A Tale of Two Synods: What's Become of Catholic Marriage and What Can We Do About It?

Hermeneutics has always been a challenge, even with something seemingly simple. Allow me an example. I was teaching catechism for three- to five-year-olds at our parish on Sunday, and I asked the kids to draw a picture of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. Well, after five minutes my son brings up his uncontestably creative rendition. I could see Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but there was a fourth figure I couldn’t make out. Aware that I look thoroughly nonplussed, my son enlightens me: “Papa, you see, that’s Pontius Pilate. He was flying their plane!”

Thankfully, you didn’t come here tonight to hear me tell jokes. You’re here to hear a tale of two Synods: what’s happened to marriage and what we can do about it.
It was the best of Synods, it was the worst of Synods, it was the synod of wisdom, it was the synod of foolishness, it was the episcopate of belief, it was the episcopate of incredulity, it was the papacy of Light, it was the papacy of Darkness . . . we had unity before us, we had schism before us, the divorced and remarried were all going direct to Heaven, they were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.[1]

Each moment in history begs transformation into an event. Why? Events tend toward superlative interpretation. The daily round is just the daily round, neither grandiose nor grave. An event, however, demands superlative description; it is either blessed or baneful. The two recent Synods, one “extraordinary” the other “ordinary,” make their own Siren’s Song for momentous status as either portents of great ruin or great rise. These Synods, therefore, and the fate of marriage tied thereto, naturally invite both extremes of interpretation.

At last, a welcoming Church! Argh! A morally self-contradictory Church! Finally, bishops listening to the faithful! Argh! Truth determined by majority vote! Whew, the Pope didn’t contradict settled doctrine! Argh! The Pope didn’t change settled doctrine! Whew, the Synods were gentle. Argh! The Synods were insipid!

So much for the Synods, how about marriage and family? Oh no, 50% less marriages. Oh great, that means 50% less divorces. Splendid, marriage for love! Argh! Divorce when I love someone else. Finally, marriage isn’t second fiddle to consecrated life! Argh! Where have all the vocations gone? Finally, a reasonable annulment process! Argh, the scandal of annulment mills and the practical loss of marriage’s indissolubility. Which is it? The best case or the worst?

These superlative descriptions are the kind of blogospheric caricatures that I will be avoiding this evening. Resisting Dickensian superlatives all together, I might take a middle ground. It is neither the best nor the worst of times, but marriage has seen better days. Likewise, it was neither the best nor worst of Synods. The bishops openly debated but also openly confused the faithful. The Church took a merciful, inviting tone, but one easily abused and misunderstood.

Following Robert Frost’s navigational advice, I will take this road less traveled by, which is, ironically, the middle road, hoping that it will make all the difference in our discussion. In the process, I hope to accomplish two tasks: (1) I will suggest what I believe to be a surprising Rosetta Stone for interpreting the Synods and the crisis facing families; and (2) I will propose what I believe is Pope Francis’ solution to the crisis.

A Rosetta Stone

Pope Francis is a kind of Jack-in-the-box Pontiff, by which I mean no disrespect. You just never know when he’s going to surprise the world with some airplane interview, phone call, or public embraces—to name a few instances. Unfortunately, all the attention on Pope Francis’ spontaneity has created an eclipse around his consistent, sustained work on marriage and the family. Now, I know what you’re saying. Consistent? Sustained? You must be talking about some other Pope! Beginning on December 17, 2014 and continuing through November 18, 2015, Francis offered his own quasi-systematic approach to marriage, including his own summary of the 2014 Synod and his own reflections on the 2015 Synod while underway. I would like to offer these 33 audiences as an interpretive key for understanding the Synods, as well as the problems and paths forward for marriage.

At this moment, you are probably asking yourself: Why isn’t the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia the Rosetta Stone for interpreting marriage and the Synods? An important question. The Apostolic Exhortation should be read alongside the Audiences rather than ahead of them. Five reasons suggest themselves:

  1. the Audiences more directly represent the mind of Pope Francis, as they were immediately authored by him rather than a ghost-writer;

  2. Amoris Laetitia quotes the Audiences 39 times explicitly and is in many places derived from the audiences without quoting them, and furthermore, all the exciting bits in the Apostolic Exhortation are either quotes or reinforcements and expansions of what Francis wrote in his audiences;

  3. the audiences offer a more richly theological analysis of the family crisis than does the Apostolic Exhortation, which more often psychologizes or sociologizes the family crisis;

  4. the audiences (perhaps surprisingly) present a more systematic vision of the family than does the Apostolic Exhortation, which is stylistically loose, lacking transitions and structurally scattered; and

  5. Amoris Laetitia quotes large blocks of the Synod Relationes some 90 times whereas the audiences are the Holy Father’s own thoughts in light of the Synod’s work.

In the very first of his cycle of audiences on the family, Francis tells us first what Synod was not: “a parliament.” In so saying, Francis muffles the factious interpretation of the Synod, as if it were Conservatives versus liberals fighting for power over Church doctrine and pastoral practice. Whether or not such a thing happened, the Bishop of Rome would like us to see the Synod through a different lens. “The Synod,” he writes, “is a protected space in order that the Holy Spirit can work; there were no clashes between factions, like in parliament where this is permissible, but a comparison among Bishops, which has come after lengthy preparations, and which will now work further for the good of families, Church, and of society. It is a process.”[2]

Positively speaking, Francis sees the Synod as a space and time covered by the Holy Spirit for honest argument and debate. He invokes, furthermore, terms of biblical proportion, comparing the Synod to the Apostles: “The Apostles argued among themselves, because they were seeking God’s will about whether or not pagans could enter the Church.” Francis was hoping for debate. “First of all,” Francis writes:

I asked the Synod Fathers to speak frankly and courage[ously] and to listen with humility, to say with courage all that they had in their heart. In the Synod there was no prior censorship, but each one could—even more, was supposed to—say what he had on his heart, what he honestly thought.

He calls the Synod “a moment of great freedom” for the Bishops. Keep in mind, however, that because Francis rules out a parliamentary vision, this free expression has no legislative end or power. Francis’ own words are stronger than any expected on this topic: “No intervention called into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of Marriage, namely: indissolubility, unity, fidelity, and openness to life (cf. Gaudium et Spes, §48; CCC, §§1055–56). This was not touched.” Strong words indeed.

In the face of such a passage, part of me wonders whether Francis slept through most of the Synod. Didn’t he hear the Kasperites? There seem to be three interpretations of Francis’ strong words:

  1. either Francis is pulling the wool over someone’s eyes (whether his own or ours), or

  2. he is mistaken, or

  3. his interpretive framework for the Synod excludes a priori any change in the Church’s doctrine.

Being neither deceiver nor fool, Francis must mean the third option. The argument Francis invites is whether interventions fit the fundamental truth of marriage, not whether a fundamental teaching can change. The Synod, therefore, was a free though heated debate “‘cum petro and sub Petro,’ that is to say, in the presence of the Pope, who is the guarantor for everyone of freedom and trust, and who guarantees orthodoxy.”[3]

[caption id="attachment_2140" align="alignleft" width="350"] Photo: Catholic Church of England and Wales (2014); ©Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.[/caption]

Now that we know what kind of thing Pope Francis thought the first Synod was descriptively, we also know what he intended the second Synod to be prescriptively. Both Synods were the same kind of event; the second, however, has the added benefit of listening not only to episcopal opinions but also to the interventions of the pew-sitters around the world who would send answers to the Lineamenta questions back to their local Ordinary.

A question follows on this interpretation, however. What do we do about the unsettling fact that a great many Synod fathers experienced the Synod exactly as Francis hoped they would not: as more parliamentary and dangerous rather than “safe” “teamwork”? Perhaps we could answer that the bishops’ experience of the event does not determine its actual nature. Consider Pope Francis’ own example of the Council of Jerusalem. I cannot be sure to what extent the Apostles or any others present at the Council of Jerusalem felt themselves in a “moment of great freedom,” or a “protected space.” Each may well have thought everything was at stake, and each battled for his position. The leadership of Peter solidified the whole and Scripture hands down to us the nature of the event after the fact. Although the participants may not have felt the warm glow of the Spirit’s confidence, the Spirit was at work, and will be seen to have been at work in these two Synods as well—though none of us (just yet) can really say how!

Interpreting the Synod Through the Audiences

Let us attempt, then, to view the content of those Synods through the eyes of the Vicar of Christ. For this, we’ll have to move into Francis’ 33 Audiences throughout 2015, mining them for structure and for interpretations of the chiefly problematic questions from the Synod.[4]

Francis’ exploration of these questions presents a two-part structure (see figure below): (1) foundations of the family; and (2) the “real life” of the family. The first part divides into three: (A) the constitutive members of the family; (B) ontological foundations of the family in sexual complementarity; and (C) a definition of marriage itself. The second part, on the family’s “real life,” presents more of a jungle than a pine forest, but a two-part division seems to arise from this second set of audiences: (A) a heuristic for real life in the family based on its habits and purpose; and (B) a walkthrough of the ways these habits relate to the family’s ends. His journey through the “real life” of the family’s internal and external ends is further divided into four categories: (i) preparing for the “real life” of family; (ii) understanding the real vulnerability of the family to the frailties of the human condition and the wounds of sin; (iii) the rhythm of real family life in itself; and (iv) the role of the family life beyond itself. Finally, Pope Francis concludes with an analogy of the family as the Door of Mercy, setting himself up for his audiences on the Year of Mercy in 2016.

Francis’ Audiences deserve their own book-length commentary, but for now we will limit ourselves to points most salient for interpreting the Synods: a diagnosis for the state of marriage, and a way out of its mire.

Among the challenges of interpreting the Synod is and was the question of same-sex marriage and unions. In light of all the jubilation and consternation surrounding Pope Francis’ spontaneous remarks on persons with homosexual inclination and their domestic situations, one would expect to find some similar statements in his Wednesday Catecheses. However, reading reveals silence on same-sex domestic situations. Furthermore, the Holy Father grounds his ontology of marriage and family scripturally in sexual diversity and complementarity. “In order to know oneself well and develop harmoniously,” he writes, “a human being needs the reciprocity of man and woman.”[5] In two Audiences on the complementarity of the sexes, Pope Francis follows St. John Paul II in noting that man (as male sexed) finds himself in the reciprocity presented by woman, who is at once his equal and yet not himself. In the Pope’s words, man “lacked something to reach his fullness; reciprocity was lacking. Woman is not a replica of man.”[6] These sentences may as well have come from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

Children expend a great deal of energy drawing a picture for themselves of reality. The daily round of the family shows them what kind of picture is possible.

By far the most contentious challenge of interpreting both the first and second synods has been the question of pastoral care for persons in irregular domestic situations; two elements from the Audiences and one element from the Apostolic Exhortation serve as navigational beacons. First of all, Francis focuses on the sin that has brought about these situations. Second, he emphasizes that pastoral concern in these situations is directed toward the children, who suffer the first and most grievous wounds from sins against marital fidelity. Third, from the Apostolic Exhortation, Francis refuses to answer definitively, effectively exporting the answer to episcopal conferences. In an opening paragraph of Amoris Laetitia he writes, “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral, or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” Refusing a clear answer, we must look for direction from his approach to the question rather than from his own personal conclusions on it. His approach is laid out by the first two principles I mentioned, both of which he enunciated first in the year of Wednesday audiences. To review, the principles are: sin causes these situations; and children are injured most by them.

If we keep couples in irregular unions at arm’s length, asks Francis, how can we bring the children (and the parents as well) to Christian life? It will be impossible. We abandon the children to a life without faith, hope, and love (charity) if we do not go out as a missionary activity to welcome and invite and include the parents who have entered second unions.

How does this pastoral Pope envision missionary inclusion toward people in irregular situations, then? Both traditionalists and revisionists might be surprised at what we find. First, we should note that nowhere does Pope Francis ever refer to the second union of divorced Catholics as a second marriage. In fact, he refers to them as “new cohabitations” or “new unions.” Second, Pope Francis draws his pastoral hypotheses from a surprising source—Benedict XVI—who makes “the repeated call to Pastors to openly and consistently demonstrate the community’s willingness to welcome them and encourage them, so they may increasingly live and develop their membership in Christ and in the Church” through prayer, listening to God’s word, assisting at liturgy, Christian education of children, charity and service to the poor, and working for justice and peace.[7] Nowhere does he mention receiving Communion, even as a hypothesis. He gives as an example the Good Shepherd, who seeks the lost sheep. The paradigm is continual conversion, not vapid back-patting and self-esteem boosting.

