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Personal Reflections on the Synods of Bishops on the Family

John Coventry Memorial Lecture 2016

Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi

I am extremely thankful to the Association of Interchurch Families that they have generously agreed to organize this book launch and thus give me and Ray the opportunity to present the results of our shared endeavor. I’ll say a bit more about the book at the end of my speech.

When in late August of last year the idea of a book launch in London took shape, I became a bit anxious about how this would work when I heard that the book presentation could possibly be held together with the prestigious John Coventry Memorial Lecture. I thought, well, they will certainly invite some bishop, prestigious theologian, or other prominent person to give the lecture, as they have done in the past. As it turned out, you didn’t, so here I am.

What I would like to do in this lecture is to provide some personal reflections on the two synods of bishops on the family which were held in 2014 and 2015 and on the synodal process which is still ongoing and which will reach a new phase with today’s promulgation of the post-synodal exhortation by Pope Francis.

To reflect as a theologian and Catholic Christian on the bishops’ synods is a risky and provisional undertaking. Provisional, first because precisely the synodal process is still in progress and secondly, because I have no idea what Pope Francis, the pope of surprises, will do with the propositions of the synod fathers in his post-synodal exhortation.

But my task is also risky because my assessment of the synods is not only based on sober theological analysis but also mixed up with personal feelings, preferences and expectations. I have a feeling of gratitude and satisfaction because I am thrilled by the fact that the topic of marriage and family has all suddenly received so much attention in the church and beyond. Yet, I am also disappointed with the concrete results of the synods because they did not meet my initial expectations.

So, I will try to address some of the issues which render my task a difficult one and hope that in the end I will have provided you with a full-fledged lecture.



1. A Sense of Gratification and Satisfaction

In the 1980 December issue of The Furrow, the Irish Redemptorist and Professor of Moral Theology at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome, Sean O’Riordan, looked back on the Fifth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family which had just closed. Struck by the strong and powerful address which the then new Pope John Paul II had given at the closing session, he concluded his article in the following way:

At the heart of the programme (of Pope John Paul II, TK) lies a traditionalist vision of the values and principles implied in the sacrament of matrimony; but it is a traditionalist vision that is also mystical and prophetic and that seeks to rebuild Christian life today rather than try to bring it back to an irretrievable past. This is a mighty project but it necessarily raises many questions at different levels, theological, ecclesiological, pastoral and sociological. To take one central point in the project: will Pope John Paul II succeed in carrying the whole Church with him in the full implementation of the teaching of Humanae Vitae in regard to birth regulation? If so, he will have succeeded in doing something that Paul VI did not succeed in doing. But if he too fails to create a unified Church stance here, what then? A situation could develop in which his teaching would have less and less effect on actual Christian living today while the man himself would still be highly popular.Ecclesiologically it would be a very difficult and complex situation. But there is no sign at all that the Polish Pope 'who comes from afar' is afraid that he might find himself in such a situation. He seems to be quite confident that he can carry the Church with him all the way. Will he in fact be able to do so? Only time can tell.[1]

Thirty-five years later we know that John Paul II’s conviction and courage did not suffice to “carry the whole church with him”. The various questionnaires and surveys which have been produced in the run-up to the First Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 have provided sufficient and compelling evidence that a large portion of committed Catholics do not agree with the church’s response to current challenges to sexual, conjugal and family life – with contraception heading the list of contested issues, followed by unmarried cohabitation and remarriage after divorce which were high on the agenda already at the 1980 synod, and homosexuality and same-sex relations which have been added since then to the concerns of many faithful. Conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church have also come to realize that the discrepancy between the magisterium’s moral instruction and the moral insights of the people of God is not primarily due to the failure of pastors and catechists who have not succeeded in rendering the message understandable and communicable. The New York columnist Ross Douthat, himself a converted Catholic, has recently claimed that the “master narrative” of conservative Catholicism is in crisis. This master narrative goes as follows:

Once, fifty years ago, there was an ecumenical council of the Church. Its goal was to reorient Catholicism away from its nineteenth-century fortress mentality, to open a new dialogue with the modern world, to look more deeply into the Catholic past in order to prepare for the Catholic future, and to usher in an era of evangelization and renewal.

