The Church Doing Theology

Sex, marriage, infidelity, behind the scene politicking, leaked documents.  Is this the plot of a  cable TV blockbuster? No, actually, it is some of how the Synod on the Family, taking place in Rome this month is being described! Synods don’t usually create this much attention from religious and secular media alike.  The last two synods focused on Scripture and the New Evangelization and so were watched closely only by the most serious church geeks!

Night view at St. Peter's cathedral in Rome, Italy

Night view at St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, Italy

The Synod on the Family, however is capturing world-wide attention because it is seeking to address some of the most hotly debated topics of the day; the definition of marriage, the pastoral care of persons with same-sex attraction, the reception of Eucharist by men and who are divorced and remarried outside of the Church and ministry of families caught in the destructive cycle of addiction and domestic violence. Pope Francis, in his address to the participants in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia said “The family has a divine identity card. Do you see what I mean? God gave the family an identity card, so that families could be places in our world where his truth, love and beauty could continue to take root and grow.”

The Church is concerned for the state of marriage and family because spouses and families are at the heart of the mission of the Church in the World. If this were not reason enough to follow the work of the synod, following this synod, under the leadership of Pope Francis gives us a window to how the Church does theology.  A Synod “is an assembly of bishops from around the world who assist the Holy Father by providing counsel on important questions facing the Church in a manner that preserves the Church’s teaching and strengthens her internal discipline” (, “Basic Information About The Synod of Bishops”).

Last December Pope Francis asked that a questionnaire on issues related to marriage and family life be sent to every diocese in the world and that it be made available for Catholics to read and contribute to a series of questions related to the joys and challenges of family life.  As the person who compiled the data for the report from the Archdiocese of Washington, I know how seriously and enthusiastically people responded to the request for insight on the real-life experience of spouses and families. All of those reports from all over the globe were then collated and shaped into the Instrumentum Laboris which is the working document for the bishops and cardinals participating in the 2015 Synod.

Over the next couple of weeks there will be prayer, presentations, small group discussion by language and geographical groups and large group reflections and discussion, all aimed at affirming the truth of God’s plan for marriage and family and identifying pastoral practices that will best serve the vocation and mission of the family today and into the future.

Plan to follow the developments by checking in with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at or the Vatican website at and watch the Church turn to the world with the good news of the Gospel.

Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Individualism and Family Life – Not a Good Mix

Vaticano, sinodo  sulla famigliaThe 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.