Put Out into the Deep

Reimagining the Natural Law

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Today, I am beginning a three-part series of articles based on the working document for the World Synod of Bishops entitled, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” to be held in Vatican City in October. In January of this year, we submitted responses from the Diocese of Brooklyn to the various preliminary questions proposed by the Office of the Synod. I will try in my explanation of the document to include the responses given by the Diocese, which include individual responses from over 600 individuals from Brooklyn and Queens.

Truly, the Synod on the Family has important consequences for the life of the Church, for the Church is a communion of families. The document begins by describing the Gospel of the Family, or the Good News of the Family, since the family is the means of evangelization when all is said and done. Remember the words of St. John Paul II when he said, “The Church goes by the way of the family.”

As the document enfolds, we hear about how we must communicate the Gospel of the Family in today’s world, because it is certainly God’s plan for marriage and the family that the Church proclaim to the world God’s plan in the family. It begins by remembering that in Genesis the human race is to cooperate with God’s work in transmitting life to its descendants. This is only possible when God’s love is at the center of the family. We cannot help but note that the document refers us to the marriage feast of Cana where Jesus sanctified human love and laid the basis for its sacramentality. The Second Vatican Council’s document, Gaudium et Spes, told us that, “Jesus, in assuming human love, also perfected it, giving man and woman a new manner of loving, which has its foundation in the irrevocable faithfulness of God.”

There is a rich history of treating the family in the documents of the Church. Those quoted by the working document are Gaudium et Spes and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The sacrament of matrimony is clearly defined.

In the wake of Vatican II, the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI in 1968, describes the intimate bond between conjugal love and the generation of life. Unfortunately, this encyclical caused a great upheaval in the Church, mainly because of the misunderstanding of its message. Its message is a positive one and not negative as, unfortunately, it has been interrupted.

Deus Caritas Est, the Encyclical Letter of Pope Benedict XVI, reminds us about the “truth of the love between man and woman, which is fully understood only in light of the love of Christ Crucified.”

Lumen Fidei, the Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis, reminds us that the encounter with Christ gives the human person the ability to follow “the vocation of love.”

The issue of the knowledge and acceptance of the teaching on marriage and the family from Sacred Scripture and Church documents is subjected to questioning by the Synod office. It is simply clear that the knowledge of the Scriptures and the family are more easily understood than the tradition of the Church expressed in the documents of the Magisterium of the Church. The Synod document admits that the family seems to be rather wanting in the People of God’s understanding. This leads to a diversified acceptance of the Church’s teaching in many areas. Although people do understand what the Church teaches because it is so much a part of our popular culture, they have difficulty in accepting it in its entirety. The various issues of birth control, divorce and marriage, homosexuality, cohabitation, fidelity, pre-marital sex and in-vitro fertilization are given as examples where the teaching of the Church, although it might be understood, is not accepted or at least is not followed.

The working document gives some reasons for the difficulty in accepting the Church’s teaching. When all is said and done, the Church’s teaching can only be accepted when a person has “an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level to which no doctrinal presentation, no matter how accurate, can substitute.” In a world where technology caters to our every human need, we are influenced more by the culture around us than our ecclesial culture. It is clear, as Pope Francis has told us, that the “culture of the moment” seems to win out. In order to force the greater understanding of the Magisterium of the Church, we must redouble our efforts in a positive way, not only to teach what the Church teaches but also to make it more understandable.

Great potential is given to the Gospel of the Family and natural law because there is a unique relationship between the teaching of the Church and natural law. Unfortunately, this is a tenuous connection today because “the Gospel establishes with the human person in a variety of circumstances created by history and culture.”

The document states, “Natural law responds thus to the need to found human rights on reason and makes possible an intercultural and interreligious dialogue.”

However, the present-day problems related to natural law are multiple, because it is not comprehensible to most people. When the term “natural” is used, to most people it means “spontaneous” or “what comes naturally.” Unfortunately, “natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy.”

Although the Church is a great proponent of human rights, today human rights have been reduced to the call for the person’s self-determination, or an absolute personal freedom of choice. So, it is clear that natural law has been surpassed by the understanding of what is legal in civil law is also morally correct.

The document reminds us that “the relativization of the concept of ‘nature’ is also reflected in the concept of stability and the ‘duration’ of the relationship of marriage unions.” When we recognize that the Church is universal, we also must realize that “natural” in other cultures gives rise to polygamy and divorce on the basis of infertility. And so one of the key challenges of the Church today, if we are to teach what the Church believes, is to reunderstand our philosophical presentation of natural law as a means of transmitting our faith.

There are practical questions in the document, which remind us of the objections to natural law, especially concerning the union of a man and a woman. They re-recognize the various types of families in our societies, blended families, especially because of the presence of children from different partners and the so-called same-sex unions, which present issues of understanding the true basis of natural law.

The document continues by saying, “to self-appropriate the term ‘natural’ accentuates the absolute right to personal freedom without any compromise: people are ‘formed’ on the basis of their individual desires only.” Therefore, it would seem that one of the great tests for the Synod will be to find a more appropriate philosophical understanding of natural law so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligent manner.

We see as the document continues that it reminds us about the family whose vocation is to find the person in Christ. The “Gospel of the Family” reminds us that the family is the natural place for personal development. It is the foundation of the society and the state, “the primordial human society.” The family, as the Church understands it, is the fundamental cell of society. It is where we learn to live with each other, in spite of our differences with one another, as the Church has constantly taught. The family is the place where a person is able to emerge from his or her individualism.

The focus of the Synod will be how to reflect in today’s world the ministry to the family that will encourage participation from the family in society while at the same time discerning its role as a society and not being determined by society. There are certain images that help us to understand the life of the family. Certainly, the image of the Trinity is reflected in the life of the family, as well as the image of the Holy Family, which is an example of the Christian family. Love in the family refers to the reflection of God’s love in our human relationships. The family is called the “school of love” or a “school of communion” and a “gymnasium for relationships,” as well as the basic “school of humanity.”

The support for the family reminds us that “The role of the parents as primary educators in the faith is considered vital and essential.” Their responsibility for their children must always be upheld, as well as the responsibility of families for profession of their faith and living their faith, especially through prayer in the family. Without the family, the integral development of a person cannot take place. “The fundamental character of the family is the process of the person’s integral development. The family is already a reality, ‘given’ and secured by Christ, and, on the whole, to be ‘built up’ each day with patience, understanding and love.”

The Church needs to develop ways in guiding individual persons in their desire to marry and form a family in the midst of the crisis that has happened in our world. A new emphasis on marriage preparation in teaching the sacramental character of marriage is important, as well as ongoing formation in family ministry. I am happy to say that our Diocese is well positioned to expand these programs that already exist.

As the Synod puts out into the deep, it must confront the idea of natural law as it relates to the human person. Certainly, it has become clearer that the law is Christ Himself, the law who is love Himself. As we hear in the Book of Romans, “The idea of law is written in the human heart” (Rm 2:15). This Synod has before it a great and important task. Let us begin our prayer together for the success of this Synod on the Family.


Editor’s Note: The Instrumentum Laboris can be found on the Internet at the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va under the “Roman Curia” and then “Synod of Bishops.”

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