This was not intended to be a revolutionary council, and nothing in its deliberations, documents, and reforms was meant to rewrite doctrine or Protestantize the faith. But the council’s sessions coincided with an era of social upheaval and cultural revolution in the West, and the hoped-for renewal was hijacked, in many cases, by those for whom renewal meant an accommodation to the spirit of the 1960s, and the transformation of the Church along liberal Protestant lines.

Soon, two parties developed: One followed the actual documents of the council and urged the Church to maintain continuity with Catholic teaching and tradition, and the other was loyal to a “spirit of the council” that just happened to coincide with the cultural fashions that came in its wake.

      The second party had its way in many Catholic institutions – seminaries and religious orders, Catholic universities and diocesan bureaucracies – for many years. The results were at best disappointing, at worst disastrous: collapsing Mass attendance, vanishing vocations, a swift erosion of Catholic identity everywhere you looked.

      But fortunately for the Church, a pope was elected who belonged to the first party, who rejected the hermeneutic of rupture, who carried the true intentions of the council forward while proclaiming the ancient truths of Catholicism anew. And while a liberalized, accommodationist Catholicism failed to reproduce itself and began to (literally) die out, the Catholic witness of this pope and his successor inspired exactly the kind of renewal the council fathers had hoped for: a generation of bishops, priests, and laity prepared to witness to the fullness of Catholicism, the splendor of its truth.[2]

This story, however, is showing rifts, at least since the pontificate of Pope Francis. Douthat reveals its flaw in that conservatives have underestimated the potential and the resilience of progressive Catholicism. Their somewhat naïve optimism made them believe that theological liberalism had had its time and that John Paul’s papal conservatism had irrevocably stabilized the church and even to some degree influenced the wider culture. They were mistaken, however. The polarized debates at and surrounding the two recent bishops’ synods have shown that liberal Catholicism had never disappeared. It just hibernated during the era of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and all too eagerly seized the moment when the newly elected Jorge Bergoglio “in words, deeds and appointments…reopened doors that seemed to be closed since 1978, offering liberal Catholicism a second chance, a new springtime of the sort that seemed hard to imagine just a few short years ago.”

As much as I agree with Douthat’s thesis that the conservative master narrative was flawed, I do not believe that what is at stake here is a simple miscalculation of the real power constellations in the church nor a false sense of security from the side of the conservatives who naively presumed that the papacy is “the first bulwark of orthodoxy” – which was true for John Paul and Benedict but seems no longer so for Francis. It may be right and can only be applauded when Douthat calls on John Paul II-era Catholicism to “think more deeply” – instead of relying on arguments thought to be won once and forever – and to provide in particular “a more robust theory of the development of doctrine”. But I do not see what such a theory will be substantially about if its proponents are as quick as the author quoted here to conjure up the ghost of a “Hegelian understanding”, i.e. the view that “history will have its way” and to denounce what he calls the “Protestantization” of the faith. Being myself a Roman Catholic married to a Protestant like many of those here present, I have come to learn from my marital life as much as from theological study what Protestant thought has in fact contributed to my own understanding and living of the “Catholic faith”. It is such rude and thoughtless predication based on an excessive need for demarcation that disqualify Catholic conservativism in my eyes and make it difficult to respond to Douthat’s cryptic invitation to go beyond the usual ideological barriers and redefine the “Catholic center”.

I do not have the intention to further enter into this discussion with our author, but there is one element in Douthat’s analysis which I find plausible and worth considering in the context of the recent bishop’s synods. Douthat writes that “for all its future-oriented rhetoric, Vatican II’s clearest achievements were mostly backward-looking. It dealt impressively with problems that came to the fore during the crises and debates of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the Church’s relationship to democracy, to religious liberty…). But its deliberations simply took place too soon to address the problems that broke across Catholicism and Christianity with the sexual revolution and that still preoccupy us now.” I agree. Vatican II made an inestimable and overdue attempt to define the church’s position towards and in modernity but left that task largely unfinished. And it does not really come as a surprise that the church has more to reconnect with and accomplish the council’s agenda in no other domain than that of sexuality, marriage and family life. It is only that the post-conciliar era of papal conservatism has not been very helpful in doing so – sorry to say that, Mr. Douthat! It seems to me that Pope Francis has very well understood what is really at stake here when he called the two synods.

