Letters from the Synod 14 (including essay by Theresa Farnan and Mary Hasson)

October 1, 2015 | Published first in First Things

Missing Pieces

The following essay was written for LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD by Theresa Farnan, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and Mary Rice Hasson, director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. It should be of special interest to the commission drafting Synod-2015’s proposed final report.

The ambiguities of the Synod’s working document, the Instrumentum Laboris, have been criticized for undermining Church teachings on marriage, sexuality, and conscience. But the Instrumentum also suffers troubling conceptual problems that go to the heart of the Synod’s mission.

Notably, the Instrumentum fails to anchor its observations in a clear statement of what the family is, its purpose and its relationship to society, state, and the Church. And despite all the “listening” done in the lead-up to Synod-2015, the Instrumentum offers a woefully inadequate diagnosis of the most serious issues families face.

These are not trivial deficiencies.

A document that glosses over the fundamental points about the family’s purpose and mission seems unlikely to help families rediscover the meaning of their vocation and the gift of family life. And if the Instrumentum can’t identify the origin of the problems threatening the family, how can it generate coherent solutions for those problems?

The reflections offered here address some of these conceptual issues. (CCC refers to the Catechism of the Catholic Church; Instrumentum sections are numbered.)

What is a family?

Western society increasingly claims the right to redefine the family, and demands that developing nations follow suit. In response, Pope Francis insists that “family” is an “anthropological fact,” not an ideological concept subject to change. But the definition of a family (“A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family,” CCC 2202) is inexplicably missing from the Instrumentum Laboris.

Without that firm foundation, the Instrumentum drifts at times into language that describes the family as a set of relationships intentionally established, a notion fundamental to arguments supporting same-sex relationships and families “built” through surrogacy and assisted reproduction. The Instrumentum refers to families as “different persons” who “share life together.” It states that, “In the relations in a family—marital, filial, and fraternal—all family members willingly establish strong ties….” (11), thereby playing into the notion that “family” is a willed arrangement arising from an intentional choice about whom you wish to love, with no necessary connection to the fundamental mother-father-child relationship.

The Instrumentum also refers variously to “the procreative act” (45) and “the act of generation” (137), as if distinguishing when intercourse is open to life. Given that the Instrumentum also refers to the unitive and procreative character of marriage (45), and hints that the objective moral norm regarding openness to life might be an insupportable burden (137), it lends support to those who argue that openness to life need only characterize the overall tenor of the marriage, not every act of sexual intercourse. By implying that sexual intercourse is only intentionally, not intrinsically, related to procreation, and using language that minimizes biological ties, the Instrumentum further confuses the idea of “family.”

What is the family’s purpose?

Marriage and the family are ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of children (CCC 2201). But the Instrumentum Laboris only superficially addresses the family’s right and duty to educate its children, and thus misses an area of current vulnerability and future strength.

The Instrumentum acknowledges that Christian families have a duty to pass on the faith to their children (146), and observes the “progressive weakening in the role of parents in upbringing” because of the media’s influence and parents’ “tendency to delegate this task to other entities.” (144). It admits too that many institutions promote conceptions of the family radically at odds with Christian anthropology (91) and asserts that the Church must “support families in their vigilant and responsible supervision in a school’s academic and formative programs.”

But these references underplay the sweep of the problem confronting families every day: because of de-Christianization in the West and “ideological colonization” in the developing world, state-backed schools all over the globe have become ideological delivery-systems, demeaning or marginalizing faith while promoting practical atheism, gender theory, youth “sexual rights,” and same-sex “marriage” in opposition to parents’ values.

The Instrumentum is oddly silent about an obvious solution: Catholic education. It fails to emphasize the vital importance of Catholic education—as an evangelistic opportunity and a cultural antidote—and the urgency of finding ways to make Catholic education widely available and affordable. Instead, the Instrumentum’s weak response to the challenges of raising children in a hostile culture relies on “welcoming communities,” nebulous “support,” and indeterminate “personalized pastoral programs” (145). It notes the right of educators (distinct from parents) to “conscientious objection” to erroneous formation programs (86) but offers nothing helpful to parents who send their children to school to gain an education, only to see them return having lost their faith.

Similarly dismaying is the Instrumentum’s surrender to the cult of experts. Despite the Church’s long-standing insistence that families have the responsibility to oversee their children’s education in chastity and sexuality, the Instrumentum states that “the family, while maintaining its privileged spot in education, cannot be the only place for teaching sexuality.” It calls for “devising . . . true and proper programs” for individuals and couples, with “special attention” to adolescents “so they can discover the beauty of sexuality in love” (86). Unlike the Pontifical Council for the Family’s document, “Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality,” which urged parents to reclaim their responsibility for teaching their children about human sexuality and overseeing programs that assist in chastity formation (Truth and Meaning 24, 25), the Instrumentum seems unconvinced that parents can take the lead in teaching the “beauty of sexuality in love.” Certainly the Church can assist parents with the theology or even the biology of human sexuality. But mothers and fathers teach children to integrate sacrifice, responsibility, and love in ways that cannot be matched by programs or experts. And they need the Church’s encouragement to do so.

