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Miércoles, 27 Mayo 2015

Some Current Issues Concerning Marriage and the Family

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Following on from the recent Extraordinary Synod of Bishops (October 2014), this article seeks to summarise the Church’s teaching on the family (its unity, indissolubility, sacramentality etc.). Before that, a brief explanation is given of what the Synod of Bishops is and what it is meant to do.


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A. - Introduction

From the moment when Pope Francis announced that there would be an Extraordinary Synod on the family in October 2014 as a preparation for the Ordinary Synod of Bishops to be held on the same subject in 2015, a wide-ranging debate opened about what subjects should be dealt with in these Synods. According to some sectors in the media, it seemed that the only two subjects to be addressed would be whether or not people who have divorced and entered into a second civil marriage could receive Communion, and the Church’s attitude to homosexuality and same sex unions.

Our aim in this article is to recall some doctrinal principles with regard to the family – which are changeless, as Pope Francis has reiterated on numerous occasions (cf. his Address at the close of the 3rd Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, 18 October 2014) – bearing in mind the Extraordinary Synod’s study of these matters.

First of all, it is important to explain what a Synod of Bishops is. This is not a minor matter if we wish to give due weight to what has been said by the media and indeed by the very participants in the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. We also think it is necessary to recover a suitable anthropological understanding of marriage and the family.

The Extraordinary Synod on the family

Canon 342 of the Code of Canon Law defines the Synod of Bishops as follows:

“The Synod of Bishops is a group of Bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops. These Bishops, by their counsel, assist the Roman Pontiff in the defence and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the mission of the Church in the world.” The Synod is an expression of communion between the Holy Father and the Bishops. As the following Canon makes clear, the Synod does not have deliberative powers, only consultative ones. That is why Synods of Bishops do not conclude with deliberations, decrees, or doctrinal documents, but with proposals which are submitted to the Holy Father for him to consider as he sees fit, after which, as a rule, in the light of those proposals, and exercising his primatial authority over the Universal Church, he publishes an Apostolic Exhortation dealing with the matters studied by the Synod.

In the case of the Synods on the family, the Holy Father decided first to call an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to prepare the ground for the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod which is to be held in October 2015.

We will briefly set out how the Extraordinary Synod proceeded, in order to understand the place of each of the documents which came out before and during the Synod. First, the Secretariat of the Synod produced a questionnaire designed to get to know the situation in the different parts of the world, in order to decide what problems needed to be studied. In the light of the answers to the questionnaire, the Secretariat produced its Working document (Instrumentum laboris) for the Synod Fathers to study and discuss.

In his opening address to the Synod, the Holy Father invited the Fathers to speak with “parrhesia”, that is, candidly and not be afraid to tackle the subject. In a change from the procedure followed in earlier Synods, instead of publishing what each participant had contributed, only a daily summary was produced and given to the media. At the end of the first week, once the general meetings had finished, the Secretariat prepared, with the expert advisers (periti), the Report after the discussion (Relatio post disceptationem). This was not voted on. The Report concentrated more on the challenges and problematic aspects rather than on the positive aspects of the family. This drew criticism from the majority of Bishops who felt that it did not represent a balanced summary of what had been said during the first week of the Synod. This Report was used as the base text for discussion in the different language groups in the Synod. The result of their work was a new document, the Synod Report (Relatio Synodi), which was voted on and approved by the Synod Fathers. At the Pope’s explicit wish, the Relatio Synodi was published together with the votes cast on each point. Only three points failed to receive the two-thirds majority required for approval: no. 52 which presents the various positions regarding the admission or otherwise to the Eucharist of divorced people who have then married in a civil matrimony (104 in favour / 74 against); no. 53 regarding the spiritual communion which people who have divorced and remarried can make (112 in favour / 64 against), and no. 55 which refers to families in which some member has homosexual tendencies (118 in favour / 62 against). In regard to this last point, there is a startling difference between what was said in the Relatio post disceptationem, which devoted various points to the subject, and the Relatio Synodi which in point no. 55 confines itself to a reminder of what is contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and in a document of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on non-discrimination and the help that should be given to those people.

To summarise this Extraordinary Synod, we can use some words of Pope Francis in his closing address. He said that during those days there had been “discourses and interventions full of faith, pastoral and doctrinal zeal, frankness, courage and ‘parrhesia’” without, moreover, “putting in doubt the fundamental truths of the sacrament of marriage: indissolubility, unity, fidelity and procreativity.” In his address the Pontiff also asked all to have faith in the mission of the Holy Father as guarantor of doctrine and of unity, and emphasised that the work of the Synod would continue with Peter and under Peter (cum Petro and sub Petro).

