The Synod on the family is about to take place in Rome. It is being given extraordinary media coverage. Over three hundred prelates have been elected or invited to participate. And thirty married couples will be in attendance too.

The task of assuring that everybody gets a hearing will be immense. It is not therefore to be treated as an occasion for polemics between what people these days love to call ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’. That gives it a too secular and political labelling. All participants are Catholic believers, invited to contribute from their faith and for their faith representing the entire Church. The meetings will be convened in prayer and concluded with prayer.

The Family

It is patently obvious that the family is at the heart of society. Without it society is unimaginable. There may be some places in history and geography when such was not the case, but I never heard of them. All peoples of the world in our experience today have family at their social centre. We come into the world normally in a family context. Often it may be controverted, but the context for most human begetting is in the committed expression of the faithful and protected bonding between a men and women, potential and actual mothers and fathers.


How marriage liaisons have been made have varied from civilisation to civilisation. But men and women got married to have children and accept responsibility for them with personal and material care. Millions of words have been written to show the reality of this. Families, mothers and fathers and children must be cared for. It is always tragic when forced separation takes place: we see it daily as people, about whom we would otherwise never have heard, seek a better life for themselves and their children as migrants and refugees. Call them asylum seekers, or aliens or any other name: they come in their thousands, mothers and fathers and their children. Why? Because families feel so united the members cannot abandon each other. The media get maximum mileage out of photographing little crying children, pretty as could be, in distress, in a parent’s arms, or abandoned with others- nobody to love them because of the ravages of war and poverty. Lost in transit! The meaning of family is profoundly evoked with these images.

The understanding of family as mother and father and children has never been radically questioned until recently. Efforts are being made now to redefine the family. It is an enormous risk without a history. Why further risks? We have had too much experience already of broken families- and it is painful even to mention such in public places. For so many among us have experienced these things personally- but to be told that two mothers or two fathers are of equal significance to a child, coming from the lips of folk who did not themselves have such an experience, is asking a lot. People who belong to normal traditional marriage wonder at what is going on. All of that is just obvious at the level of human observation- without any recourse to religious commitment at all. 

Against Trivialisation

Now what of Christian marriage? We can read of the historical development of marriage with its progresssive achievements in the ecumenical article on MATRIMONY in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed.1974,pp.88-90: ‘The Christian conception of marriage, though it claims to be based on the natural law, differs sharply from earlier practice whether Jewish or pagan, and also from modern secular usage, notably in the equality it gives to the woman and the indissolubility it ascribes to the marriage bond.

Early Hebrew law, which was founded on marriage by purchase, assigned a low status to the woman who became in effect the property of her husband, though he could not sell her (Ex 21:7 ff.). The woman could neither own nor inherit property and had no rights of divorce, while the man might divorce her for some “uncleanness” (Ex 24:1). Polygamy was practised, sometimes with the consent of the wife, as in the case of Sarah (Gen 16:2), that the bond might be preserved, but in later Judaism there was a growing realization that monogamy represented the ideal.

Roman matrimonial practice was in many ways more influential in the formation of Christian doctrine. Though under the Empire divorce was readily available to both parties, the jurist Modestinus could define marriage as ‘a lifelong partnership, and a sharing of civil and religious rights’…while the legal commonplace that it was not consummation but consent that made a marriage was equally agreeable to Christian belief. One part of Roman law, however, that there could be no marriage between bond and free, was repugnant to Christian sentiment and set aside in the 3rd century.’

The Specific Catholic Teaching

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) states: “It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love. Spouses who with God’s grace give this wit-ness, often in very difficult conditions, deserve the gratitude and support of the ecclesial community” (no. 1648). 

Back to the Synod

It is as well to have these data in mind when we receive the reporting on the forthcoming meeting in Rome. Everybody wants a happy and fruitful marriage. And everybody is sympathetic to people who have marital problems. After all most of our own families know too well what such sufferings involve. How can we best help? The Synod will give us the occasion to be well informed on the issues and see what is being done in the Catholic household of the faith to encourage and protect families. As has often been said, unmarried celibate clergy are hardly best placed to speak on these issues and one supposes that something similar can be said about consecrated religious. Very modestly then they offer help, and since marriage should be seen as a vocation too, every-body wants everyone to be at peace in the life they have chosen. First in our prayers will always be our own family. That is the great Christian tradition- and every prayer is a commitment. May our parents rest in peace, and may we their children make for family peace wherever we are. The forthcoming synod will hopefully contribute to this. It merits our prayers. Amen.


Rev Richard J. Taylor

Spiritual Advisor, MaterCare International

Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK