By PAUL LIKOUDIS
Among the questions Catholic bishops around the world are asked in the preparatory document for next year’s extraordinary Synod on the Family is how well do Catholics understand the Church’s teaching on family life, particularly Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Familiaris Consortio, published 32 years ago this November, his reflection on the 1980 Synod on the Family.
When Pope John Paul II convoked the 1980 synod, theological dissent, especially against the Church’s teaching on marriage and procreation, was raging. The dissenters’ position was given at the synod by the Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, who asked the synod fathers to reexamine Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae since the overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics had rejected it.
Quinn’s intervention was praised by leading U.S. dissidents, such as Fr. Charles Curran, who called it “a huge step forward” and Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick, who called it a “realistic” appraisal of the situation in the U.S. Church. Fr. William Hill, OP, president of the Catholic Theological Association of America, supported their position.
While the 1980 synod was clouded by the media with “controversies” over what the Church should say about contraception, divorce, sex education, and other issues, Pope John Paul II’s reflection on the synod, Familiaris Consortio, fell into a black hole — at least in most dioceses in the United States.
As Dr. Germain Grisez observed in his essay, “The Duty and Right to Follow One’s Judgment of Conscience” (The Historical Development of Fundamental Moral Theology in the United States, edited by Charles Curran and Richard McCormick, Paulist Press: 1999), written after the Synod on the Family and Familiaris Consortio, many bishops and theologians openly resisted John Paul II’s efforts to build solidarity in the episcopate. Grisez wrote:
“Against the clear and firm moral teaching of the popes and some bishops, some other bishops quietly but clearly accept and foster dissenting opinions. They never straightforwardly and firmly assert Catholic teaching on disputed questions, and if they do not openly reject that teaching, they do consult and follow the advice of dissenting theologians, invite such theologians to instruct their priests, appoint these theologians to teach their seminarians and direct their marriage preparation programs, and make it clear they reject the ‘narrowness’ and ‘rigidity’ of ‘official teaching’ in favor of a pluralism which admits dissenting opinions and encourages subjectivist consciences to follow them.”
The problem of dissent, especially in the episcopate, was highlighted by the late John Cardinal O’Connor, who told reporters after Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, just after John Paul II returned to Rome following his 1987 visit to the U.S., that there are bishops who “hate the Pope.”
John Paul II Noticed
During his ten-day visit to the United States, September 10-19, 1987, Blessed John Paul II made numerous references to Familiaris Consortio, in talks to bishops, priests, and laity across the South and West, obviously aware that its teachings were ignored.
At an ecumenical prayer service September 11 in Columbia, S.C., John Paul II emphasized his concerns for the family, reiterating points he made in Familiaris Consortio:
“In America and throughout the world, the family is being shaken to its roots. The consequences for individuals and society in personal and collective instability and unhappiness is incalculable….In recent years the Catholic Church, especially on the occasion of the 1980 Synod of Bishops, has been involved in an extensive reflection on the role of the Christian family in the modern world. This is a field in which there must be the maximum of collaboration among all who confess Jesus Christ. . . .
“Our Christian conscience should be deeply concerned about the way in which sins against love and against life are often presented as examples of ‘progress’ and emancipation. Most often, are they not but the age-old forms of selfishness dressed up in a new language and presented in a new cultural framework?”
In 1987, Catholic lay faithful were increasingly vociferous in letters to various dicasteries of the Holy See protesting sex-education programs — most notably the New Creation series — imposed on Catholic school students, often over the objections of parents, as well as seriously deficient, often heretical, catechisms.
In his September 12 message to elementary, secondary, and religious education leaders in New Orleans, the Holy Father made reference to parental rights, as well as the need for doctrinally sound catechetical programs:
“Permit me, brothers and sisters, to mention briefly something that is of special concern to the Church. I refer to the rights and duties of parents in the education of their children. The Second Vatican Council clearly enunciated the Church’s position: ‘Since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children’ (Gravissimum Educationis). In comparison with the educational role of all others, their role is primary; it is also irreplaceable and inalienable. It would be wrong for anyone to attempt to usurp that unique responsibility (cf. Familiaris Consortio, n. 36). Nor should parents in any way be penalized for choosing for their children an education according to their beliefs.”
On September 16, at his meeting with the entire U.S. episcopacy in Los Angeles, the Holy Father faced head-on the problem of theological dissent in the United States, especially on issues related to conjugal morality and family life.
He told the bishops, in an apparent insinuation to Archbishop John Quinn’s intervention at the 1980 Synod:
“It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics do not adhere to the teaching of the Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage. Some are reported as not accepting the Church’s clear position on abortion. It has also been noted that there is a tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence to the Church’s moral teachings.
“It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops of the United States and elsewhere. . . .
“Dissent from Church doctrine remains what it is: dissent; as such it may not be proposed or received on an equal footing with the Church’s authentic teaching.”
And again, the Holy Father directed his attention to the problem of sex education in Catholic schools, telling the U.S. bishops:
“From time to time, the question of sex education, especially as regards programs being used in schools, becomes a matter of concern to Catholic parents. The principles governing this area have been succinctly but clearly enunciated in Familiaris Consortio. First among these principles is the need to recognize that sex education is a basic right and duty of parents themselves. They have to be helped to become increasingly more effective in fulfilling this task. Other educational agencies have an important role, but always in a subsidiary manner, with due subordination to the rights of parents.”
