The Vatican’s upcoming meeting on family life has spurred broad speculation about a new openness to divorced and remarried Catholics. Now commentators are searching a newly issued working document, the Instrumentum Laboris, for clues about the meeting’s direction.
The Instrumentum Laboris is a summary of the diocesan data collected by the Vatican on the modern challenges to the family, and the document will guide the discussions of the extraordinary synod (mostly leaders of national bishops’ conferences) in October, as well as the ordinary synod of world bishops in 2015.
Thomas Reese at National Catholic Reporter describes the document as “boring and joyless.” Boring might be true if one didn’t understand the genre of the document or if one didn’t find it interesting how bishops themselves communicated the pastoral concerns they witness. Joyless perhaps more accurately describes Reese’s own emotions than the actual document:
Despite the numerous problems cited by the working paper, it still has hope for “a new springtime for the family,” which it believes will be led by young people who “see a value in a stable, enduring relationship and express a real desire to marry and form a family.” How this jives with the fact that young people are delaying marriage, hooking up, practicing birth control, and living together before getting married remains to be seen.
The fact that people are delaying marriage for reasons both cultural and economic doesn’t mean they don’t still hope for a committed, stable marriage. A recent Gallup poll found that while 45 percent of Americans are unmarried, only 5 percent say they have no desire to marry.
For my part, I am struck by the rich theological vision and hope of the document. It notes of “a want 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.” It is not just that the biblical and magisterial teaching on the family is misunderstood, it is that Catholics lack a felt encounter with Christ and his Church, and so misunderstand who man is, and who he is to God and to his community.
And who is man to God? The Catechism says it succinctly:
Jesus knew and loved us each and all during his life, his agony, and his Passion and gave himself up for each one of us: “The Son of God . . . loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20) He has loved us all with a human heart. For this reason, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation (cf. Jn 19:34) “is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that . . . love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings” without exception.
Ah, the Sacred Heart. While the document mentions new forms of spiritual engagement, it also notably expresses a desire “to safeguard and promote the various forms of popular piety on the different continents in support of the family.” So it is especially fitting to recall the Sacred Heart today on its feast. The image of the Sacred Heart is often enthroned in an individual’s or a family’s home to inspire a life of prayer, especially through the sacraments of the Church. From a reserved place in the home, the image serves as a reminder to desire to be with Christ always, to make one’s heart like his.
“When the teaching of the Church is clearly communicated in its authentic, human and Christian beauty, it is enthusiastically received for the most part by the faithful.” While Reese may mock the hope of the Synod, I find it promising, even joyful, to see that the Church herself tries to make her heart like Christ’s: She seeks the salvation of souls by finding clearer ways to teach the faith, and by reaffirming the religious practices and traditions that have brought the family to pray together so that it may stay together.