A Closer Look at the Vatican Document Guiding the Synod on the Modern Family (Part 1) October 1, 2014

A Closer Look at the Vatican Document Guiding the Synod on the Modern Family (Part 1)

What can we learn about the Catholic Church’s proposed direction on the modern family from the document the bishops released to guide its discussion?

In the run-up to the 3rd Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, slated to run October 5-19, 2014, the document Instrumentum Laboris (“instrument of labour” or “working instrument”) gives us a few helpful clues about the general approach the Synod will be taking to “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization” — a scope of discussion that encompasses many of the Church’s touchiest issues, such as contraception, divorce and remarriage, and same-sex partnerships.

It’s not as progressive as many liberal Catholics and Pope Francis fans would like to believe. (Surprise!)

In this four-part series, I’ll take a closer look at the document, one piece at a time, to gain a solid grasp on the Church’s current approach to the problems they’re facing in the context of family life today.


The document’s introduction (written by Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri) mostly lays out the methodology for this close examination of the Church’s family issues. The Vatican started the ball rolling, so to speak, by sending out a questionnaire it called the Preparatory Document to generate reflection and information. The Vatican wrote and distributed Instrumentum Laboris as a sort of introduction to the issues.

During the upcoming Synod, the Bishops will examine the information they’ve received, blend it with their own observations and their knowledge of Catholic teaching, and use it to try and come up with ways to better meet the needs of twenty-first-century Catholic families. They’ll revisit that work one year later, at the 2015 Synod. (If you’re particularly interested in the details of these synods, you can learn all you’d ever want to know — and probably more — on the website for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

The introduction further outlines what will be covered through the body of Instrumentum Laboris: parishioners’ knowledge of Church teaching about family life; actual situations priests might face in caring for families of parishioners; and then a whole section devoted especially to “openness to life and the responsibility of parents in the upbringing of their children — characteristic of marriage between a man and a woman.” If you look closely at that sentence, it provides a bit of a hint as to the Church’s desired approach to some of these family problems; those are classic signals of opposition to use of contraception (“openness to life”) and same-sex marriage (“marriage between a man and a woman”). It doesn’t sound like this Synod is going to be too open to changing Church teaching.

But let’s dig deeper and see if that hypothesis holds true.


This part of the document (which, as far as I can tell, was written by a collection of bishops working in collaboration) basically focuses on setting the tone for the document. The proposed tone could be best summarized this way: “We have a really screwed-up social context right now that’s making it hard for people to buy what we’re selling, but fortunately God is really awesome.”

There’s a bit of talk about how the family is “an inexhaustible resource and font of life in the Church’s pastoral activity,” which could be code for “The best way to keep the pews (and seminaries) full is by making lots of little Catholics for the next generation,” but it’s also an implicit effort to put a positive spin on Catholic avoidance of contraception. Renewable resources are trendy right now.

It’s probably important to highlight the first sentence of the Preface, because it’s particularly telling:

The proclamation of the Gospel of the Family is an integral part of the mission of the Church, since the revelation of God sheds light on the relationship between a man and a woman.

We’re not even into the main body of the document and we’ve already heard it twice. This is not going to be the document that affirms the right of gay couples to loving, committed relationships. We’re a long way away from the territory of “Who am I to judge?”

You can read Part Two of this post here.

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