This first Synod did not end with proposals to the Holy Father, but simply the Synod report we have mentioned (the Relatio Synodi) summarising the subjects covered. This document will serve as a basis for reflection within the Church during this year and as a guide in the preparation of the Ordinary Synod. It must be reiterated that neither Relatio post disceptationem, published at the end of the first week after the general sessions, nor the Relatio Synodi, voted on by the Synod Fathers, are doctrinal documents, but rather considerations on marriage and the family which will be studied at the Ordinary Synod in October 2015.

The Ordinary Synod will conclude with proposals to be brought to the Holy Father on the family and marriage and the pastoral challenges presented by the many cultural settings in which the Church is present. It will be for the Holy Father to give answers, normally by means of an Apostolic Exhortation, to the various questions, problems and challenges presented to him by the Synod Fathers at the end of the Synod.

Bearing in mind what we have said above, the attitude of all Christian people should be one of prayer for the fruits which this synodal route will produce, praying especially for the Holy Father Pope Francis, who constantly asks for prayers to enable him to carry out his Petrine Ministry, and of invoking the assistance of the Holy Spirit that he may enlighten the Synod Fathers and in general all the pastors and members of the faithful.

Every single person – clergy, parents, teachers, judges, members of ecclesial institutions, etc. – can contribute from their own place and environment to the rediscovery of the beauty of the “Gospel of the Family” and, walking always in the light of the truth of matrimony, should go out to meet families to strengthen them in their vocation and also to be in some way the good shepherd who goes in search of the wounded sheep and heals it, with an attitude which encompasses at the same time (it could not be otherwise) deep charity and mercy, together with respect for the true nature of things, since it is only in the truth that the salvation Christ gained for us can be found.

B. Family and marriage: doctrinal principles

Writing about the family in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (FC) which followed from the 1980 Synod of Bishops on marriage and the family, Saint John Paul II affirms: “Family, become what you are” (no. 17). The family has an intrinsic identity which goes deeper than specific cultures: at the same time, being a living reality, it is in constant development, as can be seen in society, culture and legal systems.

In order to adopt a positive approach to the changes affecting the family, it is worth considering its nature and also getting to know initiatives which favour and promote its being what it should be and fulfilling its mission at each historical and cultural moment, because, as John Paul II reminded us, every culture can and should be judged in the light of nature, of that which is worthy of the human person.[1]

1. The family is necessary for mankind to live together

The family responds to and fulfils human beings’ natural need to relate to others, specifically in the context of the fully reciprocal relationship between man and woman, and between generations (parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, etc.).

The family is also a community of love and solidarity (cf. Pontifical Council for the Family, Charter of Family Rights, 22 October1983, paragraph E of the Preamble) that clearly shows the human inclination to live-with. Within it, human beings bringing together the procreation and education of their children with the subjective need to acquire their own personal identity, find themselves in that double dimension of a person who gives himself to and receives from the other.

Moreover, the Church regards the family as “so to speak, the domestic Church” (veluti Ecclesia domestica). (LG 11; cf. FC 21; CCC 1657.)

2. The personal conjugal union between one man and one woman

Marriage is an alliance between a woman and a man, by which they mutually give and receive one another for life, thus establishing a joint project which also has a direct effect on their social environment. The vocation to marriage stems from the very nature of man and woman. It is therefore not a merely human institution, despite the many variations it has experienced over the centuries and in different cultures, social structures, and human attitudes (cf. CCC 1603).

The conjugal relationship, which has an intrinsic dimension of justice responding to the reality of being a person-man and a person-woman, is the essential core of marriage as a reality founded on consent and it unites the freedom of the individual persons – of each spouse – and the truth of family relationships. “In marriage, through the marriage pact, all the responsibilities that arise from the bond created are taken on publicly. This bond is a good for the spouses themselves and their path to perfection; for the children in their formation and growth in love; for the other members of the same family founded on the marriage pact and by blood ties; and for society as a whole, whose most solid strength springs from the various kinds of family relationships (cf. Pontifical Council for the Family, Family, Marriage and ‘de facto unions’, 25-28)” (H. Franceschi, Uniones de hecho, in Pontificio Consejo para la Familia, Léxicon. Términos ambiguos y discutidos sobre familia, vida y cuestiones éticas, Palabra, Madrid 2004, p. 1114).

Equally, sexual intercourse acquires its true significance in marriage, because it participates in the fruitfulness of a love both fully personal and responsible, involving the whole person in his or her male or female condition, which is gifted by both spouses and received as such by them.

