It took me so long to work through all the questions that the synod finished long before this series did! That’s not because the questions are badly written or too theologically intense. You don’t need a theology degree to consider these questions. I don’t have a theology degree. I do have:
- an undergraduate degree in English,
- a master’s degree in secondary English education,
- one year of part-time volunteer experience in high school youth ministry,
- two years of full-time experience teaching high school English in Catholic schools, and
- three years of full-time experience as lay pastoral staff in campus ministry.
If anyone can wrap their heads around this stuff without a theology degree, it’s me.
Last fall, I purposely avoided reading the interim relatio (the document that sparked all the media scrutiny, premature celebration, and premature panic). I was always waiting for the final draft. I’m sure the rough drafts of many classic stories would scandalize the most devoted reader!
So, after what seemed like forever, I read that final draft. Here are my summaries of the 3 parts of the concluding document, the relatio synodi. This is just what stuck out to me. I glossed over things I expected to see and focused on what was new and unusual. Section headings are from the original.
Part One, Listening: Context and Challenges of the Family
Loneliness and unemployment keep young people from forming the families they desire. Without the certainty of the knowledge that God is present and the security of premarital relationships (e.g., relationships with friends and family), the ability to enter into a Christian marriage is weakened. Without work, it is difficult to support a spouse, children, or aging parents. That keeps potential parents from getting married, welcoming children, and caring for their own parents. (number 6)
The idolization of emotions hurts the ability of people to enter into marriage or stay married. Marriage demands turning away from individualism and self-centeredness (because it’s no longer all about you) and requires commitment to your vows (so you can’t just leave if you’re not “feeling it” anymore). If you’ve spent your entire youth, adolescence, and early adulthood “finding yourself,” it’s no wonder you can’t “find” and commit to your spouse and future generations. (n. 9–10)
Part Two, Looking at Christ: The Gospel of the Family
Marriage as a lifelong, total, sacramental union is relatively new in the scope of salvation history. After the Fall, the ideal of marriage was lost, leading to Moses’ permitting divorce and remarriage. Christ, however, forbade divorce and remarriage in his own teachings. Scripture is organized in such a way that the story of God and man, Christ and the Church, begins and ends with a marriage: first, the original union of Adam and Eve, and finally, the wedding feast of the Lamb of God and his spotless Bride. (n. 13–16)
Although it’s true that many Catholics are only civilly married, divorced and remarried, or cohabiting, the fullness of the truth is sacramental marriage. We must speak the truth in love, which is more than mere compassion, just as Jesus did when he told the woman caught in adultery to “go, and sin no more.” (n. 24–28)
Part Three, Confronting the Situation: Pastoral Perspectives
Catholic families who are following Christ are the best method of evangelization about the gospel of the family. (n. 30)
Preparation for marriage and for initiation (e.g. RCIA and adult Confirmation programs) should include teaching on the family and the experience of real families. This connects the sacraments to one another and emphasizes the presence of families in the church community. In the first few years of marriage, we should offer liturgies and prayer opportunities focused on developing and showing examples of family spirituality. (n. 39–40)
The primary goal of the annulment process is to determine the truth about the marriage. That remains even in proposals to eliminate the court of second instance1 or to use a shorter process when “nullity is clearly evident.” The faith of the individual spouses might be considered as a contributing factor to validity. (n. 48)
The discussion about allowing people who are divorced-and-remarried to receive Confession and the Eucharist remains unresolved, although it would require a suitable penance determined by each person’s bishop. Whether re-admittance would be on a blanket or individual basis is also unresolved. The difference between spiritual and sacramental Communion needs further study to determine how they can be applied to this situation. (n. 52–53)
Same-sex marriage is not equal or even substantially similar to sacramental or natural marriage. When organizations tie economic aid to the requirement to legalize gay marriage, they’re doing a grave injustice to the poor. (n. 54–55)
My Final Thoughts
I have plenty to say regarding two of the hot-button issues discussed at the synod: communion for the divorced-and-remarried and revising the annulment process. I actually have some professional experience with the latter2, and now that the motu proprio has been issued, I have to work through everything again! I’m not quite ready to share that on the Internet, though. The Internet never forgets. If you know me in person, I’ll talk with you about it. For now, I’ll let those thoughts stay offline.
In general, I was pleased with the relatio synodi. The regrouping of topics makes it clearer that these discussion are focused on the Church’s primary mission: evangelization. People are facing real problems, so we’re listening. The family should point toward Christ, so we’re looking at him. He is our shepherd, so we’re examining the flock and maybe bringing some wayward sheep back into the fold.
I also want to direct you toward a few other post-synod writings that caught my eye.
First, read the message the synod fathers published to accompany the relatio synodi. It’s beautiful. It paints a picture of the pain families face today, and it offers a vision of the ideal. It also includes a prayer for families. If you haven’t been praying for marriage in general, for families, or for our Church leaders, you should be.
Second, Cardinal Dolan blogged a reflection on his experience of the synod. He was actually there and knows exactly what happened. He suggests that anyone who thought Church teaching would change due to the synod should read Catholicism for Dummies. That’s a real book, by the way. I own it, and I like it a lot.
Third, if you are wondering what this week’s motu proprio on annulments means, the best answer is “no one is 100% sure.” It doesn’t take effect until December 8, and I don’t know whether the new canons (laws) will apply to annulment petitions that have been started already or only to new ones submitted on or after that date. My best advice for anyone who might be interested in petitioning for annulment is to approach your pastor and make an appointment to talk about it. All annulments start with that step.
The media response to the synod was less than ideal, to say the least. The Church’s response should be one of relief. These important questions are being asked in an official and appropriate context. Answers are being proposed, discussed, and argued over. As Cardinal Dolan mentioned, the apostles did the same thing in Acts. There should be no battle between clergy and laity. We can work together to get everyone to heaven, united with Christ forever.
What was your response to the synod? Were you relieved, worried, or confused? Do you think it was a waste of time? Are you frustrated that there were no definitive answers or major changes in Church teaching?
Currently, for all positive declarations of nullity (a.k.a. “getting an annulment”), the first tribunal’s positive decision (“this marriage is null”) automatically has to be confirmed by a second tribunal. The second tribunal is called “the court of second instance.” That court also has first-instance cases.
If the second tribunal agrees, the former spouses receive a positive declaration, “get an annulment,” and are free to marry. If more than one marriage is being investigated, the next marriage can then be evaluated. (That happens more often than you might think.)
If the second tribunal disagrees (“no, this marriage is still binding”), the former spouses receive a negative declaration, do not “get an annulment,” and are considered to still be married to each other. The declaration can be appealed to a higher tribunal: the Roman Rota. That is rare and expensive, but it happens.
Pope Francis’s motu proprio references the court of second instance, but I have already read completely contradictory commentary about what the text actually says, so I will refrain from commenting. ↩
- I was trained as a field advocate for the Diocese of Austin, so I know exactly what is involved in “getting an annulment” here. I probably know more than I ought to. It makes me really fun at parties. ↩