Based on Francis’ Audiences and Amoris Laetitia, then, it seems we should not read either Synod with an eye toward changing pastoral practice or doctrinal practice related to the reception of Communion, but rather toward the authentic ecclesial involvement of those who are far off from their Mother—those who have been calloused rather than called, ignored rather than encouraged, or turned away rather than taught.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan says it well in a recent interview with Crux: people are not banging down the doors, angry that they cannot make Communion, wishing for an “internal forum” solution. Cardinal Dolan wishes folks were banging on the doors demanding Communion. It would mean, at least, that they felt the need for grace and the reality of their distance from it. This is not a pressing pastoral issue. The pastoral issue is about “finding lost sheep,” not about placating angry sheep who think they’re already in the fold. For the Holy Father, the pastoral problem is missionary, evangelizing and inviting the divorced in new unions back into life with Christ—calling to conversion, not to convenience.


Francis’ writing on the family, however doctrinally sound and pastorally insightful, does raise some disturbing questions, first on Communion for persons in second unions, second and most especially with respect to the nature of the marriage bond. Let’s look at the question of Communion first.

Amoris Laetitia gives us both an implicit and explicit difficulty. For most of the document the reader, in suspense, wonders whether Francis is open to Communion for people in second unions who have not repudiated the adulterous sexual intimacy thereof. It is not until paragraph 305, and especially footnote 351, that we get the closest thing to an explicit statement. Paragraph 305 reads thus:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.[8]

What does this even mean? A revisionist reading could be that the Holy Father states that people not entirely culpable for their objective state of sin may enter Eucharistic Communion as a help to their further growth in charity. On the other hand, while Francis mentions Eucharist, he places it after penance, and he does not repudiate the need for persons in second unions to repudiate their adulterous sexual intimacy. Application of the Pope’s position here seems practically impossible.

What the Holy Father calls a “spiritual wound” is equivalent to a deafening of the heart’s ability to hear God’s unfailing call of love.

Unfortunately, Amoris Laetitia invites further confusion on this topic when the document (I won’t blame Francis) infelicitously misappropriates paragraph 51 of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. The Council expresses sympathy with those married persons who must practice extended abstinence for some serious reason, noting that the good of fidelity and the good of the children’s upbringing may be harmed by such a cross. Amoris Laetitia, however, removes this quote from the context of married life, and applies it to the situation of persons in second unions, suggesting that (perhaps) we ought not expect them (as condition for participating in Eucharistic Communion) to live without sexual intimacy, as such a cross would challenge their marital good of fidelity and the good of their children’s upbringing. The problem, of course, is that such couples do not have (properly speaking) conjugal fidelity as a good of their relationship. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, they are not, after all, married.

If one were to fear an abuse of or attempt to change church doctrine or discipline, it would seem to come from the Communion kerfuffle than from the question of the marital bond as it appears in Francis’ Audiences. Let me explain. The Holy Father invites confusion by speaking of “baptized who have established a new relationship of cohabitation after the failure of the marital sacrament.”[9] Earlier in the same audience he speaks of “those who, after an irreversible failure of their matrimonial bond, have entered into a new union.”[10] Pope Francis, in contradiction to the magisterial tradition, seems to suggest that it is somehow the sacrament or the bond itself that has failed rather than the persons who have failed.

More surprising than his speaking of a “failed sacrament” is Francis’ strange description of marital separation, which suggests that remaining faithful to the bond in such cases requires a kind of special vocation that only a minority of people will discern:

There are, thanks be to God, those who, sustained by faith and by love for their children, bear witness to their fidelity to a bond they believed in, although it may seem impossible to revive it. Not all those who are separated feel called to this vocation. Not all discern, in their solitude, the Lord calling them. Around us we find various families in so-called irregular situations — I don’t really like this word — and it causes us to wonder. How do we help them? How do we accompany them? How do we accompany them so that the children aren’t taken hostage by either dad or mom?[11]

The notion that a person must discern a special vocation to remain faithful to a marital bond they believe to be valid is troubling to say the least. If pressed, the Holy Father might suggest that he is not placating separated spouses’ desires for personal satisfaction but is attempting to look out for the children. Children are mentioned, after all, at the beginning of the paragraph and at its close. Whatever the mind of their author, though, these few orphaned sentences may suffer the fate of poor Oliver Twist.[12]

