A Closer Look at the Vatican Document Guiding the Synod on the Modern Family (Part 4) October 4, 2014

A Closer Look at the Vatican Document Guiding the Synod on the Modern Family (Part 4)

This is Part Four 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 Two, Part Three.

Welcome back to Instrumentum Laboris. Today’s selection deals with the theme “An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing.” Because nothing is more fun than telling parents everything they’re doing wrong, especially if they’re parents we think are sinners. Of course, the discerning reader will have caught that phrase “openness to life” in there, which can only mean one thing: we’ll be talking birth control, too!

Chapter I: The Pastoral Challenges Concerning an Openness To Life

After speculation about an end to the Catholic ban on contraception made its way into the media, this question became extra-interesting. Will the Church make space to consider an end to the ban that a ridiculously high percentage of Catholics in Europe and North America already ignore anyway?

Well, the chapter starts with references to the “prophetic character” of Humanae Vitae, the document in which Pope Paul VI pronounced birth control sinful. That’s never a good sign.

The bishops acknowledge that most Catholics really don’t like the birth-control ban:

A vast majority of responses emphasize how the moral evaluation of the different methods of birth control is commonly perceived today as an intrusion in the intimate life of the couple and an encroachment on the autonomy of conscience… Many responses recommend that for many Catholics the concept of “responsible parenthood” encompasses the shared responsibility in conscience to choose the most appropriate method of birth control, according to a set of criteria ranging from effectiveness to physical tolerance and passing to a real ability to be practiced.

Seems reasonable, right? People are saying that they don’t want to rely on methods of birth control that are difficult to practice, easy to mess up, and rendered highly ineffective by any mistakes. They’re saying that their real-world chances of not winding up with a baby they can’t care for increase if their method of contraception involves something simple, like popping a pill or putting on a condom. They’re arguing that’s a moral thing to want from one’s birth control regimen.

Having heard this, the bishops conclude that the fault lies with the media, for misrepresenting the reasons why Natural Family Planning (NFP) is considered acceptable while other forms of contraception are not.

Similarly, many of the respondents observed that the Church needs to do a better job explaining why use of condoms is a sin when the alternative is risking HIV/AIDS transmission. Again, the bishops blame “distortions in the media” that fail to explain the logic behind the condom ban, even in impoverished, AIDS-ravaged communities.


They continually assume that dissenting Catholics just aren’t understanding what the Church has to say about their teaching… but they’re wrong. Those dissenting Catholics understand, and they reject it. They don’t think a little piece of latex fitted over the penis could possibly be less moral than putting someone else at risk of a potentially lethal illness, and they don’t think demanding a life of perfect celibacy is a very practicable solution. The bishops call the Church “a promoter of a way of living which is truly human,” but a lot of people are seeing something inhuman, inhumane, and utterly grotesque, and they want nothing to do with it.

Until they understand that, none of their efforts to improve compliance are going to have any great effect. The problem isn’t failure to comply with Catholic teachings on birth control. That’s what lay Catholics are trying to tell you: your teachings on birth control are the problem.

The bishops point out the necessity of social conditions that allow families to feel free to have children: access to child care, fair wages, flexible work hours, work-life balance, and so forth. It sure would be nice if these goals were seen as worthwhile as ends in themselves, as means to greater social justice; they make life easier for parents however many children they have.

Chapter II: The Church and the Family Facing the Challenge of Upbringing

Naturally, the number one concern here is making sure children are brought up as little Catholics, with parish involvement and knowledge of Catholic teachings. The best way to do this, the bishops argue, is by setting a good example… but they have a few other tidbits of advice for Catholic parents.

  • Keep involved in your parish community, and involve your children too. What could possibly go wrong?
  • Be aggressively Catholic; don’t shy away from telling your children what’s what in the Catholic moral framework. The bishops are no fans of parents who avoid “applying any pressure on their children in religious practice”. Pressure is good for children!
  • Support Catholic schools no matter what… but especially in places where “the State is overly intrusive in the educational process, seeking to usurp the family’s responsibility” to teach the children moral values. (Read: places where schools tell kids it’s okay if Heather has two mommies.)

Maybe it’s telling that a huge proportion of this chapter deals with “difficult family situations” in which the parents’ union is not recognized as legitimate by the Church because they’re gay, unmarried, not married in the Catholic Church, or divorced and remarried — all those sinful situations. They lump these together with “difficult situations” in which children are being raised by single parents, being raised by family members other than their parents, or living as “street children” in poor communities. Which is interesting, of course, because the Church has positioned any situation where children are not brought up in a nuclear family with both a mother and father as a violation of natural law, then doubled and tripled down on that to justify their anti-gay position. Now they’re in the dicey situation where, to maintain consistency, they find themselves condemning young widows, impoverished parents working abroad, and people who take in their orphaned grandbabies.

Their complaints about parents from these difficult situations don’t really make the situation so much better. They don’t properly value the sacraments. They request them simply out of social custom or tradition. They break the rules, but still feel entitled to claim membership. My favorite is the observation that parents in “irregular situations” sometimes express a “negative attitude, because of the shame felt by the choices they made.” Implicitly, the bishops seem to attribute the fault to those parents — how dare they have a negative attitude towards the Church that condemns and judges them? Nobody working on this document seems to have considered the possibility that the Church might have some power to create or dispel such attitudes.

The bishops recommend being nice to the children, who after all can’t be held responsible for the adults’ shameful choices. But being nice to the children while radiating thinly-veiled contempt for their parents does not seem like the best pastoral strategy.


At this point, the bishops take the time to reiterate the purpose of the document, which is basically to stimulate discussion during the synod, and to reiterate its broad aims. So I suppose it would make sense for me to reiterate what this document has told me about the Church and its much-vaunted “new direction” under Pope Francis.

This Church isn’t changing. It thinks it can fix its problems by explaining things better. But bad ideas don’t get better with deeper explanation; actually, they’re likely to get worse because the flawed logic underpinning them becomes ever more explicit.

Every time the Church repeats and expands on bad ideas like prohibiting birth control, shaming “difficult family situations,” or promoting homophobia, they provide the faithful with one more reason to walk away. And they continue to think they can win those people back by just talking more.

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