ROME — The number of families living a traditional Catholic life is a positive situation that the Church should celebrate, but one that is being overshadowed by an emphasis on problems and challenges at the synod on the family.
That’s one of the major points discussed by the 270 bishops gathered in Rome for the Oct. 4-25 family summit as revealed in summaries of the first week of conversations in 13 small working groups organized by language that met on Wednesday and Thursday.
Several themes emerged from those reports made public Friday:
Many bishops seem to feel that the diagnosis of the contemporary situation facing the family offered in the working document of the synod, technically called the Instrumentum Laboris, is excessively negative. They’re calling for a clearer recognition that living the traditional Christian vision of the family isn’t just difficult or rare, but actually happens in a fairly widespread fashion.
There’s a sense that the way the conversation has been framed at the synod is excessively based on a European or North American perspective, and doesn’t adequately bring into focus the challenges facing the rest of the world.
Many bishops seem to want to include the Church in the list of problems facing the family, acknowledging the “inadequacy of pastoral support” and failures in “Christian formation.”
Several groups also want the synod to take on some specific challenges they see on the horizon, including “gender theory,” meaning the idea that one’s gender is changeable, and the tendency of some international organizations to tie development assistance for poor nations to liberalizing policies on sexual ethics.
The desire for a more positive tone, one that treats the realization of Catholic teaching on marriage and the family as something within the reach of ordinary people, ran through several of the reports.
The synod’s final report “should begin with hope rather than failures, because a great many people already do successfully live the Gospel’s good news about marriage,” said the English-language group headed by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, warning against breeding a sense of “pastoral despair.”
“If marriage is a vocation, which we believe it is, we can’t promote vocations by talking first about its problems,” the group said.
“Practically all the groups said, ‘Let us celebrate the goodness of the family, the efforts of so many people to preserve the family,” said Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in the Philippines during a Vatican briefing Friday.
“There’s a positive, hopeful, celebratory tone,” he said.
An Italian group led by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, president of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference CEI, flagged the concern with an overly Western perspective.
The working document, the group said, is “strongly conditioned by a Western (European and North American) perspective,” it said, “above all in its description of the challenges opened by secularization and individualism that characterize consumer societies.”
Not everyone, however, agreed with that statement.
“I think it’s not real,” said Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierra of Madrid, Spain, at the briefing. “In my language circle, we have people from all the continents, and the problems are similar.”
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The Spanish group led by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the coordinator of Pope Francis’ council of cardinal advisors, underlined the need for the Church to acknowledge its own role in family struggles.
“It’s true that external factors affect us and are strong, but how have we answered as a Church?” the group asked.
“We’ve failed in ‘Christian formation’ and in the education in the faith, so [people] arrive to marriage with many loopholes,” the group said.
One of the groups that raised the question of international pressure on developing nations to abandon traditional family values was an Italian one led by Cardinal Edoardo Menichelli of Ancona, who was named a cardinal by Pope Francis.
“We hope for a change in the practice of international organizations that link their assistance for the development of the poorest nations to demographic policies,” it said.
The 2015 synod heard the small group reports on Friday and will hold another general session on Saturday. In the end, the 270 bishops gathered in Rome will present their recommendations to Pope Francis, who will ultimately decide what changes, if any, to make.
By John L. Allen Jr.