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The Synod on the Family: Multi-disciplinary Perspectives from the American Context

This DSPT Symposium—part of the 2016 Convocation of the College of Fellows—considered the 2015 Synod on the Family in relation to our American context and explored the family in the USA from a variety of perspectives, seeking to more deeply understand the Church’s teaching on the family with an aim to discern how to creatively and faithfully apply it in our culture today.

For more information about the College of Fellows, visit

A Pastoral Perspective – Michael Sweeney

The sine qua non for effective pastoral intervention must be a profound grasp of the revelation expressed through a theological understanding that is adequate to practical applications. In this regard I must express disappointment with the relatio:

There is an assumption, apparent throughout, that the couples and families whose situations the Synod addresses are regarded as passive recipients of the Church’s (that is, of the hierarchy’s) ministry. We are told that the Church must be solicitous for the sake of couples who are in “irregular” situations with respect to their marriages or for families that are struggling amidst social and financial difficulties; that they are to be welcomed and that a place must be made for them.  But we welcome and make a place for strangers, not for co-workers in the Lord’s vineyard; that we are, together with them in Baptism, members of the Body of Christ, bearing common responsibility for the Church’s mission is too little appreciated.  This assumption would result, in my judgment, in a quite different approach to understanding their situations.

There is a concession made to the fact that we lack a language with which to express the goods of marriage and family:

"Today more than ever, transmitting the faith requires a language which is able to reach everyone, especially young people, so as to communicate the beauty of love and the family….”

Relying here upon an insight of St. Thomas we should point out that if something cannot be adequately communicated, then neither has it been adequately understood.  How, then, can we develop a "language which is able to reach everyone"?

For a start, we must develop greater confidence in the incites that we already possess. For example, some of those commenting the Synod appeared to confuse discipline and doctrine, assuming that to change the discipline of the Church is necessarily to compromise her doctrine. It seems to me that quite the reverse is true: a deeper understanding, a greater confidence in and a more faithful application of the Church’s doctrine is precisely the grounds for a possibility to change, in some instances, the Church's discipline.

A second requirement for "a language which is able to reach everyone" is to reflect upon the whole of the tradition. the relatio considers only the post-conciliar magisterium.

Third, we must depend upon the witness of those who are married and, for that matter, of those who have unsuccessfully sought marriage, in order to draw directly upon their experience. It is certainly insufficient to articulate norms and then to fuss over the fact that they are violated or ignored on the part of our culture or even to show the dire consequences of violating or ignoring them.

Finally, we must probe much more seriously the relationship that pertains between marriage and family. So, for example, the family which is, according to St. John Paul, a communion of persons, is founded upon the marriage covenant which, again according to St. John Paul, is itself a "communion of persons".  But here more work is to be done for, while it is clear that the family is dependent upon the marriage of the spouses, it is also clear --if we are to remain faithful to our tradition-- that marriage is ordered to the family in such a way that it can be neither understood nor adequately appreciated apart from the family.

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