“Crisis” is an overworked term — but no other more accurately describes the state of the modern family.

Fewer than half of all children in the world today live in a home with both of their biological parents, the lowest percentage on record. Ruptures like these engender others, moral and social: absent role models, stunted education, mounting dropout rates, rising crime, the inexorable cycle of poverty. Unless current trends change, only one out of three children will live with both of their parents by decade’s end.

Pope Francis is determined to attack this problem at its root. He’s made the promotion of family values a signature issue of his papacy.

His method? He’s called for two synodal gatherings in annual succession, an act unprecedented in the Church’s 2,000-year history. The first — an extraordinary synod dedicated to pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization — took place in Rome last October. The second — a larger, general synod dedicated to pastoral reflections on how ecclesial support for marriage and family life can be renewed — will transpire this October. From these official assemblies, new apostolic exhortations and perhaps a papal encyclical are expected to emerge, along with many clarified and revised doctrines.

“We still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties that families must confront,” Francis instructed at the extraordinary synod’s end. “We must give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.”

The task is critical, and time is short.

It’s a sterile mouthful, “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization.” The concrete solutions Francis seeks could not be more intimate or urgent, however. At the top is what to do about the growing number of children born out of wedlock, most raised by single parents, many by no relation at all. Of related concern is the broad lack of adherence to Church teachings on the transmission of life; Humanae Vitae teaches that all sex which is not simultaneously unitive and procreative is “gravely sinful.” There is also the sensitive issue of denying access to sacraments to divorced Catholics who have entered another marriage. Plunging birthrates, ubiquitous cohabitation and the growing acceptance of same-sex marriages — most recently in Ireland — round out a crowded list.

“It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church,” the Relatio Post Disceptationem (executive summary) of the extraordinary synod claims.

It all sounds promising, but there’s a rub. The problems most families face run deeper than biology. Everyone is prone to error, and many mistakes are irreversible. Some irreversible errors leave difficult questions. Have all divorced and remarried Catholics committed sins so grievous that they should be denied Communion and the promise of eternal life? Is all artificial birth control in faithful, committed marriages really “gravely sinful”? Couldn’t some monogamous, same-sex couples provide more nurturing homes to endangered children than their dysfunctional parents or careless state agents?

On top of all this, the Church’s moral credibility has been compromised. Between 2004 and 2013, thousands of clergy members were dismissed or disciplined for sexual abuse of children and some $2.5 billion of Church funds were paid out to settle related legal claims. Francis has an open and compelling style, but the institution he leads has alienated many and is held in diminished esteem globally. As Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has painstakingly shown — most recently in Young Catholic America — younger generations increasingly reject the validity of any religion that entails strong demands and lays claim to absolute, exclusive truths.

This much is certain: for the Church to be genuinely heard, something more compelling than the Magisterium — the teaching authority of the Church — is needed. Francis and his fellow bishops must reconnect with millions of hearts and wayward consciences across disparate cultures. They must ultimately inspire humanity to put future generations over self, using the synodal process as their fulcrum.

Over the last century, the number of Catholics around the world nearly quadrupled, from 291 million to 1.1 billion. Catholics today comprise about half of all Christians worldwide and 16 percent of the global population, exactly as they did 100 years ago. A newly resonant message from the Holy See about the joys and attendant responsibilities of traditional family life could serve as a beacon that helps remediate some of the greatest personal, social and spiritual challenges of our times. The converse is also true, of course. Insensitive, highhanded proclamations that alienate men and women of goodwill could trigger a backlash. Scores might abandon their historic faiths for more welcoming pastures. This last, best chance for saving our children and the Church would be lost.

The secret of synods

Synods are rare events. For centuries — up until Vatican II first convened in 1962, in fact — the Church made little organized effort to incorporate provincial opinions, lay or clerical, in her official deliberations. Doctrines were more often devised and handed down by functionaries in Rome, to be obediently followed by the faithful.

