Memo: The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

To: Reporters
From: Catholics for Choice
Date: 1 October 2014
Re: The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

Starting this Sunday, bishops from around the world will come together at the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to discuss the theme “the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” as well as where they think modern Catholic families are on a wide range of subjects.

In the following memo, Catholics for Choice highlights a few facts you may not know about the upcoming synod.

What is the Synod of Bishops? Pope Paul VI set up the Synod of Bishops at the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, convinced that the pope needed “to make ever greater use of the bishops’ assistance in providing for the good of the universal Church” and to enjoy “the consolation of their presence, the help of their wisdom and experience, the support of their counsel, and the voice of their authority.”

The synod is an assembly of bishops from around the world that assists the pope by providing counsel on important questions facing the church and making recommendations, but it does not issue decrees or change doctrine. Extraordinary General Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops, like the one this month, are called to deal with matters that “require a speedy solution” and that demand “immediate attention for the good of the entire Church.”

Is this synod unusual? Yes. It has been almost 30 years since the last Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. It is only the third of its kind since the Synod of Bishops was established in 1965. One assembly was in 1969 and the other was in 1985.

When was the last time a Synod of Bishops discussed marriage and the family? The most recent Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the theme of the family took place in 1980.

Who will be there? The 253 people in attendance will include cardinals, bishops, priests, men and women religious, married couples and representatives from other Christian denominations. Besides the bishops who are members of the synod, special experts and observers will attend. Half the experts are clerics themselves. Fourteen married couples will be there, including one couple involved with natural family planning and another couple with ties to International Catholic Engaged Encounter, a group that ministers to couples preparing for marriage. Out of the 253 attendees, there are 25 women.

Who can vote? Out of the 253 synod participants. 192 are considered synod fathers; most of them have a right to vote.

Who is being left out? Everyday Catholic families.

What will be discussed? We can expect the following topics to come up: family planning, divorce and remarriage in the church, cohabitation before marriage, same-sex marriage and who can receive communion. The preparatory working paper frankly acknowledged that “even when the Church’s teaching about marriage and the family is known, many Christians have difficulty accepting it in its entirety.” It specifically mentioned modern birth control methods, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, cohabitation, premarital sex and in vitro fertilization as issues on which the bishops’ teachings are largely ignored by lay Catholics.

What is being blamed for problems in modern marriages and families? The preparatory document cited “the influence of the mass media; the hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; growing secularism; the prevalence of ideas that lead to an excessive, selfish liberalization of morals; the fragility of interpersonal relationships; a culture which rejects making permanent choices … a veritable ‘liquid society’ and one with a ‘throw away’ mentality and one seeking ‘immediate gratification.’”

What are some of the proposed solutions? Some solutions described in the working document include better preaching, better seminary training for priests, better marriage preparation and increased couples counseling. The document also places faith in young people to “see a value in a stable, enduring relationship and express a real desire to marry and form a family.” It does not address current polls that suggest young people, particularly in the US, are marrying later than previous generations, use modern forms of contraception and support same-sex marriage.

What about the surveys that some bishops and priests distributed to their congregations? Last fall, Pope Francis issued a call to bishops’ conferences around the world, asking for their input on issues pertaining to family life—like family planning, divorce and remarriage and same-sex marriage—in order to prepare for the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. This is typical practice in advance of assemblies, and not unique to Pope Francis, though many media reports highlighted this as part of the narrative that the pope is creating a more open church.

Some bishops’ conferences took the request from the Vatican and used it as an opportunity to ask lay Catholics their opinions. Others modified the original questions and encouraged Catholics to make their thoughts and concerns known to the Vatican in other ways. Keep in mind that when lay Catholics were previously consulted on similar family issues and were found to largely reject the bishops’ conclusions, the Vatican ignored them.

What might be the outcome of this assembly? The synod will issue a message at the end of its two-week deliberations, and further discussion is expected to take place at the diocesan and parish levels next year. The process will continue with an Ordinary Synod of Bishops next October, followed by the publication of an Apostolic Exhortation. The bottom line: it’s unlikely any changes will be made to doctrine. The church misses out by failing to integrate the wisdom of the laity and Catholic families in this Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, is available for comment throughout the synod. To arrange an interview, please contact Claire S. Gould at cgould@catholicsforchoice.org or 202-986-6093.

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