In the late 1970s, then President Jimmy Carter tried to hold a “White House Conference on the Family” to deal with the already emerging challenges to the most important of human relations. He immediately encountered stiff political opposition for what was perceived as too narrow and rigid an idea of family. After the interest groups got in their licks, a new title was announced: “The White House Conference on Families.” A trivial change you might think, but a perceptive scholar of the family noted that the revised definition of family adopted by the conference organizers “applied equally to the traditional nuclear family and to two winos sharing a boxcar.” And probably much in between.
Therein lies a cautionary tale. Seeking to praise everything that shows some human value, as our contemporary politicians try to do, leads to absurd confusions between what normally works – tolerably well – and some of the most dysfunctional phenomena in the history of the human race.
The bishops gathered at the Synod on the Family in Rome have been speaking a lot about recognizing different kinds of families, but – and this is something to be grateful for – without seeking after the kind of politically correct inclusiveness that often abolishes real distinctions in our purely political debates. When the bishops have spoken about diversity in families, so far it’s always been to acknowledge families in other cultures than Europe and North America. They have repeatedly said that we are too focused on Communion for the divorced and gay relationships rather than the broader questions of how more generally to foster and encourage families.
I feel an obligation to emphasize this positive feature of the Synod because many of the reactions to what’s been going on that have been reaching us in Rome from the United States manifest a kind of unfocused panic, as if everything people fear the Church might change is actually about to happen. In fact, the signs are still pretty good so far as the bishops’ meetings go. But we’re still only in the preliminary analysis of the situation. We have not yet come to proposed solutions, which won’t be treated for a little over a week still. But if you’re feeling stressed by the synodal process, take a breather. There are, among many obvious difficulties, some steady hands at work in Rome.
We got rather substantial information on Friday because the Vatican released the reports of the small language groups that have been meeting to go through the official Working Document (Instrumentum laboris), which the bishops were presented with prior to the start of the Synod. There are thirteen such groups, consisting of about twenty people or so each, mostly bishops who have a right to vote on proposed changes, but also some non-voting experts and invited lay people with experience in marriage programs. The main languages are English, French, Spanish, Italian, and German, but it’s worth stating that – except for German – the languages span multiple countries, even continents, as we know is the case with English, for example. And since the demise of Latin as the Church’s official language, Italian is a kind of lingua franca in Rome for anyone not fluent in one of the other major tongues.
These language groups vary in their emphases, as you might expect, but there’s little or nothing in their first set of reports that should set off immediate alarm bells. You can read them all here  if you have the languages and a mind to. They weren’t originally supposed to be published, but it’s one of the signs of how the Vatican is responding to worries about a closed process that we will now get these reports at the end of each week. At the press briefing today and in the reports themselves, several people wondered how the hundreds of refinements that have already been debated and formulated will be handled by the commission charged with producing the final document. Gallicus A (French Group 1), which didn’t offer anything very incisive in its report, stated however, “certain of us who have experience [of synods] express a certain uneasiness that all the modi [changes] that we are going to propose, edit, and adopt after good debate will not be entirely preserved.”
But beyond this concern about the fate of their own efforts, several groups offered – along with specific suggestions – more fundamental re-orienting of the way the whole document should proceed. For example, Gallicus B (French 2) headed by the great African cardinal, Robert Sarah of Guinea, began with the observation that the Synod Fathers should be “a Church that walks together in order to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God.” This instead of the jumble of weak sociology and anthropology that was thrown together in Part I of the Working Document as a description of the challenges we face about the family.
Anglicus A (English 1), which has as Moderator Australian Cardinal George Pell and as “Relator” USCCB President Joseph Kurtz, asserted: “In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, we find the source of hope for the family in the contemporary world. Thus confidence in Him is to be the first and last word of the synod. It is with eyes fixed on Jesus that we begin.” Anglicus B (English 2) made it clear that this is not pie-in-the sky, but if anything, can help us to “focus on questions of marginalization, which easily escape from the mindset of the dominant culture in many of our societies. An analysis based on the light of faith can lead to a deeper discernment of how families suffer marginalization and forms of poverty, which go beyond economic poverty to include the social, cultural and spiritual.” And in case there’s any doubt, they spoke of “families who are discriminated against or marginalized because of their belief in Jesus Christ,” and not only in Iraq or Syria.
Besides early fears that the synod process was being manipulated (for the moment, a fear that has dissipated), another concern has arisen in some quarters that it’s unclear who the bishops are supposed, finally, to be addressing: the pope? families? the whole Church? the world? That makes a big difference in the language they will use and the subjects they discuss. Anglicus D (English 4) headed by Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins, with Archbishop Charles Chaput as Relator, found the Working Document so negative as to unintentionally lead to a kind of despair, in addition to being “chaotic,” “without inherent logic,” inaccurate in generalizations, lacking in “beauty, clarity, and force.”
Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who was part of the committee that prepared the Working Document, admitted all that in the Friday press briefing and explained that it almost had to be so in order to include all the different hands that had contributed to it, without unfairly excluding anyone. The drafters expected it to be vigorously debated. And it is.
Still, said English 4, “Overall, members felt that Pope Francis and the people of the Church deserve a better text, one in which ideas are not lost in the confusion.”
If things continue on as they have started, Deo volente, we may indeed get precisely that.