Further Thoughts on the Synod

There was rejoicing at the first calling of the Synod because the family is in a bad way almost everywhere in the world. If there has been so much dissatisfaction with last year’s—preliminary—Synod it is because the reports given, and the impression emerging, showed it as less centered on identifying and proposing pastoral remedies for whatever pathologies are undermining family life, but rather on some possible solutions for situations that result from these unresolved pathologies. So the focal concern of the Synodal Fathers seemed to be: (1) how to care more pastorally for the individual whose first marriage has broken down, so that he or she can more easily obtain a declaration of nullity of that marriage; and (2) in the case of a person who has already contracted a second union, how to make it possible (even if the first union has not been declared null) to receive Holy Communion, and so enter again into a full sacramental life.

For the last seven or eight months, discussion has remained centered on the pros and cons of these two issues. Re the first: some speeding up of the process is no doubt possible, and would be an advance—always with the proviso that this is done without detriment to truth and justice. The second case has provoked intense theological debates; as, indeed, it should.

My present purpose is to deplore any continuing debate on these two issues, for this only serves to obscure the real danger (certainly in the eyes of the public) of the Synod suffering a total loss of identity, of not being a Synod about the family at all…

I pray that these two topics, if not taken off the agenda completely (it may be too late for that now), will be consigned by the participants to the very back of their minds; and if, nevertheless, they do come up, that a recommendation is quickly made that they be the object of opportune study on some other occasion.

Let the Synod not belie its name. Let it not go down as a hoax or a farce.

Talk about the Family!
Please, Synodal Fathers, TALK ABOUT THE FAMILY! Talk clearly about the pathologies that threaten it: the destructive anti-marriage and anti-family propaganda permeating the media, and the whole spirit of modern culture, and so impacting the minds of young couples, the mockery of chastity or fidelity, the presentation of promiscuity as the normal thing, the fear of commitment, the mindset that looks on children simply as a means to personal self-satisfaction.

This is not the occasion to talk to those whose marriage has already broken down, and whose family is divided. Talk to those who are about to marry. Young people preparing for marriage are not looking forward to divorce or nullities. Tell them they can be faithful, and happy, by learning to love. Talk to them about love as generous giving. Show them the way to growth in love and generosity through reliance on God’s grace.

Talk to those who are just married and have a family ideal in their hearts. Help them to understand the beauty of that ideal, to be proud of it, and to see its greatness as service to God and mankind. Talk also to those who have been married 10 or 12 years, and are striving to help the children with whom God has blessed them to grow as convinced and mature Christians in an ever-more pagan society.

And yes, along with the challenges and difficulties of married and family life, talk even more emphatically about its promises and rewards and, especially, about the support married couples can, and should, draw from the sacrament they have received. Talk about the holiness of the mission entrusted to parents by God, about the human dignity of having a large family, about the challenge of creating a true family atmosphere where mutual care, understanding, and forgiveness predominate…

Pastoral Preparation
Talk, too, of better pastoral preparation for young couples about to marry. Is there not a tendency to dwell too much on NFP in pre-marriage instruction? After all, to do so already implies a concession to the modern birth-control, anti-life mentality. Couples should certainly know about it, but know also the Church’s teaching that serious reasons must exist to justify it (cf. CCC 2368; Compendium 497). Why? Because if there are no such grave reasons, its practice means a privation—depriving their own married love of its natural fruit and support; and equally depriving their existing children of the enrichment of another sibling. How we need to recall and understand those too often passed-over, though challenging and optimistic, words of John Paul II at the start of his pontificate: “…it is certainly less serious {for couples} to deny their children certain comforts, or material advantages, than to deprive them of the presence of brothers and sisters, who could help them to grow in humanity, and to realize the beauty of life at all its ages, and in all its variety…” (Homily, Washington, D.C., October 7, 1979).

Fear of Commitment
Fear of commitment is the bane of our western culture: nothing is worth committing myself too fully; binding choices are asking too much of human nature; renouncing one’s freedom is not reasonable. So neither the commitment of marriage, nor of priesthood, can be expected to be unconditional. I must always have a way out. It is my right!

Indeed, how impossible it is to make and live a definitive commitment to marriage without God’s grace. But—how possible, with it! If pastors are not convinced of this realistic and optimistic truth, and do not rest their marriage instruction and marriage counseling on it, what depth of realism and optimism can support their own definitive commitment to the priesthood itself?

Fear of coming out of one’s self to a worthwhile commitment, leaves a person more and more enclosed in the lonely self—that anticipation of hell, the eternal loneliness of those who never learned to love anything other than self.

A further point could be made, which is intimately connected with the commitment of marriage and family: the question of vocations.

Where do vocations come from? From what atmosphere? From that of their parish? From the example of priests or religious they meet? Indeed. But, above all, vocations come from the atmosphere of their own family background. It comes from the example of parents who have been faithful to each other, and to their children. Can one expect many solid vocations to come from a calculating marriage, from an atmosphere where the parents are more concerned with their jobs, or professional life, or comfort, than with being good parents?

There are exceptions. No doubt. But, exceptions they remain. Do we expect to fill our seminaries or novitiates with exceptions? In one sense, yes! Yes, inasmuch as the normal thing in the Church today is that vocations come from exceptional families. The Letter to Diognetes gives ample testimony to the way the early Christians were known precisely for how they stood out from the pagans around them in their married and family life. May the Synod particularly remind married couples of how much their generous fidelity not only brings them a great reward in Heaven, but ensures the constant renewal of evangelization here on earth.

