Pope Francis has called not one, but two synods to discuss pastoral challenges of the family.

Pope Francis has called not one, but two synods to discuss pastoral challenges of the family.

July 7, 2014

The working document for the October 2014 extraordinary Synod of Bishops offers a picture of the Catholic Church today struggling to transmit moral teachings amid a "widespread cultural, social and spiritual crisis" of the family.

The 75-page instrumentum laboris, published by the Vatican June 26, is supposed to "provide an initial reference point" for discussion at the synod.

The synod's theme will be the "pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization."

The document is based principally on comments solicited in a questionnaire last November from national bishops' conferences around the world. But it also reflects comments sent directly to the Vatican by individuals and groups responding to the questionnaire, which was widely published on the Internet.

Topics in the working document include some of the most contested and controversial areas of Catholic moral teaching on the family, including contraception, divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriage, premarital sex and in vitro fertilization.

Bishops' conferences responding to the questionnaire attributed an increasing disregard of such teachings to a variety of influences, including "hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; (and) the growing secularism."

Recognizing that most Catholic couples do not follow the Church's teaching against the use of artificial birth control, the document says "for many Catholics the concept of 'responsible parenthood' encompasses the shared responsibility in conscience to choose the most appropriate method of birth control."


The document says the use of natural family planning, condoned by the Church, encourages responsible decisions about family size while respecting human fertility and "the dignity of the sexual relationship between husband and wife."

Bishops expressed particular concern with the "ideology called gender theory, according to which the gender of each individual turns out to be simply the product of social conditioning and needs" without "any correspondence to a person's biological sexuality."

The bishops see a need for better teaching of "Christian anthropology," the document states.


Noting that contemporary culture dismisses or misunderstands theories of "natural law," which seek to "found human rights on reason," bishops increasingly prefer to invoke Scripture in support of Catholic moral teaching.

The document also points to economic factors behind Catholics' disregard of that teaching: Cohabitation without marriage can be driven by financial need; youth unemployment; and a lack of housing."

A widespread "contraceptive mentality" reflects, in part, a shortage of "child care, flexible working hours (and) parental leave." Long working hours and commuting times "take a toll on family relationships."

"The Church is called to offer real support for decent jobs, just wages and a fiscal policy favouring the family as well as programs of assistance to families and children," the document states.

The document refers briefly to scandals over the sexual abuse of children by priests, which it says "significantly weaken the Church's moral credibility," as do other forms of "counter-witness in the Church."

Those other forms of counter-witness include the lavish lifestyles of some clergy and unwelcoming attitudes in some parishes toward separated, divorced or single parents.

The bishops recognize the challenges of ministering to growing numbers of people in such "irregular" situations, including divorced Catholics who have remarried civilly without obtaining an annulment of their first marriage, leaving them ineligible to receive Communion.


Their predicament, which Pope Francis has said exemplifies a special need for mercy in the Church today, has been a topic of unusually open debate at the highest levels of the Church over the last year.

Many in such situations feel "frustrated and marginalized," the document states, noting proposals for rendering the annulment process simpler and quicker.

But it also warns that streamlining the annulment process might obscure Church doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage. The document also notes proposals that the Catholic Church consider adopting Orthodox practice, which allows for second and even third marriages under certain circumstances.