When the Brenninkmeijers started in 1986 with what would later become the International Academy for Marital Spirituality (INTAMS) and still when I joined it in 1995, many in church and theology turned up their noses at what they regarded as an exotic topic and a weird endeavor. That we were able to make our small contribution to an epochal task the church and Christianity in the second half of the 20th and beginning of 21st century are confronted with, gives us a belated sense of gratification and satisfaction.   

2. A Sense of Dissatisfaction

Whether I look at it from the perspective of interchurch families or from a broader angle, I cannot conceal my disappointment about the tangible, official results of the two synods so far. I willingly admit, as many observers have done, that the synod has been a real exercise in synodality and collegiality, that after decades of authoritarian direction and supervision the synod fathers were able and also willing to speak with parresia, candidly and boldly, and that most of them were also listening with humility, as Pope Francis had expressly urged them to do at the opening of the Extraordinary Assembly in October 2014. But what will in the end remain of it, if that is all there is? “The formal results of our work may seem rather mediocre; but the Synod was a wonderful learning experience for us all”, said one of the bishop at the end of the 1980 synod which he had attended.[3] But synods do not fulfil their purpose if they only give a good feeling to bishops.

I would like to illustrate in more theological detail what is precisely the cause of my dissatisfaction with the documents, mainly with the final report, the Relatio synodi of the 2015 assembly. I will restrict myself to analyzing first briefly how the documents have addressed the so-called “difficult” or “complex” family situations and then turn to the issue of interchurch families.

From Irregular to Complex Family Situations

The major challenge the bishops’ synods were confronted with can be summarized in a straightforward question: how can the church teaching on Christian marriage be upheld in the face of the factual diversity of forms of living together – among Christians and Catholics – which do not – not yet or no longer – correspond to the ideal expressed in that teaching? While the 1980 synod in its outlook on the world still started from a closed Catholic milieu to which artificial birth control, “free unions”, “trial marriages” and remarriage after divorce presented rather disconnected items of deviance and contention,[4] the recent synods were much more aware of today’s pervading cultural context in western societies which they perceived as a compact and unified challenge to the church’s traditional teaching on marriage. The Instrumentum laboris for the 2015 synod[5] thus explained: 

While continuing to proclaim and foster Christian marriage, the Synod also encourages pastoral discernment of the situations of a great many who no longer live this reality. Entering into pastoral dialogue with these persons is needed to distinguish elements in their lives that can lead to a greater openness to the Gospel of Marriage in its fullness. Pastors ought to identify elements that can foster evangelization and human and spiritual growth. A new element in today’s pastoral activity is a sensitivity to the positive aspects of civilly celebrated marriages and, with obvious differences, cohabitation. While clearly presenting the Christian message, the Church also needs to indicate the constructive elements in these situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to it. (IL 98)

The synodal document seemed thus to indicate a shift from the position of Familiaris consortio, the exhortation in which John Paul II had put his stamp on the 1980 synod deliberations by inculcating that God’s law with regard to marriage presents an uncompromising moral claim for each and every couple and therefore does not admit any gradual step-by-step approach in the way of its fulfilment.[6] The Instrumentum laboris, however, no longer condemns couples who do not live up to the ideal of marriage but instead encourages pastors to recognize the positive and constructive elements realized in their choices and the partners themselves to grow humanly and spiritually towards a fuller realization of the Christian ideal. This is concretized in the following passage:

