Beliefs Institutions

Vatican confronts shifting landscape on family issues

The Vatican on Thursday (June 26) released a 75-page document to help bishops prepare for upcoming synods. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, promulgated and signed the document.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Faced with a cultural landscape that’s shifting faster than the church’s ability to keep up, Catholic bishops are looking for new approaches toward unmarried couples, divorced people and single parents who are disillusioned with the church.

The first-ever survey of 114 bishops’ conferences around the world found that many Christians “have difficulty” accepting church teachings on key issues such as birth control, divorce, homosexuality and cohabitation.

But one senior church leader cautioned that “the doctrine of the church is not up for discussion.”

The survey’s findings, released in a 75-page document by the Vatican on Thursday (June 26), will serve as the blueprint for October’s Synod of Bishops, when bishops from around the world will gather to discuss issues facing the family.

In response to the survey’s 39 questions, bishops stressed that the traditional family was in crisis, while many divorced individuals felt “frustrated and marginalized” with no access to Communion. Those seeking a divorce also want a simpler approach to obtaining an annulment within the church.

The survey, however, reaffirmed the bishops’ opposition to same-sex unions and abortion — both issues where there is likely to be little or no change anytime soon.

The vatican on Thursday (June 26) released an 85-page document to help bishops prepare for upcoming synods. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, promulgated and signed the document.

Creative Commons image by Pufui Pc Pifpef I

The Vatican on Thursday (June 26) released a 75-page document to help bishops prepare for upcoming synods. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, promulgated and signed the document.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Bishops’ Synod, said the document “provides a vision of family reality in its actual context” and would mark “the beginning of deep reflection” for the bishops.

The document said every bishops’ conference opposed “redefining” marriage between one man and one woman or recognizing same-sex unions, but said the children of gay couples had the right to be baptized.

“The child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children,” the document said.

The unprecedented survey sought the views of lay Catholics as well as clergy, and has raised hopes that Pope Francis might be considering radical changes to the church’s practices, such as allowing divorced individuals and remarried couples access to Communion.

The document paints a picture of a complex and rapidly changing social and economic environment that poses serious challenges to families in both rich and poor nations. Many priests reported battling a “crisis of faith” as families dealt with violence, abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and other social issues.

According to the findings, some clergy were “uncompromising and insensitive” when dealing with single parents or divorced people. Catholics who remarried often faced a “more painful wound” when denied sacraments like Communion.

Clerical sex scandals had also “significantly” weakened the church’s moral credibility, particularly in North America and northern Europe, the document said.

“In North America, people often think that the church is no longer a reliable moral guide, primarily in issues related to the family, which they see as a private matter to be decided independently,” it said.

On contraception, the survey found “in areas strongly influenced by secularization, couples generally do not consider the use of contraceptive methods to be a sin” while many considered abortion “a very serious sin.”

The bishops’ survey appeared to underscore the enormous difference between official church teachings on sexual and lifestyle issues and how the faithful live their lives, but synod officials sought to play down expectations of any major doctrinal changes.

“The doctrine of the church is not up for discussion, as we have seen emphasized many times in recent years by various teachings,” said Monsignor Bruno Forte, special secretary to this year’s synod.

The October synod is the first of two back-to-back yearly meetings of the world’s Catholic bishops at the Vatican on the theme of “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”


About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.


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  • What is missing here is an adequate and full understanding of the God of scripture. While the culture is frustrated with the church and Christianity, the current approach is to view the issues (gay marriage, divorce, baptism, etc.) from our human perspective and not God’s perspective and in light of his character and intentions. I ask if the average church goer really grasps why God hates divorce, why he made the two sexes, what marriage represents? Do Christians know how these issues come from a perfect and benevolent creator who has a design and intentions for his creation? Do they understand how these issues reflect his character, and that according to his plans we are to reflect that character because we are made in his image? There is a misplaced and heightened concern for the person and not enough of a concern within Christianity for the glory of God as lived out in his people. We are overly sensitive to offending someone of making them feel bad for their choices. Sorry, but choice have consequences. All of life testifies to that principle. But now we are wanting to change the standard because we don’t like the consequences – change the standard and then there are no consequences. How convenient. Now the goal must be to get rid of those who say otherwise in order to remove anything or anyone in society that could bring feelings of regret, shame, or guilt. And those who oppose this are labeled as mean, intolerant, hateful, bigots, or worse.

    It may not be popular in today’s world to hold to an external, scriptural, God-centered standard, and our minority status will only grow – but we will always be here and there will always be a few who will not bow the knee to this false theology.

  • @John,
    “What is missing here is an adequate and full understanding of the God of scripture.”

    There is no such thing. And it will never exist no matter how hard you wish it.

    god is nonsense. Don’t fear the fact. It gets better.

  • Hey John – I’ll get a life as soon as religious people stop shoving Jesus at me everywhere with incoherent nonsense. When you say stuff like:

    “…why he made the two sexes…”

    That is just face-palm baloney.
    Your god also (supposedly) made gay people. And people with two heads, and people with tails, and people with down’s syndrome and people with any number of normal and abnormal features – yet you cannot explain any of this except to claim that there is only one proper way to interpret it through some sort of scripture.

    The Bible is nonsense. All of it.