The relationship between family and society

Divinely instituted, the family has logical, historical, and ontological priority to the state and other institutions, including those set up by the Church. Thus, state, social, or educational institutions exist in supportive relationship to the family—to assist when the family cannot care for its members and to support the mission of the family (CCC 2201-2203, 2209).

Astonishingly, the Instrumentum Laboris proposes the opposite, characterizing the family as existing in a compensatory relationship to society: “the family’s great strength, in itself, [is] in being able to compensate for the inadequacy and inaction of institutions with respect to the formation of the person, the quality of social ties and the care of the most vulnerable” (10). This is exactly backwards. The Instrumentum underestimates the strength of ordinary families, suggesting that institutions are better suited to providing formation and care, with families as a fallback. This approach subordinates the family to state or societal institutions. And it breeds pessimism and saps the confidence of families, sending the message that families will thrive only if propped up by programs, experts, and the state.

Similarly, the Instrumentum’s lack of clarity about the nature, purpose and priority of the family creates a dismal picture of families bent and burdened by life. It fails to distinguish between the challenges intrinsic to family life and the freight added by culture, sin, and circumstance. Thus, the Instrumentum treats age-old human trials—widowhood, disability, migration, poverty, loneliness, and unemployment—as if they were something new. And yet it fails to deeply consider the global cultural tsunami—roiling waters of individualism, secularism, and moral relativism—threatening families everywhere. Family life is foundering in those waters, as de-Christianized societies promote a false anthropology and preach a hedonistic gospel. The resulting culture of practical atheism views the demands of family life as limitations on freedom, rather than as means to realize it.

In addition to the cultural challenges, families experience other burdens—constraints on religious liberty, unjust economic policies, and “ideological colonization’”—external to the nature of the family. But family members themselves often burden family life by making sinful choices, such as adultery, abandonment, divorce, polygamy, pornography, domestic violence, and substance abuse. These burdens result from personal sin; they are not part and parcel of the vocation of the family, nor are they evidence of “the family’s weakening and fragile character”(10).

Other challenges do arise from the mission and vocation of the family. By facing these challenges, however, the family grows stronger, not weaker. Unfortunately, the Instrumentum frames the normal challenges of life lived in relationship with others as burdens. When families lovingly accept of the gift of children, resolutely care for disabled or elderly family members, and persevere in faith through the pain of loss, suffering, and hardship, they emerge stronger—and encourage others by their witness. On their own, humans fall short of the sacrificial love required to respond to the challenges inherent in family life. But the Christian family, sanctified by grace, can indeed see each family member as a gift to be cherished and nurtured, even in difficult situations.

Unfortunately, the Instrumentum at times loses sight of this truth. For example, large families—those with an “unusually high number of children” (93)—are mentioned only once and in a negative context, as a risk factor for poverty (ibid.). Is “responsible parenthood” reducible to a number count? What is the baseline “normal?” The replacement level of 2.1? What counts as an “unusually high number?” Three? Seven? Ten? Absent from the Instrumentum is the language of Humanae Vitae, which praises the generosity of large families, of parents who give their children the priceless gift of siblings.

Nowhere is the Instrumentum’s confusion about the nature of the family more apparent than in the section on disability (21-23), where the Instrumentum asserts that “the conception of the family and its life cycle are deeply disturbed” by disability (21). Quite the opposite—the “conception of the family” is confirmed by disability. All families at some time include persons who are vulnerable and utterly dependent, people with disabilities of illness, age, injury, or congenital defects. Caring for vulnerable family members is precisely what families do best; this is where the beauty of the family shines through. Programs, institutions, and experts cannot match the ability of the family to affirm the irreplaceability and dignity of the person even in the face of great challenges; in this lies the greatness and necessity of the family.

The burdens and challenges that families face are indeed serious. But they are best solved by a Church, and a culture, that affirms and supports marriage, insists on the priority of the family, and understands the necessity of faithful, indissoluble marriage between one man and one woman to safeguard the rights of children and the vulnerable. The Instrumentum makes the Church seem more like an anxious, indulgent parent who, afraid that her children cannot measure up to the demands of sacrificial love, asks less of them. The Synod fathers must send a more hopeful message: the family itself is a gift to humanity, and the ordinary work of the family, sanctified by grace, nourished by the sacraments, and strengthened by the teachings of the Church will bring healing to this broken world.