In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them. Looking to Christ, whose light illumines every person (cf. Jn 1:9; GS, 22), the Church turns with love to those who participate in her life in an incomplete manner, recognizing that the grace of God works also in their lives by giving them the courage to do good, to care for one another in love and to be of service to the community in which they live and work. (IL 62, my emphasis)


The document even made a cautious attempt to provide a theological foundation to this new perspective by referring to the so-called “seeds of the Word”, a term which the Second Vatican Council had used to describe elements of truth that can be found in non-Christian cultures and religions:

The presence of the seeds of the Word in these cultures (cf. AG, 11) could even be applied, in some ways, to marriage and the family in so many non-Christian societies and individuals. Valid elements, therefore, exist in some forms outside of Christian marriage – based, however, on a stable and true relationship of a man and a woman – which, in any case, we maintain are oriented towards Christian marriage. (IL 56)

When I read these and similar passages in the summer of 2015, some of which were already contained in the Relatio synodi of 2014, other newly elaborated in the Instrumentum laboris, I was convinced that the synod had taken an initial and cautious but nonetheless firm step toward a renewed approach in conjugal and family ethics so much desired and longed for by many faithful Catholics and moral theologians alike. My disillusionment was then all the greater when the Final Report[7] was published in Italian on October 24, the day of the conclusion of the Ordinary Assembly. What had happened?

Almost all of the previous references to the concept of gradualness in moral life had been simply eliminated in the Relatio synodi.[8] The two remaining ones are quotes from Familiaris consortio, the last one referring to John Paul II’s knockout argument that gradualness is not in the law itself.[9]

Likewise, the presence of the “seeds of the word” in marriage and family life which the Instrumentum laboris said could be found also in “so many non-Christian societies and individuals”, is restricted in the Relatio synodi to “positive elements…in marriage practices of other traditional religions” (RS 47, my emphasis). The previous, open formulation that “valid elements…exist in some forms outside of Christian marriage” (IL 56) which could be interpreted to pertain also to those (marginal) Christians who live together without Christian marriage, has been replaced by a vague and in fact pointless assertion that marriage in other religions may contain some truth which is orientated toward the sacrament.

Even more revealing is what has become of the passage according to which “the Church turns with love to those who participate in her life in an incomplete manner, recognizing that the grace of God works also in their lives by giving them the courage to do good, to care for one another in love and to be of service to the community in which they live and work” (IL 62, my emphasis). One now reads: “From the perspective of the divine pedagogy, the Church looks with love on those who share in her life in an imperfect way: it invokes upon them the grace of conversion, encourages them to do good, to care for one another with love and to put themselves at the service of the community in which they live and work” (RS 53). God’s grace which was previously said to be possibly working in the lives of all those (Christians and non-Christians) who cohabit, have concluded a civil marriage or live in a second marriage after divorce, is invoked now as a “grace of conversion” which should allow these couples to immediately make an end to their irregular situations.

In fact, the Final Report does not deviate any inch from the teaching of Familiaris consortio when it comes to the discussion of forms of living together outside Christian marriage, unless one regards it already as an achievement that the new document has dropped its characterization of these situations as “irregular” and now refers to them as “complex situations”. Had the document not here and there interspersed quotes from Pope Francis’ exhortation Evangelii gaudium insisting on a merciful pastoral approach to these situations, one might wonder what the whole synodal endeavor had been about.


What about Interchurch Families?


Although the synodal documents have repeatedly pointed out that “problems relative to mixed marriages were frequently raised in the interventions of the synod fathers”,[10] the issue of interchurch marriage has manifestly not been a primary concern of the synodal process so far. This is understandable if one looks at the sense of urgency and delicacy which surrounded the central theological and ethical problems related to marriage and family life on the synods’ agenda. Compared to these issues, interchurch families have perhaps little reason to complain about the post-conciliar teaching and legislation concerning their particular situation. This was obviously also the opinion of the synod fathers since to my knowledge there was not one single substantial contribution to the issue either at the first or second assembly. This had at least been different at the 1980 synod with the widely noticed intervention of Cardinal Willebrands who had suggested that the time was ripe for re-examining the question of admitting interchurch couples to sharing the Eucharist together.[11] As we all know, this intervention finally had its effect when in 1993 the Ecumenical Directory declared that there could be exceptional admission of the other Christian partner to the Catholic Eucharist in certain cases. I’ll come back to this later.