Analysis of the Family Crisis

Just as Dickens tends to bring about happy endings through unexpected machinations, so I too will point at a bright ending for the Holy Father’s cycle of Audiences. Pope Francis’ theologically penetrating diagnosis of the infection destroying the Christian family cannot be overlooked. His surgical incision cuts far deeper than the efforts of many modern theologians who also fight to restore the Body of Christ from this awful sepsis. Francis’ lens sees deeper than the sociological crisis (fewer people are marrying), beyond the facile moral crisis (people prefer immediate self-satisfaction to the joy that comes from virtue), beyond the crisis of romantic idolatry (she wasn’t my soulmate, so I have to find someone else), and through the economic crisis (people can’t afford to marry), to the crisis of credibility—that is, the crisis of fidelity.

What I mean is that Pope Francis has cut through to the transcendent cause (lack of fidelity among spouses) and transcending effect (lack of credibility, that is, destruction of the child’s power to believe). Spouses, by fidelity in love to each other, bear witness to God’s fidelity to love us, whom he calls his own Bride. Children are the primary audience to this drama of faithful or faithless love. The failure of parents to faithfully love each other seriously undercuts the credibility of the God who supposedly loves his own Bride (the Church), the God who guarantees the bond of love between the parents. In both the Audiences and Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis saves some of his strongest rhetoric for just this point:

I ask myself if we are not just anaesthetizing ourselves to the wounds in children’s souls. . . . Do we feel the weight of the mountain that crushes the soul of a child in those families where members mistreat and hurt one another to the point of breaking the bonds of marital fidelity? How much weight do our choices have—mistaken choices, for example—how much weight do they place on the soul of our children? When adults lose their head, when each one thinks only of him- or herself, when a dad and mom hurt one another, the souls of their children suffer terribly, they experience a sense of despair. And these wounds leave a mark that lasts their whole lives.[13]

[caption id="attachment_2141" align="alignright" width="440"] Photo: Nathan LeClair (2007); CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.[/caption]

The Holy Father goes on to praise the harshness of Christ when the Lord admonished against scandalizing little ones (better to have a millstone tied around the neck and be thrown into the sea). The failure to guard and witness to the fidelity of the marriage bond is, for Pope Francis, scandal—a leading of another into sin and away from God. The description is perfect because Francis’ point is to say that the destruction of the marriage bond crushes the soul of the child, such that the faithfulness of God, hope of forgiveness, and the unconditional love he has for his Bride the Church become utterly incredible, laughable, ridiculous. What the Holy Father calls a “spiritual wound” or “wound in the soul” is equivalent to a deafening of the heart’s ability to hear God’s unfailing call of love, a blinding of the eyes to a just Kingdom and a reconciliation worth hoping for, and, perhaps worst of all, a numbness to the touch of his unconditional mercy. The wound in the child’s soul amounts to her incapacity to receive the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, by which and only by which man attains his final end.[14]

Pope Francis approaches the same issue of fidelity and credibility through the path of promise-making and promise-keeping as well. Pope Francis claims that parents “make the most important promises, decisive for their expectations regarding life, for their trust in regard to human beings, for their capacity to perceive the Name of God as a blessing.”[15] In the moment a child enters the family (in thought and in conception), parents make them a promise of

welcome and care, closeness and attention, trust and hope . . . which can be summed up in a single word: love. . . . Love is the promise that a man and woman make to every child: from the moment he or she is conceived in their mind. Children come into the world and expect this promise to be confirmed. They expect it in a complete, trusting, defenseless way . . . . When the opposite occurs, children are wounded by a “scandal,” by an unbearable scandal, all the more serious as they do not have the means to interpret it. . . . Their trustful abandonment to our promise, to which we are committed from the very first instant, judges us.[16]

I cannot imagine much stronger words from the Holy Father against the havoc wreaked on a child’s soul in the wake of her parents’ infidelity to the promise of love.[17]

Beyond Admonition to Encouragement: The Solution

So, does the Holy Father say the faith, hope, and love of the next generation are utterly lost? No. While he is honest about the gravity of the crisis in marriage and family, he is also boundlessly hopeful and counsels a fairly simple, sensible way forward. He draws the blueprint in three places. The first occasion comes as the introduction to the “real life” of marriage. Francis claims that three “expressions” ought to characterize any family who witnesses to fidelity of love. The three expressions are: “May I?”, “Thank you,” and “Pardon me.” Though seemingly superficial, these three expressions summarize the heart of family for Pope Francis in terms of three dispositions:

