When the synod on "vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world" was announced, it had my wholehearted support. As a result of poor catechises and a failure to challenge destructive social trends, the Catholic vision for family life is misunderstood by many Catholics, woefully misrepresented and choked by the vagaries of prevailing western culture. Catholic families (and families in general) now struggle for life in societies which assault and undermine them from every conceivable economic, moral and spiritual angle.
As the synod nears its end and prepares to produce its final document, I hope for three things.
1. Reaffirmation of the beauty and necessity of the Christian understanding of marriage
The starting point for any discussion on marriage should be incredible dignity it affords to the human person. Marriage is fundamentally a reflection of the communion of the Trinity, the source of all goodness and beauty. Yes, we need to recognise that we live in a fallen world which has produced a staggering array of brokenness in our relationships but we should start with the glory and the promise of the original marriage, God, one in three. If we are to start with the brokenness, we face an insurmountable climb to the summit but if we begin instead with God's grace and vision for marriage, we can begin to understand that "all things are possible to God". We should not be afraid to proclaim the Catholic understanding of marriage; people will wrangle over words claiming offence at this term or that but if they are utterly opposed to the very concept of sacramental marriage, semantic gymnastics will not make them more disposed to accept it. We need to be bold - profess what we believe to be true and allow people to accept or reject it.
2. Better catechises
The release of the answers to the Church wide survey in England and Wales in preparation for the Synod shows the startling depths of the problem of catechises in this country . Though we all have some share in the blame for this sorry state of affairs, the buck stops with the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales who have utterly failed us. Nobody can love what they don't know and this is incredibly problematic as the sacrament of marriage is "an encounter with the risen Christ". If we do not understand the sacrament of marriage, how can we expect to help married couples love Christ?
A plan of action needs to be drawn up to catechise the entire country and the "vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world" is the perfect place to start because it touches almost every aspect of Christian life.
As a starter, perhaps every parish should have a prepared sermon on the first Sunday of each month on the theme of marriage, taking the Catechism as its template. The talk could be followed up by workshops and discussion groups with a special focus on the examples of the saints and how Church teaching is backed up by current research. The goal should be to help people understand and live Church teaching and to help them articulate our beliefs to others.
3. Better support
From my own experience, and from what I've been told by a few people I have left, the Catholic Church in the western world is rather poor at building living communities. This is perhaps even more detrimental to Faith for those who find themselves in difficult family situations. If the Church really is to be a source of mercy and grace for such people, our parishes need to take on some of their burdens. This could include practical things like childcare, clothing and furniture, opportunities for socialising and prayer groups which attempt to address the particular spiritual difficulties they encounter. The support structure of each parish should be geared towards strengthening those who attempt to live the Christian idea of marriage. It should also encourage those who want to move away from lifestyles at odds with that ideal in their efforts.