In a private conversation in December 2014 in Rome, Cardinal Baldisseri, the General Secretary of the Bishops’ Synod, confirmed that there had been little expertise available to the synod with regard to interchurch and interreligious marriages and so he strongly welcomed my proposal that the Interchurch Families International Network would provide an extensive response to question 39 added to the 2014 Lineamenta (Does current legislation provide a valid response to the challenges resulting from mixed marriages or interreligious marriages? Should other elements be taken into account?).[12] While the IFIN Response to the 2015 Synod,[13] which after internal consultation within the Network was sent to the Secretariat of the Synod on 11 April 2015, has presumably been the only substantial contribution on this matter, it is difficult to discern whether, and if so, what impact it had on the 2015 Instrumentum laboris and the Relatio synodi. Ruth Reardon has started to assess both documents in that regard, the Instrumentum laboris in the IFIN Comments which we again officially submitted to the Synod Secretariat in August 2015[14] and the Relatio Synodi in her report for the November 2015 AIF News.[15] I will try to add to her analysis.

If one compares the references to interchurch (and interreligious) marriages in the different synodal documents, one realizes a lack of consistency and coherence in the way the topic is dealt with throughout. A first observation here concerns terminology. The synodal documents still use the generic term “mixed marriage” when they refer to a marriage between a Roman Catholic and a spouse from another Christian denomination while the traditional expression of “disparity of cult” for marriages between a Catholic and a non-baptized partner has now been replaced by “interreligious marriage” – although, as Reardon observes, the term “disparity of cult” resurfaces again twice in the 2015 Relatio synodi. One can only regret that the synod has not taken up the IFIN suggestion to consistently use the term “interchurch marriage” or “interdenominational marriage” in order to clearly distinguish it from what is now commonly and adequately referred to as “interreligious marriage”.

The 2014 Instrumentum laboris[16] which was mainly a compilation of the answers to the Vatican questionnaire contained in the preparatory document of 2013, has only two short references in which interchurch and interreligious marriages are lumped together and the need for adequate marriage preparation (56) and pastoral care in view of difficulties with the religious education of children (154) is underlined without any further explanation. Also the 2014 Relatio synodi[17] does not differentiate between interchurch and interreligious marriage, situating them both somewhat naively in countries in which Catholicism is in the minority (7). Accordingly, the risks and chances connected to them are described rather abstractly as religious indifference on the one side and “the possibility of fostering the spirit of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue” on the other. These earlier documents thus provide a minimalistic, abstract and almost stereotypical approach to the reality of mixed marriages.

Both the 2015 Instrumentum laboris and the 2015 Final Report adopt the passage from the previous documents in more or less the same wording as part of their analysis, in Part One, on the cultural contexts in which contemporary family life is to be situated (cf. IL 28; RS 25). But both documents have then an additional section in the third part under the heading of “pastoral accompaniment” in which the issue of mixed marriage is further unfolded in its complexity. Still lumping interchurch and interreligious marriage together, the Instrumentum laboris addresses the difficult journey of faith involved in these unions, focusing in particular on the religious upbringing of children, participation in the liturgical life and the sharing of spiritual experience (IL 127). At the same time, a distinction between a juridical and pastoral level is introduced, and it is specified – at least as I understand the awkward phrasing, both in the Italian original and English translation – that solutions for the problematic issues in these marriages should be sought in the pastoral rather than legislative realm. That is probably also why in the following sentence a “policy of behavior”, a sort of code of conduct for the spouses, is suggested in order to prevent that the religious journey of either of them be impeded, and the lived experience of mixed couples is invoked as a possible source for a constructive way of dealing with difficulties. One could see in this paragraph a faint echo of those passages in our IFIN Response in which we asked that priority should be given to pastoral over juridical solutions and the responsibility of the spouses with regard to the upbringing of children should be respected. Although the working document does not mention, let alone take up, our appeal to drop the prenuptial promise as a juridical requirement, it seems to me inspired by a similar mindset which favors a “constructive dealing with differences regarding the faith” on the level of personal responsibility. Unfortunately, one gets the impression that this constructive approach is obscured in the Relatio synodi by the way in which the same paragraph is now introduced, emphasizing the critical aspects over the fruitful ones (“While mixed marriages and marriages of disparity of cult can be potentially fruitful, they can also lead to critical situations which are not easily resolved…”, RS 74). 