Paul VI made this process more dynamic in 1965 by issuing a decree on the Apostolate of the Laity and creating the Synod of Bishops, a new and permanent congregation within the Holy See’s hierarchy. His goal was “to keep alive the spirit of collegiality engendered by the conciliar experience.” Just as Vatican II ushered in revolutionary thinking on ecumenism and liturgical practice, Apostolicam Actuositatem and Apostolica Sollicitudo institutionalized engagement by all Catholic faithful. Forever aided by the Holy Spirit, lay Catholics in particular are called today to give witness to truer, deeper understandings of the Gospel. Contrary to the public views of some, moreover, heated debate isn’t anathema; in fact, it has been codified. Vatican II is nothing if not proof for how intense, even fractious dialogue can ultimately produce superior doctrine. It seems the Holy Spirit actually thrives within and through discord.

In 1946 — 19 years before Apostolicam Actuositatem was written — the historic case for a permanent and prominent role for the lay apostolate was passionately defended in a doctoral thesis submitted at the Catholic University of America. Devoted lay faithful in pews were not being given roles commensurate with their importance to the Church. Over time, its then little-known but luminous author became a trusted counselor to Paul VI, and much else besides. Today Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh’s doctoral dissertation ranks among his most important and enduring contributions to the Church. It is certainly the least heralded.

Synods cannot change doctrine. They aren’t a parliament or supreme court. The Church is largely monarchical, with the pope at its head. This said, synods can and do contribute hugely to papal encyclicals and ecumenical rulings. More than other deliberations, these form the basis of Catholic doctrine over time.

Perhaps most important, Francis’ concerted efforts to come to grips with the challenges of modernity for Catholic family ideals are not a first for the Church. Such was also the topic of the fifth synod, called forth in 1979 by St. John Paul II. It resulted in the beautiful apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, which emphasized four general tasks for the family: forming a community of persons; honoring life; participating in the development of society; and sharing in the life and mission of the Church. Regrettably, since Familiaris Consortio’s publication in 1981, family life on the ground has grown ever more distant from Catholic ideals. A new impetus from the current synodal process is needed to correct and improve upon what the fifth synod and Familiaris Consortio somehow failed to achieve.

Extraordinary omissions

Two unheralded stories at last year’s extraordinary synod deserve mention.

The first is the remarkable level of concordance the assembly generated. Contrary to reported tales of division and anarchy, the meticulously documented Relatio Synodi revealed near unanimity on the vast majority of issues raised. In fact, only 7 percent of all votes cast were dissenting (non placet). Only three tenets out of a total of 62 failed to receive the desired level of at least two-thirds support — these concerned the administration of sacraments to divorced/remarried Catholics, cohabitation and homosexuality. One additional vote on streamlining the process for annulment received a “mere” 70/30 margin. All other votes approached near unanimity, including an exhortation for higher birthrates and condemnation of arranged marriages. If such outcomes signal a Church divided against itself, it is hard to imagine outright dissent.

The second unsung story is a corollary to the first: a number of crucial areas of controversy and concern were dealt with off-handedly or simply avoided. Excessive concordance paradoxically means opportunities for reaching lost hearts and wayward consciences have likely been missed.

For example, the extraordinary synod did not attempt to break any new ground on Catholic teaching on artificial birth control or homosexual practices. The Relatio Synodi states that Catholic couples who ignore the demands of Humanae Vitae mistakenly believe “natural” contraception is ineffective. Moreover, aversion to methods of controlling HIV/AIDS transmission merely means “the Church’s position needs to be explained better.” In short, unless the general synod goes further, responsible motherhood and fatherhood, and the arrest of deadly, sexually transmitted diseases must continue to rely upon forms of forbearance and self-discipline that humanity has never evidenced and few Catholics practice.

Similarly, the Relatio Synodi flatly states: “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be . . . remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” This also ignores seemingly irreversible realities on the ground. A large majority of American Catholics today have no objection to lifelong, monogamous vows between members of the same sex. Gay marriage is now the law of the land in 37 U.S. states, just as it is in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, Denmark, France, Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand, Britain, Luxembourg and Finland. And now Ireland has voted to accept same-sex marriage by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.

The general synod this October has a special opportunity to address more forthrightly the yawning gap between broad secular acceptance of monogamous, same-sex relations and Church teaching. It could do so by highlighting two seemingly contradictory facts: the evident truth of humanity’s dependence on stable, nuclear families for survival, on one hand, and the indisputable fact that millions of men and women of goodwill can’t experience truly unitive sexual relations with members of the opposite sex. Neither precludes the other, and neither contradicts traditional Church teaching. In fact, Church teaching requires all sex be unitive.

