In a surprising show of transparency, the Vatican has admitted it bears some responsibility for the way Catholics have been turning their backs on church teachings about sex and marriage. In a far reaching working document called an Instrumentum Laboris presented to the Vatican press corps in Rome this week, the Synod of Bishops laid out the groundwork for a highly anticipated meeting in October, when the views of the people in the pews are supposed to be taken into account and changes big or small in church policy might actually be the result.
Part of the planning for the synod meeting included sending out a 39-question survey to dioceses around the world to better understand how Catholics live their lives. The final conclusion appears to be almost unanimously that they don’t practice what is being preached: “Many respondents confirmed that, even when the church’s teaching about marriage and the family is known, many Christians have difficulty accepting it in its entirety.”
The document blamed the leak in faith by some Catholics on “insensitive priests” and those who have “conspicuously lavish lifestyles” as well as the ongoing clerical sex scandal and “pedophilia in particular” that is still ongoing. The bishops say that priests need to be more in touch with their parishioners and that many times they were “unprepared” to minister to people with complicated lives.
On the topic of civil unions (which refers not just to same-sex marriage but also to those marriages by divorced Catholics who cannot be remarried in the church) the document’s authors admit that these Catholics are frustrated. “The responses lament that persons who are separated, divorced or single parents sometimes feel unwelcome in some parish communities.”
But the bishops who authored the working document do not in any way suggest that there will be major policy changes about birth control or sex outside of marriage, but they do suggest there will be some wiggle room when it comes to allowing divorced Catholics to take communion or, in special circumstances, allowing babies born to single parents or same-sex couples to be baptized, saying “the child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children.” They did soften the language when it comes to gays and lesbians, admitting that priests often fail to understand just “how to deal with same-sex couples.”
The document concludes that new guidelines must be put in place to better help Catholics with current problems: “A distinction must be made between those who have made a personal, and often painful, choice and live that choice discreetly so as not to give scandal to others.”
But while the document does imply that the Vatican sees its own faults, it also casts plenty of blame, especially on the “mass media; the hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; the 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.”
The October synod is called “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” which implies that Pope Francis intends to have bishops rethink just how they preach. But those who followed the last synod on the family in 1980 are far from impressed. Father Thomas Reese, who writes for National Catholic Reporter, said in a newsletter to journalists that the document is dull. “The document acknowledges that ‘the primary task of the church is to proclaim the beauty of the vocation to love,’ but there is little beautiful or inspiring in this document,” he wrote. “If married life is as boring and joyless as this document, I am glad I am celibate.”