Upcoming Synod Must Address Family Disintegration

Judging by the media reports on the Extraordinary Synod to be held in Rome this October, the bishops present will be mainly concerned with issues such as the admission to the Eucharist of divorced and remarried persons, the speeding up of annulment processes, and the possible revision of the Church’s teaching on contraception. Implicit in most of the reports is the view that a liberalization or “relaxation” of the Church’s present discipline in these matters could help to ameliorate the pastoral problem or concern that the Synod is called to examine. What could be said about this view?

First, it must be remembered that the Synod is on the Family, not on Marriage. Certainly the health of the family depends on the health of marriage; hence the two questions are intimately connected. Yet, if the topics so highlighted by the media are discussed, then it should be in the light of their relevance to the health of the family itself.

From this latter point of view, divorce, annulments, and contraception certainly have their impact on the quality of family life. But surely it is a negative impact, not a positive one? Hence, proposals to make them more “available” or more “acceptable” would seem to run clear counter to the presumed purpose of the Synod.

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What in fact is this purpose? Why has the Synod been convoked? The recent Instrumentum Laboris expresses it in its opening paragraph: “to bring about a new springtime for the family.” While this is suggestive (implying also that the family is going through a winter), it is not too concrete. Let us go directly then to Pope Francis himself, who can certainly tell us what is central in his concerns about the family and, therefore, what he wants the Synod to discuss.

The media might have taken more notice of a letter of his of February 2, 2014, the Feast of the Presentation, addressed directly to Christian families themselves. There, along with requesting prayers for the Synod, he expresses his mind about the role of the family, and the dangers that threaten it today, in a very condensed but beautiful manner.

It is certainly no accident that Francis chose to date this brief letter on February 2. On the contrary, the Pope uses the Gospel of the feast to show how the family can make generations more united, overcome individual self-centeredness, and bring joy to itself and the world. He first dwells on how the presentation of Jesus brings together two old people, Simeon and Anna, and two young people, Mary and Joseph. “It is a beautiful image: two young parents and two elderly people, brought together by Jesus. He is the one who brings together and unites generations!” And then, “He is the inexhaustible font of that love which overcomes every occasion of self‑absorption, solitude, and sadness. In your journey as a family, you share so many beautiful moments: meals, rest, housework, leisure, prayer, trips and pilgrimages, and times of mutual support … Nevertheless, if there is no love, then there is no joy, and authentic love comes to us from Jesus.…”

This is very positive. It presents an ideal. But it also communicates the underlying concerns of the Pope regarding the family, and the recommendations regarding them that he hopes to receive from the synodal debates. To understand this, it should be enough to ask ourselves a few questions.

Are Christian families today united in themselves, and with others? Do they help their members out of self-absorption? Do they give an example to those around them of generous and dedicated love? There is the ideal of the Christian family; there is the role it is meant to play in the new evangelization of the world. And, yet, it seems that a great majority of Christian families today do not sense the greatness of their ideal, and do not know how to live it, or are not motivated enough to engage in their privileged evangelizing role. If so, then this must surely suggest the main topics that the Synod of this year, and that of 2015, should address.

The Lost Concept of “Family”
My almost 60 years as a priest have been particularly involved in the consideration of marriage and the family from many points of view: theological, moral, juridical, and pastoral. While not pessimistic by nature, I must say that we are blinking at reality if we do not face up to the fact that since the 1950s, marriage and the family, outside and inside the Church, have been plunged into an ever-growing crisis—to the extent that their nature, and very existence, are threatened by total collapse.

If I had to sum up the causes of this crisis in one factor, it would be this: marriage is no longer approached as a family enterprise. It has become basically a “you-and-me” affair. It is essentially a (tentative) commitment of two persons, one to the other; and no longer a total commitment of love, where a sexual love-union is expected to lead to, and be cemented by, the children that this union should naturally give rise to. In this secular view (which has become so widespread in the Church), marriage is basically an à deux arrangement, while a family is a possible annex that can be added later on, if convenient. Children, instead of being the natural fruit of married love, and the glue that holds it together in times of stress, are reduced to the category of minor accessories to the personal happiness of each of two fundamentally separate people, hence dispensable (like the marriage itself), if they no longer serve each individual’s happiness. Under such a view, marriages open-to-divorce, or simple cohabitation, become valid and even preferable options.

What is needed is a more natural, noble, and generous response to the family ideal that should inspire every healthy decision to marry. What we have instead, and it has been growing powerfully over the past 50 years, is a calculated individualistic approach to marriage and the family. Such an approach can only increase solitude and sadness, never overcome them.

Pre-marriage Instruction
To me, perhaps the most important issue to be addressed by the Synod is the need for pre-marriage instruction, inspired by sound anthropological (and not just theological) arguments, that draw out the positive, if challenging, nature of the commitment to marriage and the family. I say this because, in my experience, premarital instruction is often seriously deficient in its presentation of the power and appeal of Christian marriage; and this on both the supernatural and human levels.

The supernatural aspect: marriage must be presented as a genuine, God-given vocation to holiness, dwelling equally on the specific graces that, as a sacrament, it continually offers for the joyful and faithful fulfillment of this divine calling and mission.

The human aspect: bringing out, in-depth, the marvelously positive anthropological teachings of Vatican II, which present marriage as a covenant of love, highlighting marital consent as a mutual self-gift, and seeing children as both the natural outcome of that love, and the guarantee of its continuance in the future.

Both aspects need to be developed in any proper catechesis. But the second, if presented in all its human power, should come first. Only if fully expounded and personally absorbed can it counter, and gradually overcome, the pervading modern mindset which considers any binding choice to be alienating, and a threat to one’s freedom, and regards marrying and having a family as a fool’s choice, when all one needs is sex—which can be had free, just provided that it is made “safe.”

