The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops which met to discuss issues related to marriage and family life has come and gone. A lot of buzz has been created around the hot button issues related to family life, which were discussed by the Synod Fathers. But if we focus only on those hot button issues, many of which have been addressed previously, we will miss other significant points raised in the Synod Relatio, the final document from this Synod.
One of the key themes in the Synod Relatio which is explicit in some cases and implicit in others is the presence of individualism in the world today. Widespread individualism greatly affects family life, and as such, it affects society. The Synod Fathers discussed the family as “an essential agent in the work of evangelization” because family members can exemplify the Gospel quality of treating others as more important than ourselves (Synod Relatio 2; cf. Philippians 2:3-4). But after discussing some of the positive elements of contemporary family life, the Relatio states, “equal consideration needs to be given to the growing danger represented by a troubling individualism which deforms family bonds and ends up considering each component of the family as an isolated unit, leading, in some cases, to the idea that a person is formed according to one’s own desires, which are considered absolute (5).
In a later speech, after the Synod, Pope Francis spoke to the members of Schönstatt: “So many families are divided, so many marriages broken, (there is) such relativism in the concept of the Sacrament of Marriage…” The problem which Pope Francis is focusing on is that individuals believe they can define for themselves what marriage is. The reality of individualism and relativism in people today tie into the hot button issues discussed in the Relatio. We have to be aware of the danger of individuals treating their life experience as relative. There is a fundamental need for all members of the Church to speak and live the truth in love (cf. Ephesians 4:15).
The Synod Fathers recognize that sacramental marriage can provide a witness to combat the tendency to individualism: “The full commitment required in marriage can be a strong antidote to the temptation of a selfish individualism” (Synod Relatio 9). The Synod Fathers also state: “Openness to life is an intrinsic requirement of married love” (57).Clearly, Catholic families who remain open to life (21) can combat individualism, particularly with the mother who gives of her body and her life for her child. But also for the father, who willfully accepts each child as yet another sign of the bond to his wife, a sign of his ever deepening commitment to respect the sacred indissolubility of the marriage bond (cf. 14). The Synod Fathers did cite Humanae Vitae, “which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births” (58). The husband and wife offer themselves in mutual self-gift, thereby manifesting divine love: “The ‘true love between husband and wife’ (Gaudium et Spes, 49) implies a mutual gift of self and includes and integrates the sexual and affective aspects, according to the divine plan” (17). Pope St. John Paul II’s 1994 letter to families, Gratissimam Sane, was also cited.
One of the fundamental truths that is occasionally lost is that in God’s design for marriage, the husband and wife manifest Christ’s relationship with His Church (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33) and also provide an image of the Trinity. This large passage from the Relatio might be a bit long for a blog post, but here it is:
Jesus, who reconciled all things in himself, restored marriage and the family to their original form (Mk 10:1-12). Marriage and the family have been redeemed by Christ (Eph 5:21-32), restored in the image of the Holy Trinity, the mystery from which every true love flows. The spousal covenant, originating in creation and revealed in the history of salvation, receives its full meaning in Christ and his Church. Through his Church, Christ bestows on marriage and the family the grace necessary to witness to the love of God and to live the life of communion (16).
The family ultimately receives the grace from God necessary to image Christ’s relationship with the Church and the divine life of the Trinitarian communio personarum. Families can ask God for the grace to persevere (cf. 1 John 5:14). And when we encounter family members who have failed to live up to this ideal for marriage, we can meet them where they’re at without renouncing the truth, since Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (cf. John 14:6).
Edward Trendowski is Coordinator for Catechetical Resources for the Diocese of Providence and teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.