My reading is again more sobering when it comes to the passage which deals with Eucharistic sharing. The Instrumentum laboris had, in its number 128, quite abruptly stated: “Some suggest that mixed marriages might be considered as cases of ‘grave necessity,’ in which it is possible that a baptized person who is not in full communion with the Catholic Church, yet shares the Church’s faith in the Eucharist, be allowed to receive the Eucharist, when their pastors are not available and taking into account the criteria of the ecclesial community to which they belong”. Some commentators argued that this move to loosen the rules on admission to the Eucharist was the result of the lobbying of some liberal German bishops who had also pushed to allow divorced remarried persons to receive communion.[18] Still, I am inclined to believe that the IFIN Response had its impact here as well. After all, we had also asked for “an explicit statement that interchurch spouses who express a real need and desire for eucharistic sharing, and who fulfil the criteria for admission, can be allowed to receive communion alongside their Catholic partners on an on-going basis, whenever they are at mass together”.[19] In any case, the paragraph disappeared from the Relatio synodi – probably also because of the reaction of some conservative circles who referred to it in the media as an “unexploded bomb” that, if not defused, would undermine the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.[20] In the place of it the Final Report had a completely new paragraph in which first the ecumenical value of interchurch marriage was underlined with a quote from Familiaris consortio and then the regulations concerning the admission to the Catholic Eucharist by other Christians were quoted from the 1993 Ecumenical Directory (cf. RS 72).

Ruth Reardon has welcomed this addition in the Relatio synodi and qualified as “tentative”[21] and “unsatisfactory”[22] the previous formulation contained in the Instrumentum laboris. She correctly argues that the Ecumenical Directory itself has applied the norms for sharing the Eucharist to interchurch spouses and distinguished their case from those of other “grave necessities” by referring to the theological reality that they “share the sacraments of baptism and marriage”[23]. While the Instrumentum laboris had in some way fallen back behind this acquis, the Relatio puts this right again and, although it does not break new ground, reaffirms the positive and open interpretation that some bishops’ conferences have given to Eucharistic sharing and therefore opens the door for further advance.

I cannot but agree with this adequate theological analysis. But in the end, it simply reveals that also from the perspective of interchurch families the synodal documents have just confirmed the doctrinal, disciplinary and pastoral status quo. Nothing less, nothing more. And we are back again finding ourselves rejoicing that the clocks have not been turned back.

However, it would be unfair to finish my reflections in such a pessimistic tone. It would mean making my calculation without Pope Francis.



3. What Sense to Make of Pope Francis and the Future of the Synodal Process?

The issue of shared communion in an interchurch marriage was ultimately highlighted by Francis himself in November last year, when he took part in a question-and-answer session at Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. In response to a question posed by a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man who asked if she could receive communion by virtue of her Christian baptism in accordance with her own conscience, Francis replied that she should “talk to the Lord” about receiving holy Communion “and then go forward”. But he also cautioned that he “wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence.”[24]

But whose competence is it then to grant such an admission if not the pope’s?, many may have asked themselves. Instead of entering into a theological discussion on whose power it is to change church doctrine and discipline, I think that we have to put Francis’ reaction in line with the other famous pronouncement he made when speaking to reporters on a flight back from Brazil in 2013: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” Also this answer left many inside and outside the church greatly perplexed.

