A Closer Look at the Vatican Document Guiding the Synod on the Modern Family (Part 2) October 2, 2014

A Closer Look at the Vatican Document Guiding the Synod on the Modern Family (Part 2)

This is Part Two in a four-part series about the Vatican document Instrumentum Laboris, meant to be a working guide for the upcoming Synod of Bishops focusing on the challenges of modern family life in Catholicism. You can read the other parts here: Part One, Part Three, Part Four.

Welcome back to Instrumentum Laboris. Today’s selection deals with the theme “Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World” — Vatican-speak for “Making Sure Catholics Know What They Ought To Be Thinking.”

Chapter I: God’s Plan for Marriage and the Family

We begin with the Bible. Cue up the old Adam-and-Eve argument, allude to the Song of Songs, and add a few events from the life of Jesus (his upbringing in a traditional family, his first miracle taking place at a wedding, and the example of love he gave by being crucified — which, for my money, is a really messed-up model that just begs to lead to abuse). To their credit, they skip touching on the really obvious gay-bashing verses, aiming instead to present a positive message about the family. That said, though, not pushing the “not-Adam-and-Steve” message of the Eden story leaves plenty of space to push “be fruitful and multiply,” which they characterize as a “collaboration with God.”

Because this is Catholicism, though, we also need to cover what Catholic documents and Church history say about the family, and it’s here we’re told that the Church has “maintained her constant teaching on marriage and family” from the very start… which is peculiar, because there’s a lot of talk here about love as the foundation for marriage. People who know a bit about the history of marriage as an institution and are aware of how it has changed over time might well be skeptical. (My father says I am worth more than two oxen and a goat!)

It seems like the bishops might have also been aware of this little flaw in their reasoning, because they skim over about 1,900 years of history with that single introductory sentence, offering not a single example of that historic respect for marital love, to come to the writings of the post-Vatican-II pontiffs — Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Their collective wisdom:

  • Love is the centre of the family, and love is also all about Jesus. If you have love, you have Jesus, and probably also the Holy Spirit. In your face, atheists!
  • Families are little mini-Churches — the “domestic Church” — and they are what propels us to become holy or good.
  • If you really love your spouse, you give a complete “gift of self” in accordance with “the divine plan.” (This is a bit of an anti-contraception dog-whistle.)
  • No, really. The love you display in your marriage is actually connected to the generation of new human life. (This is not a dog whistle. It’s an outright explicit reference to Humanae Vitae, the document where the birth-control ban was first defined during Vatican II.)
  • You can’t really understand marriage without reference to the crucified Jesus. (Just creepy.)

Chapter II: The Knowledge and Acceptance of the Teachings on Marriage and the Family from Sacred Scripture and Church Documents

Now we get to the part where we find out what the hierarchy thinks of Catholics on the ground in their parishes and communities, based on responses to the Preparatory Document. The bishops take the time to note that transmission of Catholic teaching happens in a variety of ways depending on the culture, and that the Church is heterogenous: some places have vibrant and traditional faith communities, while others are being led astray by a godless Culture of Death®.

Essentially, we’re told, most people know the Church’s teaching and the relevant Bible stories pretty well, but they aren’t living like these stories are the foundation of life as they know it. Worse, they seem to know little about Church documents like Humanae Vitae or any of the other papal documents out there to tell them how to live out family life. No big surprise there: if Vatican documents were easily accessible and fun to read, I wouldn’t be reading this one so you don’t have to.

But the bishops think the problem will be solved with better priests who are more well-equipped to take on these questions about family life with references to either the Bible or a Catholic document. They say that when marriage-related topics are well-presented, everyone agrees with what the Church has to say. This is pretty convenient: the bishops never have to admit that reasonable, well-informed people can ever disagree with Catholic teachings on marriage and family life. If they disagree, well, they must have been given the information poorly. If they got the proper message in the proper way, they’d see that we were right. Right?

The document acknowledges that some priests feel uncomfortable advising families on issues they’ve never had to experience from an adult perspective:

Some observations inferred that the clergy sometimes feel so unsuited and ill-prepared to treat issues regarding sexuality, fertility, and procreation that they often choose to remain silent. Some responses also voice a certain dissatisfaction with some members of the clergy who appear indifferent to some moral teachings… Consequently, some responses ask that the clergy be better prepared and exercise a sense of responsibility in explaining the Word of God and presenting the documents of the Church on marriage and family.

Basically, they’re identifying the “problem priests” as those who feel like they need to listen to the experiences and needs of people with actual marriages, children, and family problems, rather than dumping pre-fabricated solutions from the Catechism on them. They’re calling for the creation of priests who are more comfortable with the concept of aging celibate men telling married people what’s what in their relationships. What could possibly go wrong?

More scapegoats: technology, mass media, socio-economic instability, instant gratification, wastefulness, transience, hedonistic throwaway culture, immorality and moral relativism, materialistic consumerism, individualism, secularism (hey, we got a shoutout!). These points aren’t all wrong — yeah, it’s hard to build a strong family when everyone has to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and times of economic uncertainty (which for some people are all the times) are scary times to bring children into the world. Other points are less convincing.

But where the bishops really miss the point is in blaming the problem on a lack of morality in society’s outlook — our hedonism, our moral relativism, our tolerance of diversity — and seeking better ways to teach us what we ought to think instead. They don’t ever seriously take up the possibility that the content of what they’re teaching is part of the problem. That would be truly progressive.