  1. reverence for the dignity of the other, shown by serving and listening to the needs of the other;

  2. gratitude, shown by claiming and naming blessings; and

  3. humility, shown through seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.[18]

In the second place, Pope Francis arrays in three Audiences what he calls the “rhythm of family life” in itself.[19] Fittingly, these three Audiences follow immediately upon his discussion of the crisis of infidelity to love. This “rhythm of family life” is constituted by celebration, work, and prayer. Celebration calls forth joy at the accomplishment of work while prayer emerges from the love of God whose graces are made obvious in the gift of work and then in the joy of authentic celebration.

Finally, the Holy Father reiterates the family’s virtues and rhythm by way of three concluding Audiences painting a portrait of marital witness to fidelity in three parts: (1) forgiveness; (2) conviviality; and (3) mercy. The family is, for Pope Francis, “a great training ground for the mutual giving and forgiving without which no love can last for long.” Seek forgiveness quickly and simply, he states. Francis makes no saccharine call here. He invokes the stern words of Christ who says, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will be saved” (Mt 7:21–23). In Francis’ vision, unless we see a need for and seek forgiveness, our witness and fidelity to love are false. Forgiveness, absorbing evil, is one side of the family’s coin of daily rhythm. The other side is conviviality, the sharing of life’s goods. If the rhythm of the family is a kind of dance, the leading step is forgiveness and the following step is conviviality. For Francis, the “icon” of conviviality is the family gathered around its table, where the barometric pressure of the family climate is always easily measured.

Forgiveness, absorbing evil, is one side of the family’s coin of daily rhythm.

The third vista on exemplary family life emerges from the Holy Father’s last Audience of the cycle, where he calls the family the “door of mercy.” Again, Francis crafts from a simple image a many-faceted icon. “Christian families,” he writes, “make the threshold of their homes a great sign of the Door of the mercy and welcome of God.”[20] First, as to works of mercy; second, as to the image of a porter; and third, a watchman. The Bishop of Rome calls upon the family as the primary agent of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy—welcoming the orphan, the pregnant woman, the refugee, the homeless, as well as bearing injustice patiently and admonishing the sinner. The porter, one who is vigilant and discerning about what passes through the threshold, guards the heart of the family. Finally, the watchman, on the lookout for a God who comes knocking, opens at his advent.

The habits described above serve as antidotes to the infidelity at the heart of the family crisis. The habits of reverence, gratitude, and humility counteract the idolatry of satisfaction and self-importance that lead to a break in the fidelity to love. Celebration, work, and prayer create a consistent rhythm of life that can be counted on, that generates a world where faith and hope make sense. Finally, practices of forgiveness, conviviality, and mercy create an atmosphere of divine pedagogy, teaching that love can share the whole of life, the pain of admitting a wrong, the joy of things gone right, and the spontaneity of responding to Christ the hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, or imprisoned in our midst.


You may recall I began with my child’s drawing of the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt, complete with Pontius Pilate in the cockpit of the airplane. Just as that drawing served as an intellectual diving-board for our conversation, I think it can serve equally well as a ladder out of the pool. As much as we might like to dwell on the hot topics of same-sex marriage and who gets to receive Communion, we must admit that Francis’ Audiences (and even Amoris Laetitia) center on the crisis of the wounds of children. Many of the Audiences and more than a full chapter of the Apostolic Exhortation treat the welcoming, the protection, and the education of children. The hermeneutic of the Synods, then, is the child; more particularly, the love—the joyful love—the child by justice can expect and demand from the moment it is even thought of in the mind of the potential parents.

Children expend a great deal of energy drawing a picture of reality for themselves. The daily round of the family shows them what kind of picture is possible. What we give them both expands and constrains their imaginations. Just as my child filled in the gaps in his knowledge of the Flight into Egypt by means of what he did know about airplanes, all children fill in the gaps about their own future life based on what they’ve experienced of their parents’ faith, hope, and love: whether they can believe in the possibility of being forgiven; whether they can hope for a place and time when justice obtain; and whether love can ever be more than a reward for measuring up. The challenge of the Synods, especially now in light of Amoris Laetitia, falls to us. Will our practices of family life make a credible witness to faith, hope, and love, or will they render incredible the very substance of Christian happiness? Let us pray that we give children always the imagination, the palate, brushes, and paint equal to the dignity of the life they can believe in, hope for, and love.