Another element inseparable from the act of reciprocal personal self-giving in marriage is fruitfulness. The conjugal relationship is fundamentally different from the instinctive urge for reproduction present in the animal kingdom, whether in itself – to the biological act is added the matrimonial covenant, and the psychological, spiritual and ethical requirements governing the biological act – or in its social significance: the transmission of life, generational change and, through education, the introduction of new individuals into society – the family being the primary and principal milieu for the “socialisation” of human beings. As the Relatio Synodi witnesses, one of the challenges today is to help Christian believers to study in depth the Church’s doctrine of the inseparability between the unitive and procreative significance of the conjugal acts, thus helping them to overcome a materialistic and utilitarian vision of the person, which results in shutting oneself off from the fruitfulness aspect of marriage and a generous openness to that fruitfulness. In that sense, the Relatio Synodi voted on at the end of the Extraordinary Assembly calls on pastors and married people to discover and learn how to transmit the beauty of conjugal fruitfulness, making special reference to the doctrine of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Paul VI. It is notable that two points which deal directly with this subject (nos. 57 & 58) were approved by practically all the Synod Fathers (165 in favour and 5 against; 167 in favour and 9 against, respectively.)

3. Unity and Indissolubility

The objective demands of marriage, in which natural self-giving and human freedom  are joined and harmonised, are fidelity and indissolubility. These are not demands added to marriage arbitrarily or from the outside, for social or religious reasons: they belong to the very content of the marriage alliance which the spouses make, by means of a free personal act.

So great is human dignity that the only worthy way to establish a relationship which involves giving one’s own sexual condition (which is inseparable from the individual as a whole) is marriage, which is in turn the foundation of the family.

One can therefore see clearly how great an impoverishment are those human relationships which arise from so called “free unions” or from a bodily and affective union separated from fidelity and indissolubility. Equally incomplete is the definition of marriage simply as a community of life and love, because it proves to be ambiguous: it happens, in fact, that in some cases such a definition is applied to situations of shared living and affection which are not really and intrinsically “conjugal”, that is to say a union between a man as man and a woman as woman, giving to each their just due and, by its very nature, faithful, indissoluble and open to life. In a similar way, the meaning of marriage is sometimes emptied by its being understood as giving a kind of right to the free sexual activity.

There are also situations which look similar to the marriage union and which are given the name by some people of “reconstituted families”, unions formed after the dissolution of an earlier family unity. Nowadays, these situations occur most commonly after spouses have divorced. These unions, often based on a legal civil marriage and in a home run by two adults, a man and a woman, are nevertheless different in a number of respects from families founded on an indissoluble union. In them, a new adult member has been introduced who is not linked biologically with the children of the previous marriage; this adult sometimes brings his or her own children; new relationships and roles are created, such as the relationships with the step-father (or step-mother) and at the same time with the natural father (or mother), with half brothers and sisters; with the previous spouse (especially as regards the children’s education); there is the question of the custody of children who live with their other parent and their visits to the parent who has remarried; financial resources have to be shared sometimes leading to competition between sons and daughters who live in the new household and those who visit them, etc. Besides, these situations frequently serve to discredit the significance of marriage in each person’s conscience, given that the negative experience of individuals affected by an earlier divorce, or by the divorce of their parents, will tend to generate distrust in marriage as an institution.

Another situation is that of those unions between people who are not married but who have not formally rejected marriage. The fact that such unions are not based on any marital commitment places them in the category of de facto unions. However, since in these cases the lack of marital commitment is not the result of a clear positive choice, they differ in some way from the de facto unions. This can be seen in countries where “the greater part of de facto unions is due to an antipathy to marriage, not for ideological reasons, but because of a lack of a suitable training in responsibility, as a result of a situation of poverty and marginalisation in which they find themselves. A lack of confidence in marriage can, however, be due also to factors within the family, especially in the Third World. An important factor to be borne in mind are the situations of injustice and the structures of sin. If machismo or racist attitudes dominate a culture this can worsen many of these difficult situations” (Pontifical Council for the Family, Family, marriage, and “de facto unions”, no. 6).


4.- The sacramentality of Christian marriage and the faith of the contracting parties

For many centuries it has been the Church’s established Magisterium, theology and law that between the baptised there is no valid marriage which is not at the same time a Sacrament of the New Covenant (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 1055 § 2).

Revelation teaches that marriage between the baptised is a sacrament - that is to say, that God has willed that marriage as foreseen in the plan of creation as a sign of God’s love towards his people should become in the fullness of time a permanent sign of the union of Christ and his Church and so, for that reason, should be a true sacrament of the New Covenant.

