The Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops met for several weeks in October 2014 and issued the document, “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” There has been much commentary about the ill-conceived preliminary Relatio Synodi, which implied that homosexuality had inherent positive gifts, and that divorced and remarried people could somehow be accommodated to be able to receive communion.
These ill-conceived paragraphs created great public consternation and controversy. Thankfully, in the final Relatio Synodi, the scandalous language was removed. However, the final Relatio Synodi reveals two shocking omissions that will cripple efforts to effectively evangelize families in the coming years.
The first omission is that the Synod completely ignored the essential importance of men in the faith lives of the family and the broader Catholic “man-crisis.” The second omission is that the Synod failed to acknowledge and address the majority of families in the pews: families with married moms and dads who are facing crushing challenges with successfully passing on the faith to their children.
Synod Omission 1: Men
In the Relatio Synodi, the Synod Fathers offered only one sentence with 25 words addressed to men and fathers, who represent about half of Catholics. For perspective, homosexuals, who represent 1-2% of Catholics, merited two whole paragraphs.
Rather than recognize the contributions of fathers or their unique spiritual and evangelization needs, the Synod Fathers offered this short, critical admonishment to men and fathers:
Fathers who are often absent from their families, not simply for economic reasons, need to assume more clearly their responsibility for children and the family. (Paragraph 8)
The New Emangelization Project (NewEmangelization.com) has documented a widespread and serious Catholic “man-crisis”. Fully one in three baptized Catholic men in the U.S. have left the Church. The majority (some 50-60%) of those who remain “Catholic” are “Casual Catholic Men”, men who don’t know the faith, don’t practice the faith and are not committed to pass the faith along to their children. It is strategically flawed to believe that the Church can bring the New Evangelization to the family without addressing the Catholic “man-crisis”.
Worse, the percentages of these Casual Catholic Men have been growing during the past 25 years, particularly among the younger men. Without significant intervention by bishops and priests, the coming years are going to see a massive loss of Catholic men, due to the dying off of the pre-Vatican II men who are highly committed and the wandering-off of large numbers of young Catholic men who have never been evangelized. It is a monumental crisis.
Men are essential in the passing along of faith to the children. Various studies have been published that underscore the essential nature of the father in the transmission of the faith. The active involvement in the faith of an evangelized and catechized father is the single biggest influence on children remaining in the faith when they become adults. The reason the Church is losing so many young people is that the fathers have not been evangelized and catechized. This is the essence of the Catholic “man-crisis”.
Unfortunately, the Synod’s “Man” omission is consistent with other New Evangelization efforts since Vatican II that have failed to acknowledge the critical role of men and fathers in evangelization of families. It is precisely the unwillingness to specifically and vigorously evangelize men that has led to the ongoing hemorrhaging of the faithful and the breakdown of the Catholic family.
Synod Omission 2: Intact Families
The Relatio Synodi’s pastoral section entitled “Facing the Situation: Pastoral Perspectives” (paragraphs 39-56) focus on five types of families for pastoral care: engaged couples, married couples in their early years, couples who are not sacramentally married, divorced and remarried couples and single-parent families, and homosexual persons. Here is the relative emphasis based on word count:
Those to be married (7% of the word count)
Those newly married (7% of the word count)
Those living together or civilly married (17% of the word count)
Those who are divorced or single (61% of the word count)
Homosexuals (7% of the word count)
Each of these groups are certainly worthy of evangelization and are rightly acknowledged in the document. What’s missing is the largest portion of those families who are Catholic: sacramentally married with intact families.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (Marriage in the Catholic Church: A Survey of U.S. Catholics – 2007), sacramentally married Catholics represent the single biggest portion of Catholics (some 35-40%). These Catholics received no pastoral emphasis by the Synod.
These intact families face grave issues that desperately require the Church’s attention. Many of these families are casual in their faith and will not be able to successfully transmit the faith to their children without dramatic new enthusiasm, catechesis and skills.
All the trends suggest that the Church is failing in helping intact families pass their faith along to their children. Since 2000 in the U.S.:
- 14 million Catholics have left the faith;
- parish religious education participation of children has dropped by 24%;
- Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19%;
- baptisms of infants has dropped by 28%;
- baptism of adults has dropped by 31%; and
- sacramental Catholic marriages have dropped by 41%.
Something is desperately wrong with how the Church is evangelizing and catechizing existing families.
To use a common-sense analogy from business: Businesses that flourish are extremely attendant to their loyal customer base (for the Church, those sacramentally married couples with children in the pews); great emphasis is placed on helping these customers grow in their loyalty (helping parents grow in their faith and successfully pass their faith along to their children) and increasing their use of the product (increased Mass attendance and participation in Reconciliation). A losing strategy in business is to focus marketing efforts on wooing back those customers who don’t like the product (those who reject the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality) and have stopped using the product (those who have left the Church).
Admittedly, this analogy is only partially correct for the Church; Christ teaches that the lost sheep should be pursued, and so they should. But Christ’s last words to Peter are repeated three times: “feed my sheep.” Sadly, in the Relatio Synodi, the largest portion of families are completely ignored; the sheep in the paddock are not being fed.
A Desperate Call to Bishops and Priests
Returning to the Relatio Synodi’s words: “Fathers who are often absent from their families, not simply for economic reasons, need to assume more clearly their responsibility for children and the family” (Paragraph 8). The Synod Fathers should personally reflect on their own words: as spiritual fathers to their people, bishops and priests must begin to take responsibility for their own “families” and develop new ardor, methods, and expressions to successfully evangelize and catechize men and intact families in the pews.
Despite the fact that the New Evangelization is over 40 years old, the hemorrhaging of “cradle Catholics” has accelerated. Looking toward the next Synod on the Family and the World Meeting of Families in 2015, it is imperative that the Church realize and correct the Synod’s omissions and realign attention to the evangelization and catechesis of men and those intact families who are in the pews. Without a new and dramatic hands-on effort to “feed the sheep”, the flock will continue to wander off in the coming decades.