The personalism of Vatican II, firmly grounded in the Gospel, and with its human logic and appealing challenge, offers the jolting but only true answer to this dead-end individualism. Self-centeredness is the great enemy of happiness and salvation (“whoever seeks his life will lose it”). We all need to be drawn out of isolating self-protectiveness (“it is not good for man to be alone …”). People’s hearts are made for love, not for selfishness. They need to be reminded that selfishness leaves the heart cold, empty, and alone; only love can fill and expand it. We need love that is true, love that admires, and wants to respect and give. For true love wants to give, as well as to possess. Without giving one’s self, one cannot experience true love. We all need a self-gift that is for something worthwhile as well as total (if the gift is not total, then it is, at most, a loan). For the vast majority of persons, marriage is meant to be precisely such a gift: freely, totally, and unconditionally made. Those who baulk at such a self-gift will remain progressively more and more trapped in their own isolation and solitude.

Then children can be seen as what they are meant to be—“the supreme gift of marriage” (GS 50), a gift that comes from God, and binds the spouses more strongly together in the noblest aspect of their common enterprise. Children are what make each married couple uniquely rich. Other people may have a better job or house or car; only they can have their children.

Divorce, Nullity
Divorce, ungrounded petitions of nullity, and contraception, have never favored happiness; certainly not that of the children, but not that of the spouses either. These are anthropological, not theological, truths. Divorce is always a collapse of a dream, a failure. It destroys the family. Those who most suffer from it are the children. Hence, anything that might make divorce seem an acceptable option (and not, as it almost always is, a major reneging on freely accepted responsibilities) is anti-family.

Declarations of nullity, if they are truly based on the facts, are a matter of justice to the parties; but, if there are children, they also mark the breakup of a family. If the necessary process for deciding a petition of nullity can be quickened without detriment to truth and justice, I am all in favor. But the anti-family aspect of the matter remains.

As a former judge of the Rota, I do think that matrimonial processes can be simplified and, thus, speeded up—but marginally. To address that question however is not to address the problems facing the family. Besides, if “speeding up” were to be at the cost of truth, we would have done harm to people’s fundamental trust in the Church, as well as to the whole institution of marriage.

A further marginal, but important, observation on this point: For more than 50 years, our tribunals have been treating nullity cases almost exclusively on the grounds of consensual incapacity (c. 1095). I do not believe that the great majority of those marrying today are incapable of giving valid consent. I believe that they are quite capable; but many do not give it—not because of incapacity, but because of exclusion of one of the essential properties of matrimonial consent (the indissolubility of the bond, for instance). That is not incapacity, but simulation (c. 1101).

To my mind, the main cause of greatly increased marital breakdowns, and the consequent breakup of families, has been the lost sense of the sacredness of human sexuality, and of how the meaning and dignity of the sexual relationship must be respected both before, and in, marriage. Once contraception within marriage began to be presented as legitimate (in a generalized form from the 1960s on), it was inevitable that we reach the present situation where the one and only rule about sex is that it be “safe.”

Elsewhere (avoiding any appeal to theology) I have tried to elucidate the purely natural reasons why contraception is incompatible with, and destructive of, any genuine expression of married love.

Natural Family Planning has come to occupy a disproportionate place in premarital instruction. Well-formed Christian couples, with a proper understanding of the greatness of their married mission, will always see it, in the context of  “the proper generosity of responsible parenthood” (cf. CCC 2368), as a privation which sufficient reasons may indeed impose on them; but still remains a privation for them and especially for their existing children. How they need to be reminded of that incisive observation of John Paul II early in his pontificate: “it is certainly less serious (for a couple) to deny their children certain comforts, or material advantages, than to deprive them of the presence of brothers and sisters, who could help them to grow in humanity, and to realize the beauty of life at all its ages, and in all its variety.”

NFP, if not adopted for serious reasons, introduces that element of calculation into married life, which in turn makes the fostering of generous ideals among the children more difficult. Generous parents make for generous children; calculating parents, for calculating children. Generous parents rear generous children. Calculating parents, smaller-hearted children. The great decline in vocations to the priesthood, etc., over the past 50 years surely finds part of its explanation right here.

Only proper instruction can free our young people preparing for marriage from the pervading anti-family mindset of the world in which they are immersed. The Christian ideal has always appeared as “counter-cultural.” It is no longer just unborn children, but the family itself, the first school of humanity, which is threatened by the culture of death, to which John Paul II so strove to alert us, calling Christians to oppose it with a vigorous culture of life. “Life to humanity,” “Life to the family,” these are the rallying cries that Christian couples (and the world through them) need to be inspired by, and to incarnate in, their married lives.

Little sense of marriage as a God-given call and mission; self-defeating fear of commitment; children seen as “optional extras,” to be rationed or simply avoided; the family regarded as a demanding burden, and not as a fulfilling privilege. All of this is becoming the prevalent outlook of modern western society. And it powerfully affects married Christians, or those preparing for marriage. There are really major issues facing the Synod.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared August 25, 2014 in Homiletic and Pastoral Review and is reprinted with permission. Footnotes are in the original article. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)


  • Rev. Cormac Burke

    Cormac Burke, a former Irish civil lawyer, was ordained a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in 1955. After 30 years of pastoral work in Africa, the United States, and England, he was appointed a judge of the High Court of the Church, the Roman Rota (1986-1999). On retirement, he returned to Nairobi, Kenya, where he continues to teach and write. His latest book, The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine and Canon Law, is being published Fall 2014 by the Catholic University of America Press.

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