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  • John Thavis

Church needs to drop harsh language on marriage and family, synod is told

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

As the Synod of Bishops entered its second day, more than one participant zeroed in on the negative language the Catholic Church sometimes uses when it discusses marriage and family issues.

In particular, one bishop said, terms like “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered” or “contraceptive mentality” do nothing to draw people closer to church teaching. It’s a form of labeling that can turn people off, he said.

The point emerged during a briefing for journalists that identified some of the topics discussed during the synod, but without identifying the speakers. In some cases, a few lines of the unnamed participants’ talks were quoted.

According to Father Tom Rosica, one of the briefers at the Vatican press office, a strong argument was made for the church to adopt more positive, hopeful language about marriage and the family.

“Living in sin” is sometimes used to describe cohabitating couples, while “intrinsically disordered” is the used by the Catechism of the Catholic Church to describe homosexual acts. Many Vatican officials have criticized what they call a “contraceptive mentality” in modern culture, a phrase used in Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1981 document on the family, Familiaris Consortio.

Father Rosica, quoting one synod participant, said the church needs to work to find a language that embodies its theology and invites people to embrace it. To many people, the participant said, marriage seems to be “filtered in harsh language through the church.” The challenge is to make that language loving and appealing, he said.

The synod’s discussion touched on a variety of other topics. According to English Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who also addressed reporters, one point that seemed to be developing was the call to respect the “law of graduality” – the idea that a Christian’s moral development takes place gradually, in a “stepping stones” fashion, and not necessarily in an immediate embrace of doctrine.

In this perspective, individuals are encouraged to take one step at a time toward faith and holiness, and toward understanding and accepting the church’s teachings. At the same time, Nichols noted, Pope John Paul II stated in Familiaris Consortio that the “law of graduality” did not imply a “graduality of the law.”

Another point mentioned during the synod’s first sessions was that while the family is still considered the basic unit of society, the church has to be sensitive to non-traditional forms of family, including those that, by choice or not, are without children.

The Vatican press office later released a two-page written summary of synodal talks, listing some of the themes raised by participants:

— A need to develop a longer program of accompaniment for married couples, and not just a brief marriage preparation course that ends with the ceremony. The preparation for engaged couples needs to be “long, personalized and even severe, without fear of seeing the number of church weddings decrease. Otherwise, there’s the risk of clogging up the tribunals with marriage cases.”

— Couples who have divorced or are in irregular unions need the “medicine of mercy,” but they want above all to be loved and welcomed, even more than “rapid pastoral solutions.” Regarding the possibility of Communion for Catholics who divorced and remarried without an annulment, the point was made that the Eucharist is “not the sacrament of the perfect, but of those on a pathway.”

— At least one synod participant took aim at the influence of the mass media, and the widespread presentation of “ideologies contrary to church doctrine on marriage and the family.”

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