ROME—With the conclusion of the second round of small group discussions, consensus is emerging around a few key themes at the synod on the family: The working document needs a lot of work, the Church should speak more clearly and positively about Catholic marriage, and couples need catechetical resources, or “best practices” as one group put it, to help them sustain their commitments.
Dig a bit deeper into the reports released Wednesday, however, and it becomes clear that bishops are still grappling with a variety of more difficult issues–cohabitation, domestic abuse, women’s leadership, and the growing reality that young people just aren’t that into marriage. These inquiries serve as something of a preview to next week’s discussion.
The English-language group led by Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Ireland, said the Church should “explore further the possibility of couples who are civilly marries or cohabiting beginning a journey towards sacramental marriage and being encouraged and accompanied on that journey.”
Another group, led by Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins, discussed the role of women in the Church, “and the need to focus more attention on giving them appropriate leadership roles.”
Many bishops have expressed disappointment with the working document, called the Instrumentum Laboris, describing it as too negative in its outlook on marriage—and urging greater emphasis on ideal family life.
But some bishops expressed caution to this approach, suggesting that individuals in abusive family situations may be further turned off by that kind of language.
“Exemplary families may intimidate them rather than helping them to see the possibility of living that way themselves,” said the group led by Collins.
Some groups called on bishops to be open to discussion about the realities and challenges facing marriage—themes saved for the final session of the synod.
For example, Martin’s group said, “there is a need to speak also of the life of sacrifice and even the suffering which” marriage involves, while Collins’ group said the Church should be “realistic about marital problems rather than simply encouraging people to stay together.”
“Again, violence against women was a key part of the discussion,” the group continued.
As marriage rates in Europe and the United States plunge, coupled with the average age of marriage rising, some bishops expressed a desire to understand why.
Many bishops and lay observers have called on better marriage preparation programs in parishes, while others sought to look seriously at the many issues delaying marriages.
Young people, Martin’s group said, often see marriage as a “personal or private matter” and thus don’t see the value in a public ceremony. Plus, the group said, “they prefer to test a relationship before making any final commitment.”
“Powerful economic factors can also have their effect,” the group continued. “We need to beware of a too simplistic reading of a complex phenomenon.”
The focus on the second round of working groups was the theological foundations for the Church’s pastoral response to family life, leading some bishops to call for more discussion about mercy and a heavier reliance on scripture and Church teaching.
Some bishops expressed disappointment that the working document doesn’t seem to offer a clear definition of marriage, with Collins’ group calling the omission “a serious defect,” a concern shared by the group led by Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga.
The group led by Australian Cardinal George Pell suggested the document could benefit from scriptural references and clearer language about what the Church believes about marriage, while the report led by Cardinal Edoardo Menichelli‘s group highlighted “the near-total absence of references to the tradition of the Church.”
Pell’s group wrote, “a primary concern was the clarity of well-grounded explanations of Church teaching on marriage and the family.”
Nichols’ group suggested bishops turn to Genesis for that teaching, “which already provide a definition of marriage as a unique union between a man and a woman” based on “monogamy, permanence, and equality of the sexes.”
While much of the focus has been on married couples, some voices have suggested bishops considered widows, single people, and now today, even celibate Catholics.
“It seems inconceivable to speak about the family without saying anything about celibacy for the Kingdom of God,” stated Menichelli’s group. “There isn’t just one way of having a family, there’s also a form that one could call ‘family of discipleship.’”
The Spanish-language group headed by Cardinal Francisco Robles Ortega, lamented that there are few references to issues such as chastity and virginity, holiness, and spirituality of the family.
Many of the groups suggested the synod create new ways to discuss Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, presenting it not as a burden, but as a gift.
Despite the range of issues being discussed, and the confirmation that there is not yet consensus on many of them, Nichols rejected the notion from a reporter that bishops have reached a stalemate–even as he expressed hope that Francis will weigh in at the synod’s end with “an exhortation or magisterial document.”
“There is a lot of energy in the synod, there are differences of opinion,” he said at Wednesday’s press briefing. “We are family, and families have differences of opinions.”