What the pope did, however, was simply referring to Jesus himself. Last Sunday, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, we heard in the Roman liturgy the narrative of Jesus with the adulterous woman from the Gospel of John (John 8,1-11). When the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and ask him what to do with her, he bends down and writes with his fingers in the sand. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And after a while, when all have left and he is alone with the woman, Jesus straightens up and asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, Lord,” she replies. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

If even Jesus who is without sin does not judge the woman, how then could the pope or any other Christian dare to do so? There is of course a difference between a person who has cheated on his or her spouse, a homosexual person with a deep seated orientation towards partners of the same sex and a Lutheran interchurch woman wishing to receive communion when worshipping together with her husband in a Catholic mass. But what connects them all is that each of them and every human person has a personal and unalienable relationship with God. Church regulations, moral norms and doctrinal formulae are useless or even harmful if they do not render possible and enhance the individual’s living faith relationship. Therefore, the true defenders of morality and doctrine “are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae – they are necessary – or from the importance of laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy”.[25]

Catholic sexual, conjugal and family ethics urgently needed this return to the Gospel as its true ressourcement. We need an approach in which mercy does not come after ethics and doctrine but is their core center. But since God’s mercy is not an abstract phrase but His loving turning towards concrete persons in specific situations, our moral norms and doctrinal formulations remain dead letters if we fail to spell them out, always anew, for concrete persons, especially in the complex and sometimes difficult situations the bishops’ synods had to deal with. It may be true that the synod fathers had to meet on the basis of the lowest common denominator and that therefore they agreed that the synodal discussion should be about the applicability but not the contents of the church teaching, about pastoral care but not about moral doctrine as such. In the long run, this recipe will not work. It can’t work if we share Pope Francis’ dream of “a Church which does not simply ‘rubberstamp’, but draws from the sources of her faith living waters to refresh parched hearts”[26].

And what does all that mean for interchurch families? That brings me finally to the book that I have the pleasure of presenting to you today. As you may know, the book gathers the results of a period of reflection and research within our Interchurch Families International Network which began in 2005 when some of us met at the Vatican with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Out of that meeting came the suggestion that interchurch families should be encouraged to continue theological reflection based on their personal experiences and following on from the Rome Paper of 2003. It was agreed that interchurch families might make a significant contribution to the development of an understanding of “domestic church”, a term re-introduced to the church during the Second Vatican Council, but which had remained unexplored, its potential gift and richness left largely untouched. It was thought that interchurch families, with the hermeneutics that came from being inserted into the Church through two churches, could make a unique contribution not only to the development in understanding the term, but of the way the domestic church could be an instrument of Christian unity. The thrust which has been underlying this project has always been our conviction – and intention to demonstrate with consistent and sound theological arguments –  that interchurch families are indeed and fully domestic churches, realizations of their own kind of Christ’s church, and that therefore several church regulations simply do not make sense.

I still do not have any doubts that it was good and useful to do so. It is true, Cardinal Willebrands already in 1980 expressed at the synod that “it can be said of the two Christians who have been baptised in different Churches, as it is of a marriage between two Catholics, that their union is a true sacrament and gives rise to a ‘domestic church’; that the partners are called to a unity which reflects the union of Christ with the Church; that the family, as a family, is bound to bear witness before the world, a witness based on that ‘spiritual union ... which is founded on a common faith and hope, and works through love’.”[27] But what other bishop would wholeheartedly have joined him in this conviction since then? Why is it otherwise that I feel so grateful when I read in the report of the German language group at the last synod: “The interchurch marriage, too, has to be regarded as a domestic church and has a specific vocation and task which consists in the exchange of gifts within the ecumenism of life”.[28]

In other words, our book still serves its purpose in making a compelling theological argument. After the recent synods, however, I am even more convinced of what Ray and I wrote in our introduction:

We suggest that interchurch families should not expend good energy attempting to persuade their church authorities that they should listen to the theological and ecclesiological arguments that can be, and have been, put forward. (…) Rather, interchurch families should broaden the scope of what they do, which is live Christian unity in the everyday. First, though, they must remember that they are domestic churches. They must have the courage of their convictions, and exercise the authority of those who are affected by this reality.