Editorial Note: This essay was originally delivered as a lecture at the University of Notre Dame on April 12, 2016.

Featured Photo: Synod on the Family; courtesy of Catholic Church of England and Wales; ©Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

[1] See Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), 1.

[2] Pope Francis, Wednesday Audience (December 10, 2014). All audiences available in multiple languages and video here.

[3] Ibid.

[4] (1) The challenges facing the family; (2) the challenge of marriage preparation; (3) the pastoral struggles for evangelizing and accompanying the family (especially wounded ones and communion for the divorced-and-remarried); (4) pastoral struggle to accompany those with same-sex attraction and those in cohabiting but non-married situations; and finally (5) the family’s evangelical vocation.

[5] Pope Francis, Wednesday Audience (April 15, 2015).

[6] Ibid. The rib, for Pope Francis, expresses “that man and woman are of the same substance and are complementary and that they also have this reciprocity.” “The Bible says something beautiful: man finds women, they meet and man must leave something in order to find her fully . . . Man is everything for woman and woman is everything for man.”

[7] Pope Francis, Audience 21 (August 5, 2015).

[8] Amoris Laetitia, 305. “In certain cases, this [help from the Church] can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).’”

[9] Pope Francis, Catechesis 21.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Pope Francis, Catechesis 20.

[12] The child-centered reading of this paragraph seems the most likely, since Pope Francis focuses his analysis of familial wounds on their effect on the life of the child. I will, therefore, dwell on this reading for another moment. The Holy Father wants to accompany people in irregular situations, but why? How do we help them, accompany them, “so that the children aren’t taken hostage by either dad or mom?” The Holy Father’s hope is that the children could see at least some image of fidelity, constancy, tenderness, and love between the complementary pair of a man and a woman. Recall what he said earlier about sexual diversity––that a person cannot develop without witnessing and experiencing this complementarity. His compassion for the child is perhaps what can save this passage from abuse at the hands of those wrangling for revolutionary pastoral or doctrinal changes, but I’m not sure it will be enough.

[13] Pope Francis, Audience 20.

[14] The family is the place where I learn that unconditional forgiveness either does or doesn’t make sense. The family is the place where I learn either to destroy our enemies or befriend them. The family is where I learn to believe, hope, and love. Broken or missing marriage teaches children that promises aren’t worth believing, joy-filled partnership is too much to hope for, and love doesn’t last. Now, sanctifying grace we receive in the sacraments consists in faith, hope, and love, and a child who learns to she can’t have faith in a mother and father she does see, can’t hope for a joyful life she might experience now, can’t be loved unless she makes herself “loveable,” is a child incapable of accepting the grace of redemption in Christ. Pope Francis’ incisive, intentionally harsh criticism of persons and societies abandoning the reverence and guardianship due to the marital bond should be all the more powerful in light of his reputation for mercy and gentleness. In Francis’ invective, persons and societies unfaithful to the promise of love corrupt the very possibility of the next generation’s believing, hoping, and loving in a triune God whose nature is unconditionally faithful, indissoluble love. We are a people and society that puts a stumbling block in front of its little ones. To repeat Christ’s own words, we are a people and a society that would be better off tying a millstone around its neck and being thrown the nearest lake!

[15] Pope Francis, Audience 29.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Perhaps this can be matched only by his next paragraph: “I would like to add another thing, with due respect for everyone but also with much candor. Their spontaneous trust in God should never be disappointed, especially when it might be due to a certain (more or less unconscious) presumption of replacing him ourselves. The tender and mysterious relationship of God with the soul of children should never be violated. It is a real relationship, which God wants and God safeguards. Children are ready from birth to feel loved by God, they are ready for this. As soon as children are able to feel they are loved for themselves, they also feel that there is a God who loves children” (Audience 29).

[18] Pope Francis, Audience 14.

[19] Audiences 22­­–24.

[20] Audience 33.


Kent J. Lasnoski

Kent J. Lasnoski is Assistant Professor of Theology at Wyoming Catholic College, where he also teaches a practicum on marriage and consecrated life. He is author of Vocation to Virtue: Christian Marriage as a Consecrated Life (Catholic University of America Press, 2014).

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