Msgr. Cormac Burke About Msgr. Cormac Burke

Cormac Burke, a former Irish civil lawyer, was ordained a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in 1955. After 30 years of pastoral work in Africa, the United States, and England, he was appointed a judge of the High Court of the Church, the Roman Rota (1986-1999). On retirement, he returned to Nairobi, Kenya, where he continues to teach and write. His latest book is The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine and Canon Law (Catholic University of America Press, 2015). His website is: www.cormacburke.or.ke.


  1. Thank you, Fr. Burke, for this excellent article. Your exhortation to the Synod Fathers contains the hope of many, many Catholics I am sure. The family is under attack now with such fierce and demonic wrath that the Church must – must – respond with wisdom, grace, catechesis, emphasis, and genuine care. I pray that those to be there will assimilate and advocate all that you have said here.

    There are two points of yours, however, that I would like to present a bit differently, speaking as a lay man:
    1) NFP is not overemphasized in pre-marital prep, but I am afraid that it is often wrongly received or interpreted as a “Catholic contraception.” NFP needs to be presented rightly, as it ought to be, wholly consistent with the Catholic Faith, wholly true to an authentic Catholic sense of marriage and family. Marriage prep does not suffer from over-catechizing ANY aspect of the sacrament, but rather the opposite is the problem: the laity are dangerously unprepared and inadequately formed for strong Catholic Christian marriages.
    2) “Vocations” meant as you have used the word here, toward a concern “to fill our seminaries or novitiates,” neglects the full meaning of the word “vocation” – and (again speaking as a lay man) depreciates it by limiting it to vocations to “priesthood and the religious life.” It is not at all uncommon to use the word “vocation” in this limited way – it is indeed common among both clergy and laity – but this is not right and it is not good. The laity need to know that we all, by virtue of Christian initiation, “are called” and thus “have a vocation” given by Christ Himself. Every member has his part and his contribution in the Body.

    The Catechism certainly supports this meaning as well as more basic and also more expanded intentions in the word. Some examples are:

    CCC 1877 The vocation of humanity is to show forth the image of God and to be transformed into the image of the Father’s only Son. This vocation takes a personal form since each of us is called to enter into the divine beatitude; it also concerns the human community as a whole.

    CCC 1603 The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator.

    CCC 1998 This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.

    CCC 2232 Family ties are important but not absolute. Just as the child grows to maturity and human and spiritual autonomy, so his unique vocation which comes from God asserts itself more clearly and forcefully. Parents should respect this call and encourage their children to follow it. They must be convinced that the first vocation of the Christian is to follow Jesus…

    • Fr. Meconi, SJ Fr. Meconi, SJ says:

      Thanks to Msgr. Burke and to Dr. Richard: thanks to this exchange I have a new homily for tonight (15th Sunday). We are ALL CALLED to make this journey with the 12 Apostles, married or single, cleric or lay, and are all thus to fulfill the baptismal vocation of being a priest, prophet and king of Jesus Christ in our own divinely-willed ways! Such has been a constant in the Church’s teaching for 2000 years but its new emphasis is the fruit of Vatican II, and something I pray the upcoming Synod will stress clearly and courageously.

    • Thank you Thomas Richard for a extremely accurate account of ‘Vocation’
      People dont always understand that marriage is a ‘Vocation’ and parents have a duty to God to bring their children in to love and serve Him in His Church and society!

      • Hello, Mary Gamble – thank you for your response. There is a troubling blindness among so many people to the immense dignity, place and role of the Christian family! I hope that among the participants in the Synod, many have a clear mind and a courageous heart, and a strong voice! Families today are in great need of support from the pastors of the Church.

        Sometimes I have the sense that some in the Church have a distorted sense of the full place of the family in the Body of Christ – that the role of the family is that of a means to an end: of providing good candidates for the seminaries and novitiates! But the good fruit of a Christian family is much more that that. If I may include a small part of the Catechism teaching on the importance of the family:
        The Christian family
        2204 “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church.” [FC 21; cf. LG 11] It is a community of faith, hope, and charity; it assumes singular importance in the Church, as is evident in the New Testament. [Cf. Eph 5:21b: 4; Col 3:18-21; 1 Pet 3:1-7]
        2205 The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. In the procreation and education of children it reflects the Father’s work of creation. It is called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Christ. Daily prayer and the reading of the Word of God strengthen it in charity. The Christian family has an evangelizing and missionary task.

        That “singular importance” needs to be pondered. In comparison with Holy Orders, Matrimony holds an important parallel place:
        1534 Two other sacraments, Holy Orders and Matrimony, are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God.

        This last teaching, in my opinion, is a truth of profound and luminous value, and importance. The family as “Domestic Church” is a truth not yet fully realized or appreciated, or sometimes even recognized.

    • Mr. Richard,
      Thank you for those helpful comments. That everyone, married people included, has a real vocation to holiness is of course at the very heart of the message of Opus Dei; and a truth that I have constantly written and preached about in my pastoral work. In my recent book, The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine and Canon Law, just published by the Catholic University of America Press, this is a central theme. I fully share your concern – as you can see – when I write there, “It is urgent that preaching and pastoral attention help couples realize that they, as much as any priest or religious, have a true vocation to holiness – precisely in and through their married state” (p. 49).
      The passage about “vocations” in my article does indeed refer to vocations to the priesthood. This was not meant to carry any implications of “exclusivity”; but it was not accidental either. My article being largely addressed to the “Fathers” of the Synod, i.e. the Bishops, and since a shortage of priestly vocations is logically a main concern on their minds, I simply wished to make the point that any adequate and lasting solution to that particular problem will only come from holier marriages and the experience of more generous family life.
      Wishing you every blessing,
      Cormac Burke