That is why the sacramental character of matrimony is not something in juxtaposition or extrinsic to the nature of marriage. It is the same marriage, willed by the Creator, which is raised to the dignity of a sacrament by the redeeming action of Christ, without this entailing a denaturalisation of a natural reality (cf. CCC 1617). In conjugal love between baptised spouses, there is a strengthening of the fidelity called for by their giving themselves to each other (cf. CCC 1647, 1648 and 1650-1651). For that reason, personal faith is not a requisite for a marriage between two baptised people to be a sacrament. It is enough that they “desire” a real marriage, that is to say, a union which is in itself faithful, indissoluble and open to fruitfulness, which by its very nature is open to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 1055 § 1). Their willingness to marry in accordance with the original divine plan “really involves, even if not in a fully conscious way, an attitude of profound obedience to the will of God, an attitude which cannot exist without God’s grace” (FC 68c). More than in the will of the marrying couple, the sacramental character is founded on the redeeming will of Christ. (cf. ibid.).

In no. 48 of the Relatio Synodi we read: “Among other proposals, the role which faith plays in persons who marry could possibly be examined in ascertaining the validity of the Sacrament of Marriage, all the while maintaining that the marriage of two baptized Christians is always a sacrament.” This number obtained 143 votes in favour, and 35 against. One problem here is the great difficulty of determining what degree of faith would be required. St. John Paul II, in FC 68, affirms that it is sufficient to want what the Church understands when marriage is celebrated; in his Address to the Roman Rota in 2003 he specified that this signifies “desiring conjugality”, that is wanting a real marriage.

C.- Current threats and challenges to the family

In many of today’s cultures, especially in the Western world, the family is “under siege”, to use an expression from Pope Francis. The cultural, social, and juridical models of the family which some people are seeking to impose are in clear contradiction to the “conjugal family”, that set of family relationships whose starting point is the conjugal relationship, which is the first family relationship. In other cultures the threat comes from farther back, as in some cultures which deny the radical equality of man and woman as persons and allow polygamy.

1. Divorce

Divorce, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as a “plague on society” (no. 2385), entered civil legislation as a remedy for crisis situations, but has become today, in practice, a personal right, due to a great extent to an erroneous understanding of freedom, which is understood not as a capacity to select the good, so as personally to choose it and reach the perfection to which the human being is called, but as a total power of decision, as an end in itself. From this viewpoint, it is impossible to understand how a person can, at any given moment, can give such consent as to “renounce their freedom for ever”. Given this reason, there is a need to overcome the anthropological pessimism that our society has fallen into, to the point of not believing is possible to give oneself forever. Freedom exists so that one can give oneself; it is a requisite to be able to love, but it is not an end in itself. It is a “freedom for”, that is, it has a purpose. It is not a total non-determination, not a capacity to decide always and at every moment. A person who doesn’t commit himself so as not to lose his freedom ends up being a slave of that concept of freedom. Therefore, as the Relatio Synodi repeatedly affirms, what is needed is a new inculturation of the original truth of marriage, which will manage to present the indissolubility of marriage not as a yoke but as a gift from God to the marrying couple (cf. Relatio Synodi, 14).

2. The contraceptive mentality

Marriage is open to fecundity by its very nature. Although the phenomenon of contraception has existed since time immemorial, the invention of the contraceptive pill in the 1950s has obscured as never before the significance of human sexuality. It has given everybody the ability to separate the unitive and procreative meanings of the sexual act (cf. HV 12). We live in a society in which sexuality has become banal and fecundity - large families - has become suspect. Having a child is not seen as a gift from God, but as an individual right which one can have access to by any means, as happens in artificial fertilisation.

It is necessary to overcome a sort of schizophrenia in modern society: on the one hand, every kind of measure is taken to control births, including policies imposed unjustly, especially on the poorest classes in society: sterilisation, distribution of contraceptives, denigration of large families; on the other hand, especially for people with financial resources, a child at whatever cost, with the proliferation of artificial methods of fertilisation, which do not respect the dignity of the human being, of marriage, and above all of the child who has a right to be conceived in his mother’s womb and to have a definite father and mother who are husband and wife to each other. Besides, in virtually all these techniques, it is foreseen that embryos will be selected, frozen, aborted. Faced with these situations it is necessary to promote, also with the example of Christian families, the beauty of fatherhood and motherhood in marriage, the gift which each child entails, confidence in divine Providence, generosity in renouncing superficial comforts in favour of children etc. (cf. Relatio Synodi, 57 & 58).