If they are indeed church, then interchurch families cannot simply demand of their church leaders that what they need is provided. They are church, and as church they have a part to play in enabling church leaders and ecclesial bodies to meet their needs. They need to find ways of leading, enabling, encouraging church officials to open themselves to developing the same competencies interchurch families have, for the wellbeing of their ecclesial bodies. They should recognize that, if they are indeed domestic churches, then their church of the home will be most fully itself when the churches of which they are part are also truly themselves, open to and respectful of the other, learning from each other.[29]

[1] S. O’Riordan: “The Synod on the Family, 1980”, in: The Furrow 31/12 (1980), 759-777, 776f.

[2]See R. Douthat, “A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism”,

[3] Quoted in S. O’Riordan, “The Synod on the Family, 1980”, 765.

[4] See J. Grootaers & J.A. Selling, The 1980 Synod of Bishops on the Role of the Family: An Exposition of the Event and an Analysis of its Texts, Leuven: University Press, 1983.

[5]Instrumentum laboris, 2015; available at (accessed 15.03.2016); henceforward referred to as “IL”.

[6] See Familiaris consortio, 34: “Married people too are called upon to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to gain ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God. They must also be supported by an upright and generous willingness to embody these values in their concrete decisions. They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. ‘And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations. In God's plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God's command with serene confidence in God's grace and in his or her own will.’”

[7]Relatio synodi, 2015, available at (accessed 15.03.2016); henceforward referred to as “RS”.

[8] See e.g. IL 57: “Perciò, anche nel caso in cui la maturazione della decisione di giungere al matrimonio sacramentale da parte di conviventi o sposati civilmente sia ancora ad uno stato virtuale, incipiente, o di graduale approssimazione, si chiede che la Chiesa non si sottragga al compito di incoraggiare e sostenere questo sviluppo.” (My emphasis; the English translation unfortunately does not correctly render this section of the sentence.) The whole section has been skipped in the RS 2015.

[9] See RS 37 and 86.

[10]See e.g. IL 2015, 126.

[11] See J. Card. Willebrands, “Mixed Marriages and Their Christian Families”; available at (accessed 18.03.2016).

[12] See Lineamenta 2014, Part III, question 39; available at (retrieved 16.03.2016).

[13] See Response to the 2015 Synod on the Family from the Interchurch Families International Network, 6 April 2015; available at (accessed 16.03.2016).

[14] See Instrumentum Laboris of the 2015 Synod on the Family. Brief Comments in the Light of the Response to the Lineamenta Submitted by the Interchurch Families International Network, August 2015; available at (accessed 16.03.2016).

[15] See R. Reardon, “Synod on the Family, 4-25 October 2015”, in: AIF News, November 2015; available at (accessed 16.03.2016).

[19]Response to the 2015 Synod, 12.

[20] See (accessed 16.03.2016). In trying to answer this fear, the Archbishop of Birmingham seemed to many interchurch families to be unduly negative; see (accessed 16.03.2016).

[21]See Instrumentum Laboris of the 2015 Synod on the Family.

[22] See R. Reardon, “Synod on the Family, 4-25 October 2015”.

[23] See Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 1993, 159-160; available at (accessed 16.03.2016).

[25] Pope Francis, Address at the Conclusion of the Synod of Bishops, 24 October 2015; available at (accessed 18.03.2016).

[26] Ibid.

[27]J. Card. Willebrands, “Mixed Marriages and Their Christian Families”.

[28]Relatio – Circulus Germanicus,Synod15 – 14a Congregazione generale: Relazioni dei Circoli minori sulla terza parte dell’Instrumentum laboris, 21.10.2015; availabe at (accessed 18.03.2016)

[29] T. Knieps-Port le Roi & R. Temmerman, “From Rome to Jerusalem. Interchurch Families and the Domestic Church Project”, in: Id. (eds.), Being One at Home. Interchurch Families as Domestic Churches, Zürich: LIT, 2015, 5-27, 26.



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