On April 8, the Pope will release a post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the work of the Synod on the Family in Rome last October. You may recall that there was some controversy surrounding the synod. Why? Because family. Family is hard. Yes, there were some other causes of controversy—concern over communion for the divorced and remarried, questions surrounding same-sex “relationships”, debate among bishops, and the Mysterious Case of the Vatican Book Theft (I put that in all caps in case I write a novelization with that title). Much could be said about these issues, but the bottom line is that the synod was controversial because it was about the family. And unless yours is the Holy Family (the actual Holy Family) then you know that family is messy, because it’s made of people, and people are sinners. That’s why the family has been called the “school of virtue”. The family in the post-modern world faces unprecedented challenges from within and from without. A growing individualism, cultural pressures, widespread confusion about the nature of the family and about men and women in general, gender ideology, ubiquitous pornography, rampant divorce, violence—these strike at the heart of the family.
Let’s face it, everything comes back to the family.
Here’s what to expect from the exhortation.
It is called Amoris Laetitia
“The Joy of Love”. Love should bring joy, but joy is generally born of sacrifice and there can be no love without sacrifice.
It won’t change doctrine
The document will not offer any changes to the Church’s understanding of marriage, sex, sin, family, or anything else, for two reasons. First, apostolic exhortations don’t define doctrine and second, doctrine doesn’t change, so just don’t even right now. Why is this even a question?
It won’t change practice regarding reception of communion
Because Canon 916. This is not as complicated as many have made it seem. There will be no major changes or revolutionary proposals here.
It will address homosexuality…and pornography, and lots of other challenge
Why? Because this is a particular challenge in today’s post-modern culture. Some individuals experience deep-seated and permanent same-sex sexual attraction. Of course this is a challenge for families today and of course families should respond with love, truth, and patience. The exhortation may even go so far as to acknowledge some positive aspects of same-sex relationships. This does NOT, of course, mean that same-sex sexual relationships are in themselves good, but that those who seek them are seeking something good, but in a misguided form, namely real love, companionship, union, fulfillment). This should not surprise anyone with a sound understanding of Catholic anthropology.
It will be unjustly maligned
And mostly by those who haven’t read it. And probably by the same people who were somehow miraculously able to offer criticism of Laudato Si before it was even released last summer (read it…it’s none of the silly things its critics claim it is, trust me). Don’t buy the hype. Read it yourself and read it with the Catechism on hand.
It will challenge us to practice mercy in our families
If the family is the school of virtue, then there is no better way to practice the virtues than the people with whom you live and interact every day. In the year of Mercy, that especially includes mercy. The final document from the 2015 synod encourages practicing “accompaniment”. Our families present us with real opportunities to set ourselves aside, to be present to suffering, to “accompany” those closest to us who struggle. In our families, we have no choice but to accompany one another since we can pick our friends, but not our family. If we cannot practice mercy, charity, and patience with those most immediately present to us, how can we hope to practice it with others?
It will emphasize the beauty and importance of the family
As Saint John Paul II said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” The family is not a social construct. It is not malleable. Despite what the new wave of children’s books might suggest, there are not “different kinds of families”. There is the family, full stop. However, some (many) families are wounded in some way. And society and culture are wounded because families are hurting. This should remind us of the unique and indispensable role the family has in shaping culture and in forming individual souls. And this is a most beautiful mission that needs renewal—not re-shaping and re-defining.
It will be somewhat boring
It will, as we have already said, speak about the beauty of the family and reaffirm Church teaching, but it will mainly repeat the Church’s teaching and focus on some pastoral approaches to present-day challenges. In that way, it’ll be kind of uneventful. In fact, the exhortation will no doubt reflect the final document from the 2015 synod and address many of the same challenges for the family in the post-modern world.
The Holy Family is our model
The exhortation will have been signed and promulgated on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph, protector of the Holy Family and the Universal Church. Just as the synod’s final document, look for a prayer for the family near the end of the document that invokes our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. No family is perfect and every family faces challenges. But the family is essential to our humanity and to society. Everything depends on the family. Save the family, save the world.