3. So-called “homosexual marriage”.

As can be deduced from everything we have explained above, marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. Since marriage is a reality that goes back to the origins of man, and is anchored in the very nature of being a man and a woman, no authority on earth has the power to redefine marriage and, even less, to say that a relationship between two men or two women is a marriage. Even though these relationships have been called “marriage” in diverse legislations, such unions will never be a marriage, and it is therefore a great error to call them such.

Marriage is founded on the difference between man and woman and the complementarity deriving from that diversity and, by its nature, is called to be fruitful. All of these elements are absent in a homosexual union. The impossibility of recognising such a union as marriage does not imply any injustice or discrimination, because what would be unjust would be to treat differently that which is the same. Nobody who is objective and has common sense can assert that these unions are the same as marriage. In these unions, the anthropological foundation is missing, the goods that define marriage are not there, and they are unions which by their nature are unfruitful.

It should be obvious, however, that this conclusion is compatible with understanding for individuals with homosexual tendencies, to whom the Church offers (as she does to all believers) the means they need to live according to the will of God.

The way ahead is to overcome the reductionism to which marriage has been subjected, where today the only thing which matters in some civil legislations are sentiments and affection, independently of what is worthwhile and good for the individual and society. The attitude of a Christian to this situation cannot be defeatist or pessimistic, even though a whole generation may not be long enough to recover for society the true and authentic idea and beauty of marriage, which is inscribed in man’s very being.

4. A brief reflection on people who have divorced and remarried in a civil ceremony 

This subject, as we know, is now much discussed, often appearing in the media, which frequently – with a reductionist slant – sought to focus all the attention of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on it.

The Church has always been firm in her Magisterium on this matter. It will be enough to mention two recent pronouncements which make it very clear, both from the point of view of Church practice and from that of pastoral action. These are no. 84 of the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio of St. John Paul II, and no. 29 of the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of Benedict XVI. In those texts can be found, on the one hand, very practical advice for people who find themselves in these situations, who should not feel excluded from the Church and who must be treated with pastoral charity, with the mercy which Pope Francis speaks of.

On the other hand, both documents explain the theological reasons, founded on Christ’s Revelation, why for such people to be admitted to the Eucharist they need to conduct themselves in a way which does not contradict the sacramental significance of marriage, which is the indissoluble union between Christ and his Church. This is not an ecclesiastical penalty, but a consequence of the situation in which they find themselves, which is objectively in contradiction to the Eucharist.[2]

To conclude, we can affirm that in treating these cases we must combine authentic and profound charity with a love for the truth, since the good which people need can only be found in the truth, the salus animarum, which is the supreme law of the Church. True compassion does not consist in ignoring sins or situations of disorder, but in curing them and offering the faithful the means to live in accordance with the truth.


Hector Franceschi - Miguel Ángel Ortiz


[1] Cf. John Paul II, Enc. Veritatis Splendor, 53: “It must certainly be admitted that man always exists in a particular culture, but it must also be admitted that man is not exhaustively defined by that same culture. Moreover, the very progress of cultures demonstrates that there is something in man which transcends those cultures. This ‘something’ is precisely human nature: this nature is itself the measure of culture and the condition ensuring that man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being. To call into question the permanent structural elements of man which are connected with his own bodily dimension would not only conflict with common experience, but would render meaningless Jesus’ reference to the ‘beginning’, precisely where the social and cultural context of the time had distorted the primordial meaning and the role of certain moral norms (cf. Mt 19:1-9). This is the reason why ‘the Church affirms that underlying so many changes there are some things which do not change and are ultimately founded upon Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and for ever’ (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 10). Christ is the ‘Beginning’ who, having taken on human nature, definitively illumines it in its constitutive elements and in its dynamism of charity towards God and neighbour.”

[2] We remit to three recent articles on this subject: H. Franceschi, Divorziati risposati e nullità matrimoniale, in “Ius Ecclesiae” 25 (2013) pp. 617-639, which gives recent Magisterium on the subject; M. A. Ortiz, La Pastorale dei fedeli divorziati risposati civilmente e la loro chiamata alla santità, in C. J. Errázuriz M. - M. A. Ortiz (editors), Misericordia e diritto nel matrimonio, Rome 2014, pp. 99-129, who focuses the matter from the point of view of the universal call to holiness which, while it excludes nobody, at the same time points out the demands of Christian life; A. S. Sanchez-Gil, La pastorale dei fedeli in situazioni di manifesta indispozioni morale. La necessità di un nuovo paradigma canonico-pastorale dopo l’Evangelii gaudium, in “Ius Ecclesiae” 26 (2014), being published, in which the author proposes new ways to explain the teaching of the Church on this and similar matters.