November 04, 2014

An Introduction to the Relatio from the Synod on the Family

The Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which recently concluded, had the English translation of its relatio presented on the Vatican's website over the weekend. It can be found here, and if anyone wants to talk about the Church's position on marriage, they should read it. This document is not an official expression of the Church's magisterial teaching office, but it does come from the bishops and carries with it what might be called an ordinary authority. It also says a lot of good things, which those who are seeking to live a truly Catholic life in the modern world ought to keep in mind. However, given the huge variety of contradictory views on the family swirling through the cultural melting pot, I think an introduction for those who might not understand the Church's position could be helpful. I'll try and introduce the document, but my introduction is merely an individual interpretation and a help to the source. Read the real thing.

This document is structured pastorally, with a view to education and accessibility. It is divided into three main sections, "listening, looking at the situation of the family today in all its complexities, both lights and shadows; looking, our gaze is fixed on Christ to re-evaluate, with renewed freshness and enthusiasm, what revelation, transmitted in the Church’s faith, tells us about the beauty and dignity of the family; and facing the situation, with an eye on the Lord Jesus, to discern how the Church and society can renew their commitment to the family." [4] Of these three sections, the most important is the second. Looking to Christ, in both His teachings and in His life, is the source and goal of the family.
In order to “walk among contemporary challenges, the decisive condition is to maintain a fixed gaze on Jesus Christ, to pause in contemplation and in adoration of his Face. ... Indeed, every time we return to the source of the Christian experience, new paths and undreamed of possibilities open up” (Pope Francis, Discourse, 4 October 2014). Jesus looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God. [12]
When the Church addresses the issue of marriage, she does not do so in a legalistic vacuum or in a wishy-washy subjectivism. Instead, she views marriage the way she views all things: through the lens of Christ, who is the definitive self-revelation of God. All that the Church talks about concerning marriage has as its source the deeds and life of Christ, and has as its end the participation in the life of Christ by which means alone any human person can attain eternal life. For this reason, the issue of marriage is intimately bound up with all of the Church's doctrine and dogma.

A central dogmatic point which this relatio deals with is the relationship between justice and mercy. The argument about marriage in Catholic circles could be summed up as follows: positively, conservatives attempting to uphold the law and liberals attempting to show mercy to those in bad situations, negatively, conservatives burdening others with excessive legalism and liberals condoning harmful practices out of false "mercy." The interplay between mercy and justice, between God as the creator of order and the redeemer of sinners, is at the heart of the debate concerning marriage today. This relatio deals with this question in a surprisingly profound manner,
The indissolubility of marriage (“what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” Mt 19:6), is not to be understood as a “yoke” imposed on persons but as a “gift” to a husband and wife united in marriage. In this way, Jesus shows how God’s humbling act of coming to earth might always accompany the human journey and might heal and transform a hardened heart with his grace, orientating it towards its benefit, by way of the cross. The Gospels make clear that Jesus’ example is paradigmatic for the Church. In fact, Jesus was born in a family; he began to work his signs at the wedding of Cana; and announced the meaning of marriage as the fullness of revelation which restores the original divine plan (Mt 19:3). At the same time, however, he put what he taught into practice and manifested the true meaning of mercy, clearly illustrated in his meeting with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-30) and with the adulteress (Jn 8:1-11). By looking at the sinner with love, Jesus leads the person to repentance and conversion (“Go and sin no more”), which is the basis for forgiveness. [14]
The reconciling principle between mercy and justice, which otherwise would be opposed, is God's loving plan of salvation through the Cross. God comes to earth to establish a new world order of justice, where human beings can willingly participate in God's love as it orders their lives toward the good. If an individual chooses not to follow this order of love, they alienate themselves from this new order. However, Christ comes precisely to find the lost sheep, and to restore those who have fallen - and, indeed, there is no one who enters the heavenly city by right, but only through Christ's reconciliation. However, this is not a free pass - the only way to heaven is the cross. As St. Paul explains, "Are we to continue in sin...? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." [Romans 6:1-4] The synod calls for mercy in welcoming those of us who have fallen away, so that through partaking in Christ's suffering, and dying to ourselves, we may enter into heavenly justice. Christ's command, that we "go and sin no more," is the path along which God's mercy leads us into the enjoyment of His love in justice.

In this regard, the Sacrament of Marriage itself is the means of grace by which individual families are led through mercy into a right relationship with God and with each other. As the synod states, "Christ the Lord ‘comes into the lives of married Christians through the Sacrament of Matrimony,’ and remains with them." [17, quoting Gaudium et Spes 48] Many Catholics are plagued by seemingly insurmountable difficulties in their lives and in their marriages. To help alleviate and ultimately solve these problems, Christ has given the sacrament of marriage itself as a remedy to our fallen relationships. By forming a sacramental bond, two individuals welcome Christ into their lives in a particular and defining way, allowing Him to transform their daily encounters with the love and joy of His gospel.

This relatio synodi not only offers a theological justification for and explanation of sacramental marriage, but offers profoundly loving practical and pastoral advice to aid those ministering to the Christian faithful. For a full understanding of what the synod recommends, you will have to read the document itself. However, I will provide a couple of highlights.

  • The Church is to provide a more solid preparation for marriage, both in terms of catechesis and supportive structures. [39]
  • Parishes are to provide more help for marriages in their early stages. [40]
  • Ministers are to meet couples in civil [non-sacramental] marriages or cohabitation with genuine and authentic sympathy, recognizing the good works these people already do, but offering "a constructive response, seeking to transform them into opportunities which can lead to an actual marriage and a family in conformity with the Gospel." [43]
  • The Church must extend the utmost love to those living in a broken family, especially those unjustly suffering from an unwanted divorce or spousal abuse. Pastoral care in this matter needs to be ordered toward "reconciliation or mediation of differences," keeping particularly in mind the special needs of women in a more vulnerable position. [47]
  • An authentic ethic of life which places in high priority the good of children in broken or injured families must be maintained. [Ibid.]
  • The economic factors and structures which unjustly prohibit a family from flourishing in accord with Christ's mandate must be opposed. [42]

This concludes my short introduction to the relatio synodi released by the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. Please read the document itself - my short discussion barely scratches the surface on what is a profound call to spread the "Gospel of the Family."



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