Now that the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops has released the Instrumentum Laboris (or “working document”) for the upcoming synod on the family there have been some mixed early reactions. By and large, the preliminary response has appeared to be one of muted disappointment on some fronts, with commentators noting that on disciplinary and doctrinal subjects the document reinstates the current church teaching despite having solicited worldwide consultation from laity and clergy. Yet, there has been enthusiasm by some for the notably pastoral and patient tone that the document seems to express in recognizing the complications of modern family life.
My own view of the text arises from my personal experience of religious life and the manner in which decisions are or are not deliberated and expressed in that context, as well as recalling the possibility for surprise that we have seen in relatively recent history at the Second Vatican Council. I have some contextual suggestions arising from these two points for those interested in reading the text and making sense of it.
- First, readers should know what the text is and what it is not. It is the equivalent of a glorified agenda. It is a packet of summarized information that highlights the thematic foci of the following discussions, at least as they are currently planned. There are three primary divisions in the Instrumentum Laboris that lend a clue to the matters scheduled to be taken up by the bishops:
- An examination of the faithful’s “knowledge and acceptance” of church teaching;
- A study of “various challenges and actual situations” faced by families;
- Pastoral challenges concerning “openness to life” and raising of children.
Each of these areas highlight potential discussions and beg responses on the part of the church’s leadership. Hopefully, if the pastoral tone present at various points in the text offer any clues, there will be a constructive and healing response to the challenges seen between the church’s teaching and practice and the lived reality of women and men of faith.
- Second, while this text outlines the agenda and topics for discussion, it is not an “official document” in the sense that an Apostolic Exhortation, including a post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, is. Rather, this text serves as a starting point for the preparatory study and eventual discussion to take place at the synod. Bishops are permitted under the structure to introduce their own “interventions” to respond to, amend, address, or redirect the discussion or focus on particular aspects of the synod theme. That said, under John Paul II’s pontificate, these “interventions” were required to be submitted in advance for review, a practice still on the books.
- Third, while it is possible that the text serves as a bellwether for what will eventually result as the “official text” of the synod, likely in the form of an Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Francis, down the road, it might not as well. This is where the lessons of Vatican II come in handy. The curial offices prepared preliminary documents such as this as well as working texts that were essentially thrown out by the participating bishops upon their arrival. It is conceivable, albeit admittedly unlikely, that the bishops of the world (0r a significant portion of those conference representatives that will participate in the first synod) reject the tenor or direction of this text and offer an alternative agenda. As has frequently been the case in the pontificate of Francis to date, anything seems possible.
All this is simply to say that it is far too early for people to get worked up about the Instrumentum Laboris and the forthcoming synod. Until the bishops meet, until reports begin to leak about the discussions, until there’s an official document — we won’t know.
As for those aspects of this text that seem to suggest the unchanging of church teaching on subjects like abortion, same-sex marriage, and the indissolubility of marriage — what did people expect? A preliminary agenda-setting document such as this cannot simply gesture toward radical change of teaching in this way. That is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit in the gathering of the leaders of local churches (bishops) in communion with one another and the bishop of Rome. Again, while unlikely, it is still possible that the bishops read the signs of the time through the lens of the Gospel, as Gaudium et Spes instructs, and conclude that something needs to change. Additionally, the pastoral tone and the sense of urgency about the disillusion and pain so many of the faithful experience in the gap between their lived reality and the church’s practice and teaching offers at least a minimal sign of hope.