July 21, 2014
Normally, the release of the instrumentum laboris (working paper) for a World Synod of Bishops attracts no mainstream media attention and little in the Catholic press. This time it is different because of expectations that the double synod (2014 and 2015) on the family may lead to greater acceptance at the Eucharistic table for those divorced and remarried without an annulment.
Some media commentaries have not been enlightening. It is startling to read that the biggest problem facing families today is, in effect, that the Church continues to preach the Gospel. If the Church would only drop its teachings on contraception, same-sex marriage and the permanency of marriage, so the argument goes, the world would be better off.
It is fair to say that 46 years after Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upheld Church teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception, the message has not gotten across to the Catholic faithful, let alone the wider world.
For that, the Church must accept at least part of the responsibility. Pope St. John Paul II's explanation of that teaching in terms of the so-called theology of the body – which is more biblical than traditional modes of teaching – has not been as widely disseminated as it might. A huge challenge in catechesis lies ahead, something the instrumentum laboris freely admits.
Nevertheless, when the instrumentum laboris says problems facing the family are due to "a widespread cultural, social and spiritual crisis" in the world, that is far closer to reality than anything offered up by the Church's critics.
There is, of course, no point in bemoaning the crisis
unless you plan to help end it. That is the situation the Church faces. Resistance to Church teaching, the document notes, is not simply due to a failure in instruction. Rather, one should take note of the widespread lack of "an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level, for which no doctrinal presentation, no matter how accurate, can substitute."
The strength of today's Church is that a growing percentage of its members have had that "authentic Christian experience." The weakness is that the total number is small.
Actually giving people such an experience is beyond human abilities. Evangelization is a crucial step in opening the door for such experience, but faith is God's gift and can only be received by open and willing hearts.
The instrumentum laboris is a good scene-setter for the upcoming synods, but no more. It gives an overview of problems facing families, pressures on families and difficult pastoral situations. The synod itself will not change the world. But if it can spark more outreach, clearer teaching and real, compassionate solutions for people who feel alienated from the Church, it will have accomplished a great deal.
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