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Synod of Bishops on the Family: Critical Questions from the US

By: Nichole Flores

Pope Francis, in the inaugural year of his papacy, captured the imagination of Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his nuanced and pastoral discussions of contested issues from the frontlines of the culture wars.  In July, Francis surprised journalists with his post-World Youth Day remarks revealing a person-centered approach on many of those issues as well as call for a “deeper theology of women.”  In September, he elaborated on these points over a series of interviews with Antonio Spardo, S.J. and published in La Civilta Cattolica. We read Francis questioning an obsessive focus of the Church’s social and moral energy on, for example, issues of sexual morality. Such questioning, however, does not ignore the Church’s moral instruction and concern for those on the bottom rung of the global economy or the Church’s pro-life position when Francis identified abortion with a “throwaway culture” fueling consumerism and exploitation. Having reignited broad interest in family ethics through these remarks, Pope Francis made news again with the announcement that he will convene the world’s Catholic bishops to address family life issues.  Consisting of two meetings in 2014 and 2015, the Synod of Bishops will discern first the complex landscape of Christian family life in the 21st century and then, in light of their findings, develop working guidelines for pastoral care of the person and family.

Among Catholics, the synod announcement elicits both hope and apprehension about potential meeting outcomes.  Past magisterial pronouncements on family issues have done well to emphasize the importance of family life for the common good and human flourishing but still struggle to adequately address some of the most challenging family issues in the North American context: domestic violence, family insularity, adoption ethics, the sacramental status of divorced persons, the necessity of family economic practices that resist social injustice, and the status of women, among others.  There is a great need for the bishops to consider the complex pastoral issues presented by single-parent families, many of whom struggle to provide economic support for their children on a single income; migrant families, many of whom encounter familial difficulties due to prolonged separation and poverty; and the status of gay and lesbian-headed families who seek to have their families, including their adopted children, fully incorporated into the life of the Church.  While there is a great need for Church teaching to engage the “signs of the times” reflected in these issues, there is an equally great need for teachings that continue to resist an excessive emphasis on the individual over the family in public policy, law, and civic life.  In tackling these weighty issues, the bishops have a tall order.

As Catholics look forward to these meetings, several questions loom.  Will the bishops adequately respond to the difficult situations faced by socially, economically, and politically marginalized families who could benefit from nuanced teachings that respect both their personal and familial dignity? Will they honor the deep complexity of their lives?  Will they utilize a framework that is flexible enough to address the challenges in families that do not reflect the ideals offered in the tradition?

Francis’s record on family ethics thus far in his papacy may offer some clues for what Catholics can expect.  While the Synod will likely not engage in any doctrinal push back, it is reasonable to expect a change in tone that acknowledges both the dignity of individuals and their families as well as the sheer complexity of the situations in which many find themselves.  Further, the meeting itself promises to contribute to reenergizing conversations on family ethics at all levels of the Church.  Still, a change in tone will not be enough to address some of the knottier ethical issues at hand.  If the bishops do not identify meaningful responses to these issues, a Catholic family ethics will continue to fall out of step with a laity that lives in the indeterminacy and precarious nature of modern life.  Still, Pope Francis has found ways to surprise and refresh Catholics and non-Catholics with his theologically nuanced and pastorally sensitive leadership.  Let’s hope that the Synod follows his lead.

Nichole M. Flores is instructor of moral theology and Saint Anselm College and a doctoral candidate in theological ethics at Boston College. She is Student Convener of the Latino/a Working Group of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE) and served as the Associate Member Representative to the Board of Directors for the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States (ACHTUS). She earned an A.B. in government from Smith College and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School.