The Relatio Synodi states “men and women with a homosexual tendency ought to be received with respect and sensitivity.” While this is certainly less offensive than referring to every homosexual act as “intrinsically disordered,” one must wonder if such a tradition would keep wholly monogamous, loving gay parents from raising their children in the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich — a member of the powerful Council of Cardinals as well as a Nanovic lecturer at Notre Dame in 2010 — recently suggested another possible way forward. “Take the case of two homosexuals who have been living together for 35 years, caring for one another, even in the last phases of their lives,” he observed. “How could anyone say this has no value?” For Cardinal Marx and many others of conscience, fidelity is a high ordinal virtue, one that evidently trumps sexual orientation.

The greatest “battle” at the extraordinary synod, if there was one, relates to the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics regaining sacramental access. This tenet received the lowest favorable vote (104-74, or 58 percent). While it may be tempting to consider this a minor issue, for those directly impacted, little could be more vital spiritually. Today, thousands of remarried Catholics who failed to get an annulment are refused Communion, receive it surreptitiously or are furtively allowed by their accommodating (and thereby transgressing) pastors.

Cardinal Walter Kasper — another recent Nanovic lecturer — has emerged as the most prominent spiritual leader calling for such reform. He argues that, in very limited circumstances and subject to specific, demanding penitential strictures, some divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment should be allowed to receive the Eucharist. This determination and its specific applications would be left up to local pastors for enforcement. His view is controversial not least because St. John Paul II explicitly forbade it in Familiaris Consortio. But Kasper’s position is consistent with his theology of mercy, which he discussed in a talk at Catholic University last year:

“Correctly understood, mercy is not a yielding pastoral weakness nor is it a softening agent eroding God’s dogmas and commandments. Mercy is itself a revealed truth and can for that reason alone not be played against the truth. It does not abolish justice, but outdoes it. Justice is the minimum of mercy we owe to our fellow man; mercy is the maximum of justice of what I as a Christian can do for another human being who needs me. It is more than mere pity; it becomes concrete in active engagement for others.

“With mercy as the most fundamental of all God’s attributes the most fundamental of all theological questions, the God-question, is re-defined. God is not only absolute being; God is love ( 1 John 4:8-16 ). God is not an immovable being remote from the world, not a supreme being enthroned above the world and its terrors. God allows himself to be moved by the need and the suffering of mankind. . . . With mercy as the keyword of the pontificate, the question of the Church too is redefined. When Jesus says we are to be merciful like our father in heaven ( Luke 6:36 ) that applies not only to the individual faithful but also to the Church as the communion of believers.”

In short, Kasper argues that the Church should not be less merciful than the savior who founded it. Our current pope is known to share this view. Indeed, as if to endorse it explicitly, Francis has named 2016 the jubilee Holy Year of Mercy. “No one can be excluded from God’s mercy,” he said during a Lenten penance service at St. Peter’s on March 13. “The doors of the Church are wide open so all who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness.”

Actions and statements like these from the Church’s de facto monarch suggest the general synod to come may adopt a more sympathetic tone than its extraordinary predecessor, and perhaps several important changes in doctrine. If Francis champions a Church of open doors — a message of great hope for believers and nonbelievers alike — some hinges will swing wider. But caution is still required. A number of core Catholic precepts about family structure are beyond the power of mercy and the pope to transform, including the sacredness of all life and the sacrament of marriage itself. Indeed, anticipating what doctrines can and cannot change remains the most exciting and uncertain part of the synodal process to come.

Doctrines mutable and immutable

In his timeless classic, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Cardinal John Henry Newman argues that many doctrinal positions of the Church evolve over time of necessity. Stagnant rules handed down from one generation to the next would effectively prohibit the Gospel from remaining relevant and operant over time. Stagnation is not something Jesus intended.

Three doctrinal evolutions vibrantly illustrate Newman’s argument: those involving slavery, usury and ecumenism. In each of these examples, seemingly immutable positions of the Church reversed entirely as higher truths became manifest.

