Despite a media focus on divorce and homosexuality, the synod discussions regarding family issues cannot ignore the weighty impact of the current migration crisis, said U.K. Cardinal Vincent Nichols.
“We should have the integrity of the family foremost in our minds,” the cardinal told CNA, speaking about the many families who have become separated by the migrant crisis.
He cited as an example the trials of Middle Eastern migrants who have family members in England.
“They should be given the opportunity to reconnect with their families,” he said. “These family identities are important, and I don’t think that’s being given the attention that it could in the response of European governments to this flow of people across Europe.”
Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and representative of the Bishops of England and Wales at the 2015 Synod on the Family, has been outspoken in his call for Britain to be more welcoming of migrants.
The European commission has stated that more than 500,000 mostly African and Middle Eastern migrants have entered the European Union in 2015, in an attempt to escape conflict and poverty in their homelands. Scores of other migrants have died at sea en route to countries like Greece and Italy.
Last month, the EU agreed on a quota plan to disseminate 120,000 migrants across the continent.
“For European countries at the moment, the migration of people from the Middle East and from parts of Africa is a very considerable challenge,” Cardinal Nichols said. “Some of that is indeed to do with poverty, refugee status, and real desperation.”
However, the cardinal noted there are additional difficulties faced by families who become separated due to British immigration laws.
“The British government has some very strict rules, even for British citizens, as to whether they can bring their non-British spouses into the country,” he said.
“There are aspects of British government policy which mitigate against the integrity of the family. That is something that we would want really to press, and have been doing so for a while.”
This year’s Synod on the Family, which runs from Oct. 4-25, is the second and larger of two such gatherings to take place in the course of a year. Like its 2014 precursor, the focus of the 2015 Synod of Bishops will be the family, this time with the theme: “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world.”
In his interview with CNA, Cardinal Nichols touched on several other concerns expected to be discussed at the Synod on the Family, such as the pastoral care of divorced-and-remarried persons, and of men and women with same-sex attraction.
CNA: Last year’s synod gave a lot of attention to the issue of divorce and remarriage — at least in the media. What do you expect the Synod to focus on this time around?
No doubt the media will continue to focus on that issue. In some ways, it is a very important issue, because it affects a lot of people’s lives, and because it is a real challenge for the Church to make it clear that there is a place in the Church for everyone who wishes to follow Christ, who wants to be a disciple of Christ, no matter the difficulties of those circumstances or of their personal experiences. So, it’s a challenge to the pastoral care that the Church offers. How do we best express that care, how do we get better at expressing the acceptance and the mercy of God are some of the basic themes of this Synod.
CNA: There are some concerns with regard to how the Church’s teaching might be affected by this Synod with regards to divorce and remarriage. What’s your response to these concerns?
I was very taken by the answer that Pope Francis gave on the airplane coming back from America the other day when he was asked if speeding up a process whereby a marriage can be examined for its validity was a way of introducing Catholic divorce. He said no, because this is not an administrative procedure. He went on to say it is perfectly clear that people who marry in the Church with Christ in their hearts, with freedom and understanding, that it is a valid sacramental marriage and then that is forever. That is indissoluble. That’s that. There is no change. That is not going to change.
CNA: Since last year’s Synod on the Family the situation of migration has exploded, in a way. How would you like to see this issue explored in the Synod? How can the issue of migration for families be addressed in a way that demonstrates a pastoral and Christian solidarity, while maintaining a certain degree of prudence from a security standpoint?
Clearly, for European countries at the moment, the migration of people from the Middle East and from parts of Africa is a very considerable challenge. Some of that is indeed to do with poverty, refugee status, and real desperation. We should have the integrity of the family foremost in our minds, frankly. For example, we would want to argue that, if there are family members already — for example — in England, of people who are at present caught in refugee camps in Northern Iraq or in Jordan, or in parts of Syria, then they should be given the opportunity to reconnect with their families.
These family identities are important, and I don’t think that’s being given the attention that it could in the response of European governments to this flow of people across Europe.
That’s a particularly dramatic thing at the moment. But, we see it in many issues. People, for example, who arrive in England, maybe are present legally, work very hard, but are still separated from their families. The British government has some very strict rules, even for British citizens, as to whether they can bring their non-British spouses into the country. So, there are aspects of British government policy which mitigate against the integrity of the family. That is something that we would want really to press, and have been doing so for a while.
CNA: Another theme that is expected to receive attention at the Synod is the pastoral care of persons with same-sex attraction. There have been two conferences on this theme this weekend: One looking at a pastoral care from the viewpoint of encouraging chastity, and the other from a viewpoint of supporting same-sex relationships. Are the Synod fathers listening to what is coming out of these sorts of conversations?
I think the Synod fathers — and the vast majority are pastoral bishops who are close to their people — listen to their priests. We in England have had consultations with the priests precisely on this question of pastoral care. I think we are very aware of the situation of people and the different opinions there are, but nevertheless in this there are some fundamental values and principles in the way the disciples of Jesus want to live and are asked to live which don’t change and they are to do with marriage being between a man and a woman and the place for sexual intimacy being within marriage. Everybody is on a journey when it comes to their sexual activity, their sexuality and their sexual maturity, and I think what is clear is that the ideals are there, the call of the Gospel is there whether for marriage or for people who experience their friendships and their deepest love with somebody of the same sex. The pathway is clear and it is the task of the pastor to try and help someone to walk on that pathway, towards the invitation of Christ, given out of love which will be to entrust themselves to him in their friendships and to deepen those friendships so they really do become a powerful presence of God’s presence in their lives.
CNA: What will your contribution be to this Synod?
My hope would be, just as after the Synod on evangelization the Holy Father published a document called “The Joy of the Gospel,” that at the end of this process he might publish an exaltation called “The Joy of the family.” I think we have to have a very positive view. (As) Pope Francis said in Philadelphia, ‘If we take the stance that sees the family as a problem, then we’re going to set off on the wrong foot.’
Photo credit: zouzou via shutterstock.com
By Ann Schneible