In his September 18 address to laity at the Cathedral of St. Mary in San Francisco, the Holy Father again emphasized the major points of Familiaris Consortio. He stressed that “the role that the laity fulfill in the Christian family” is of “supreme importance in the mission of the Church.”
Again he stressed the primary role parents have as educators of their children, and the crucial role families must play in evangelization.
Key Teachings From
At a time when families are burdened, harassed, and threatened as never before and the institution of marriage is under attack by courts and legislators, Catholics need the catechesis offered by Familiaris Consortio. Following are some excerpts from this crucial apostolic letter:
+ + +
“At a moment of history, in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family, ensuring their full vitality and human and Christian development, and thus contributing to the renewal of society and of the People of God.”
+ + +
“It is, in fact, to the families of our times that the Church must bring the unchangeable and ever new Gospel of Jesus Christ, just as it is the families involved in the present conditions of the world that are called to accept and to live the plan of God that pertains to them….Not infrequently ideas and solutions which are very appealing but which obscure in varying degrees the truth and the dignity of the human person, are offered to the men and women of today, in their sincere and deep search for a response to the important daily problems that affect their married and family life. These views are often supported by the powerful and pervasive organization of the means of social communication, which subtly endanger freedom and the capacity for objective judgment.”
+ + +
“The ‘supernatural sense of faith’ however does not consist solely or necessarily in the consensus of the faithful. Following Christ, the Church seeks the truth, which is not always the same as the majority opinion. She listens to conscience and not to power, and in this way she defends the poor and the downtrodden. The Church values sociological and statistical research, when it proves helpful in understanding the historical context in which pastoral action has to be developed and when it leads to a better understanding of the truth. Such research alone, however, is not to be considered in itself an expression of the sense of faith.”
+ + +
“The education of the moral conscience, which makes every human being capable of judging and of discerning the proper ways to achieve self-realization according to his or her original truth, thus becomes a pressing requirement that cannot be renounced.
“Modern culture must be led to a more profoundly restored covenant with divine Wisdom. Every man is given a share of such Wisdom through the creating action of God. And it is only in faithfulness to this covenant that the families of today will be in a position to influence positively the building of a more just and fraternal world.”
+ + +
“By fostering and exercising a tender and strong concern for every child that comes into this world, the Church fulfills a fundamental mission: for she is called upon to reveal and put forward anew in history the example and the commandment of Christ the Lord, who placed the child at the heart of the Kingdom of God: ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’
“I repeat once again what I said to the General Assembly of the United Nations on October 2, 1979: ‘I wish to express the joy that we all find in children, the springtime of life, the anticipation of the future history of each of our present earthly homelands. No country on earth, no political system can think of its own future otherwise than through the image of these new generations that will receive from their parents the manifold heritage of values, duties and aspirations of the nation to which they belong and of the whole human family. Concern for the child, even before birth, from the first moment of conception and then throughout the years of infancy and youth, is the primary and fundamental test of the relationship of one human being to another.
“ ‘And so, what better wish can I express for every nation and for the whole of mankind, and for all the children of the world than a better future in which respect for human rights will become a complete reality throughout the third millennium, which is drawing near?’”
+ + +
“Precisely because the love of husband and wife is a unique participation in the mystery of life and of the love of God Himself, the Church knows that she has received the special mission of guarding and protecting the lofty dignity of marriage and the most serious responsibility of the transmission of human life.
“Thus, in continuity with the living tradition of the ecclesial community throughout history, the recent Second Vatican Council and the Magisterium of my predecessor Paul VI, expressed above all in the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, have handed on to our times a truly prophetic proclamation, which reaffirms and reproposes with clarity the Church’s teaching and norm, always old yet always new, regarding marriage and regarding the transmission of human life.”
+ + +
“The Church is called upon to manifest anew to everyone, with clear and stronger conviction, her will to promote human life by every means and to defend it against all attacks, in whatever condition or state of development it is found.
“Thus the Church condemns as a grave offense against human dignity and justice all those activities of governments or other public authorities which attempt to limit in any way the freedom of couples in deciding about children. Consequently, any violence applied by such authorities in favor of contraception or, still worse, of sterilization and procured abortion, must be altogether condemned and forcefully rejected. Likewise to be denounced as gravely unjust are cases where, in international relations, economic help given for the advancement of peoples is made conditional on programs of contraception, sterilization, and procured abortion.”
+ + +
“In the context of a culture which seriously distorts or entirely misinterprets the true meaning of human sexuality, because it separates it from its essential reference to the person, the Church more urgently feels how irreplaceable is her mission of presenting sexuality as a value and task of the whole person, created male and female in the image of God.”
+ + +
“If ideologies opposed to the Christian faith are taught in the schools, the family must join with other families, if possible through family associations, and with all its strength and with wisdom help the young not to depart from the faith. In this case the family needs special assistance from pastors of souls, who must never forget that parents have the inviolable right to entrust their children to the ecclesial community.”
+ + +
“The social role of families is called upon to find expression also in the form of political intervention: families should be the first to take steps to see that the laws and institutions of the State not only do not offend but support and positively defend the rights and duties of the family. Along these lines, families should grow in awareness of being ‘protagonists’ of what is known as ‘family politics’ and assume responsibility for transforming society; otherwise families will be the first victims of the evils that they have done no more than note with indifference.”
As Catholics await next year’s special Synod on the Family, perhaps it is time to be reacquainted with Familiaris Consortio — the work of a saint!