important issues pertaining to marriage, family and sexual morality — including those that are controversial both within and outside the church. These themes touched on the realities that face the majority of Catholics and others in their everyday lives.
As the Vatican Council taught 50 years ago, the family is the “school of humanity” and, as the locus of spiritual life for most people and the primary vehicle for transmitting the faith to future generations, the family is for Catholics the “domestic church.”
The family today is in crisis: In the West, the collapse of the cultural narrative of marriage means fewer marrying and more and more children born into families lacking necessary stability. As the synod secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Balderiserri, said, “The recovery of the Gospel of the family is key to a more missionary church that can walk with contemporary people, binding their wounds and guiding them into the spiritual life.”
The church is called to live in the harmony of mercy and justice, the pastoral and doctrinal, working out how to be both compassionate mother and clear teacher. As Cardinal Francis George of Chicago recently remarked, “Pastoral practice must reflect doctrinal conviction. It is not ‘merciful’ to tell people lies, as if the church had the authority to give anyone permission to ignore God’s laws.” This means, as St. Paul would say, “Living the truth in love.” Truth and love both are necessary, for divorced from truth love becomes just sentimentality.
In the discussions during the Synod on the Family — especially as reported by the secular media — it seemed to some that a few bishops were saying that the “problem” was the Gospel. And there are those inside and outside the church who might have hoped that the church would change one or another of the “hard sayings” of the Gospel.
But today our society has a hard time distinguishing good from evil. And so, how would watering down the truth help that situation?
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, did stir the waters, but the ensuing discussions produced no changes to pastoral practice. In the end, the synod issued a series of reflections and recommendations that fit snugly within the Catholic tradition.
Those who thought that the synod fathers would approve changes in church doctrine were disappointed. The bishops rejected any pastoral proposal that would, in practice, tend to undermine Christ’s teachings on marriage. To those who would suggest that for today’s families the Gospel is the problem, the bishops and the Pope affirmed that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not the problem — it is the solution.
As we deal with the messiness (i.e. sinfulness) of our lives and the lives of our loved ones, the solution for our families and for ourselves is found in “living the truth in love.”
Thomas G. Wenski is archbishop of Miami.