Chapter III: The Gospel of the Family and the Natural Law

I am not sure there’s much difference between “the natural law” and the naturalistic fallacy. That’s how it’s mostly used in Catholic apologetics. Sex is naturally how babies are made, so in vitro fertilization must be evil. It takes a sperm and an egg to make a baby during sex, so gay sex must be sinful. Making babies is natural, so contraception must be wrong. In this particular article, they sneer at scientific approaches to questions of “nature”:

… the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. Today, in not only the West but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology, and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not “scientific”.

But the bishops don’t actually prove that natural law exists. They don’t feel the need, because

The responses point to a general belief that the distinction between the sexes has a natural foundation within human existence itself. Therefore, by force of tradition, culture, and intuition, there exists the desire that the union between a man and a woman endure. The natural law is then a universally accepted ‘fact’ by the faithful, without the need to be theoretically justified.

I present this quote without comment because I can’t jump far enough to clear those leaps in logic.

More crimes against the natural law taking place around the world, as cited in this chapter: divorce, cohabitation, in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination, same-sex relationships, single parenthood, blended families, polygamy, teen marriage, “machismo,” and incest. Nobody seems to have thought to ask exactly how marriage qualifies as a natural phenomenon (but only when between not more than two partners, over age twenty, of different sexes).

Their solution? Explain the natural law better. (Good idea!) Then use the Bible more to tell us what is natural. (Wait, what?) The bishops then add that “this proposal insists on using language which is accessible to all, such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy.” If you think that sounds like it’s wide open to all kinds of misinterpretation, you’d be right.

It seems to me like they’ve got their hands full just with the first step: explaining the natural law. And giving us some reason why it’s anything more than just an attempt to dress up one’s own prejudices and moral assumptions in the language of infallibility.

Chapter IV: The Family and Vocation of the Person in Christ

Good news, folks: the family may be “experiencing very difficult times,” but the bishops are confident that it can still be the sort of “privileged place” where a person develops humanity, ethics, compassion, and all that good stuff. All this in spite of “the worrying difference between the forms of the family in today’s world and Church’s teaching in this regard.” I guess it’s sort of a compliment, but it’s more than a little backhanded…

The family is important, the bishops argue, because it’s where we first have our values inculcated, the starting place for our development as persons who can interact with the rest of society. Sure, sounds about right to me. But then the bishops insist that, consequently, the “privatization” of the family is one of its primary challenges; if individual people can decide without state coercion what form of family they choose to create, what’s to stop them from selecting such previously-mentioned violations of natural law as same-sex unions, single parenthood, remarriage after divorce, polygamy, and unmarried cohabitation?

The freedom to make such choices must be stopped precisely because we learn our values in the context of our families. They call openly for an increase in families’ participation in building a better society, but it seems that what they really want is society’s participation, through any and all tools of Church and State, in building a better family… and by “better,” they mean more traditional, more in line with the Church’s usual hobby-horses.

So how does one live in a bishop-approved family? Fear not: this document comes with instructions, drawing largely on Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’s family unit as a role model. Sharp-eyed readers may at this point be wondering how the Holy Family is such a great role model if natural law forbids teen marriage, single parenthood, blended families, and artificial insemination. But these readers are probably sinners.

A lot of the advice the bishops give for creating strong families is actually not that bad. It emphasizes love, tolerance, co-operation, and mutual acceptance. What undercuts it, though, is that it’s given within a context of impossible-to-meet demands about morality that just don’t mesh well with human diversity. A few examples:

  • Children may feel unloved and lonely if they are not surrounded by a close and loving family; don’t let it happen to your child. The bishops don’t outright suggest that eschewing contraception and having ten kids is a fantastic way to prevent lonely childhoods, but I can’t help thinking they’d love the idea.
  • Completely contrary to eschewing contraception and having ten kids, though, parents should strive to create “a home where peace abides.”
  • Make sure your family is really involved in your local parish community. Your kids can be altar servers! The bishops know of no reason whatsoever why this might be a bad idea.
  • Talk about your religion a lot. It is never alienating.
  • Acknowledging and accepting each child’s “unique gifts and abilities” helps children learn respect for others’ humanity. (But if your son is into musical theater, shut that down right now.)
  • Both parents need to be equally involved “in the upbringing of their children and domestic responsibilities.” Obviously we know already that divorce is a sin and shouldn’t even be considered. But there’s no word on what to do when one of those equally-involved parents is abusive, manipulative, or otherwise unfit, because in the imagined world of “natural law” such things would never be allowed to happen.
  • “Even when children need correction, it should be done so as to ensure that they grow in a familial atmosphere of love.” Child-development experts could write whole books unpacking what that sentence means, but the bishops will leave it to you to decide.

Atheists, take note. The family reflects “the image of the Trinity.” It is the place where each person experiences being “a Child of God.” It has a “fundamental vocation in God’s plan.” You’d almost think “family” is for Catholics and not the sort of thing anybody else gets involved in.

This chapter closes with very brief and non-specific discussion of some less-than-ideal situations like domestic violence. That particular case should be dealt with through “supportive action that leads to healing wounds and uprooting their causes,” whatever that means. The bishops get a lot more specific and prescriptive when they talk about “preserving the special character of Sunday as the Lord’s Day — even civilly where possible.”

That’s the state of things here: the bishops aren’t quite ready to contribute much more than vague platitudes (and attacks on divorce) to the problem of domestic violence, but when it comes to honoring the Sabbath, preventing secular stores from opening on Sunday is part of their action plan.


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