Of these, slavery is perhaps the most jarring for contemporary sensibilities. In his famous letter to Philemon, St. Paul pointedly instructed all slaves to obey their owners. St. Gregory the Great actively participated in the slave trade. St. Thomas Aquinas saw slavery as wholly consistent with natural law, while St. Augustine rationalized slavery as a consequence of sin. Today, of course, the Church regards the subjugation of any individual against their will as irredeemably evil.

The banning by the Church of the practice of charging interest on loans (or making money with money) is a similar story. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 forbade all lending by the clergy, with later ecumenical councils extending this restriction to the laity. The Lateran III treaty of 1179 decreed that persons who accepted interest on loans couldn’t receive the sacraments or Christian burial rites. Pope Clement V made the belief in the right to usury a heresy in 1311. Pope Sixtus V condemned the practice of charging interest as "detestable to God and man, damned by the sacred canons and contrary to Christian charity.” Today there is no debate within the Church about lending money for interest. Formerly heretical acts of banking are widely embraced.

And then there’s ecumenism. For many years, the practice of any other but the Catholic faith could be and often was punishable by death. The Council of Trent — which spanned 18 years and five popes — condemned Protestantism in particular as anathema. The Church’s disdain for Judaism and Islam resulted in bloody crusades and countless, forced conversions. St. Augustine touted scripture in defense of corporal persecution of non-Catholics, noting St. Paul himself was shaken to believe by force. The Fourth Lateran Council convened by Pope Innocent III in 1215 decreed, “There is one Universal Church, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation.”

Juxtapose these positions against Unitatis Redintegratio, Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism. “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” It is impossible to imagine such a position emanating from Innocent III’s church.

These three brief examples of radical doctrinal shifts help illustrate yet another essential Catholic tradition: the “hierarchy of truths” (Catechism #90). Not everything the Church teaches is essential for salvation, nor does every precept Church authorities enunciate carry equal weight. A pastor speaking from his pulpit on Sunday has certain command, for example, but nothing as authoritative as a papal encyclical or a document from an ecumenical council, which is higher still. The highest authority and the one to which all other positions and pronouncements must ultimately be reconciled are the words of Jesus Himself, and the Holy Gospel He proclaimed.

Which leads us back to the crisis of modern family life.

In direct response to the Pharisees, who were trying to trap him into setting specific conditions for divorce, Jesus instead laid the cornerstone for all families to come:

From the beginning the Creator “made them male and female.” For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. They are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate (Matthew 19:1-12).

These direct and incontrovertible instructions about traditional nuclear family structure are precisely why the Church cannot alter its fundamental position on the dissolubility of marriage. St. Paul memorably solidified this edifice further in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:

To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband. But if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband — and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

Given this, it is little wonder why Canon 1141 of the Latin Code and Canon 853 of the Eastern Rite both state “the sacramental bond of marriage, once consummated, cannot be dissolved by any human power nor by any other cause than death.” Marriage is a sacramental gift from God. He alone can end it.

Fidelity, forgiveness, progress

In 1960, only 9 percent of American children lived in a home with an unmarried parent; today 34 percent do. More than 40 percent of all American children today were born outside of marriage, up from just 5 percent a half century ago. The structure of the American family has changed so profoundly in just a few decades time, it is no longer possible or credible to use traditional precepts alone to describe or redress it. Modern family life is broken.

As mankind travels deeper into its 21st century after the death of our Lord, the Church of mercy is equally called to be the Church of marital indissolubility. It will be up to the upcoming general synod and ultimately the Holy Father to determine how to reconcile doctrine wherever these fundamental principles collide, as in the case of granting remarried divorced persons access to the sacraments. This said, no person is the final arbiter of divine justice; final judgment rests with the God of infinite compassion and love alone. Remaining in the truth of Christ nevertheless means spouses must assume their sacramental commitments for life — for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.

As countless sociological studies have proven, moreover, such commitments lived with full hearts will provide our children with their best chance for emotional development, fulfillment and redemption. In short, fidelity alone affords society its greatest promise for stability, progress and prosperity.

It is difficult not to think this is exactly what Jesus had in mind all along.

Terrence Keeley has worked on Wall Street since 1987. He was one of the University’s first Young Trustees and initiated the annual Nanovic Vatican Lecture series. He also served as a consultant to Pope Francis’ financial reform commission from 2013-14 and attended two sessions of the synod as an observer, contributing an article for discussion at one of the circuli minores.

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