USCC Watch: Report on the Family from Rome

I am writing this from the Eternal City. Although the October weather is sunny and calm, two major meetings are going on which give evidence of strong winds now buffeting the Barque of Peter. Despite the perfect weather, I am wearing two hats, one as a delegate to the International Congress on the Family, and the other as a journalist accredited by the Vatican to the Synod of Bishops on Religious Life.

I have come, along with thousands of other Catholics from all over the world, for the celebration of the International Year of the Family: a two-day Congress held at the Lateran University, that is attended by about 500 delegates from family organizations, and sponsored by the Pontifical Council on the Family. The PCF was established 15 years ago as an outgrowth of the Synod on the Family. The Vatican’s world-wide IYF observance began with lectures and discussion groups held at the Lateran University, and culminated with a Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square celebrated by Pope John Paul II, and attended by about 100,000 family pilgrims from all nations.

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, second prefect of the PCF, a personable and dynamic Colombian who succeeded Canada’s Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, gave the opening address to the Congress. In it he described the family as a “Civilization of Love” responsible for transmitting the truth of God’s creation to the world. Families are called to shape the world into the image and likeness of God, which requires training in freedom, recognition of truth, and the formation of moral consciousness in persons. The cardinal spoke of the “Orwellian” language of environmentalists and population experts who dominated the Cairo conference, and urged Catholics to resist distortions of truth about the meaning of human life.

He further asserted that we need to concern ourselves with “human ecology” and its ethical aspects which require a harmony of conservation of persons, and, thereby, of society, and he referred to the “contamination of souls” by pornography, prostitution, exploitation, and abuse of all kinds that concern the PCF. Cardinal Lopez Trujillo then declared the Charter of the Rights of the Family, issued by the Holy See in 1983, as an important document securing basic rights for all families, not only Catholics or Christians, especially in the areas of reproduction and education.

Only truth can provide the path that leads to free humanity, Cardinal Trujillo said, and the Christian family is responsible for transmitting that truth. (The cardinal has become an internationally popular speaker and will keynote the Women for Faith & Family conference in St. Louis November 4-6.) Bishop Elio Sgreccia, a bioethicist and head of the newly-founded Pontifical Council for Life, addressed the Congress on “Bioethics and the Family,” giving a history of the development of issues from “genetic engineering” to euthanasia, surgical and “chemical” abortion. The Church must face all of these issues courageously. Although the bioethical currents in the world today — even within the ecclesial community — obviously provide grounds for pessimism, Catholics must avoid a “superficial optimism” which uncritically accepts the technological developments of science. He urged, instead, a deeper, stronger basis for optimism, which affirms that it is incumbent upon Christians to denounce evil whenever and wherever it occurs while struggling courageously to affirm the true anthropological foundations of human life. A genuine Christian anthropology, as developed by this Pontificate, must be the basis for all moral norms, and must provide the foundation for our ethical stance on all issues affecting human life.

The effective and heroic defense of human life by the Vatican at the Cairo Conference on Population owes much to the work of the PCF. In addition, Cardinal Lopez Trujillo announced the imminent appearance of an encyclical on human life.

Meanwhile, the Synod on Religious Life, a gathering of bishops from all over the world, is taking place here during the entire month of October. Synods are held every few years, and generally focus on a particular theme which then becomes the subject of explicit papal teaching, usually in the form of an Apostolic Letter (e.g., Familiaris Consortio after the 1979 Synod on the Family, Christifidelis Laici after the 1987 Synod on the Laity). In format, synods resemble the “listening sessions” before an NCCB “pastoral letter.” This Synod differs from past bishops’ synods, in that there are a number of religious — both men and women — who are official “auditors,” with the same opportunity as the bishops to address the assembly, although only the bishops, of course, can vote.

The structure of the synod, which lasts the entire month begins with two weeks of listening to the delegates who reflect on the “working document” produced by the Holy See for consideration, followed by two weeks of “small group” work sessions (circoles minores), divided according to language and emphasis. From the small groups, aided by periti (usually theologians), come the Synod’s recommendations, which are considered by the Holy Father when he compiles his Apostolic Letter (or Encyclical) which usually follows the Synod within a year.

Each national bishops’ conference elects some delegates to the Synod, and the Holy See appoints others. The American bishops who are part of this Synod are Cardinal John O’Connor, appointed as a Vice-President of the Synod by the Holy See; delegates elected by the NCCB, Cardinals Hickey (Washington, D.C.) and Bernardin (Chicago) and Archbishop John Quinn (San Francisco); two additional delegates selected by the Vatican are Bishops Francis George, OMI, (Yakima Washington) and James Timlin (Scranton, Pennsylvania). Bishop Timlin is president of the Institute on Religious Life. The two American curial cardinals are also members: William Baum, prefect for Education, and John Foley, head of Social Communications. Mother Vincent Marie, OCD (Los Angeles), president of the Council of Major Superiors of Women, and Mother Christine, OP (Nashville), were appointed by the Vatican as “auditors.” Father Paul Mankowski, S.J., had been appointed a “peritus” (expert) to the Synod by the Holy See; however, because he teaches at the Jesuit Pontifical Biblical Institute, the rector (Robert O’Toole, S.J.) could not spare him for this service to the Synod.

After studying the dozens of interventions from the first week, it has become apparent that a certain crystallization is occurring within the Synod. One contingent (including some U.S. delegates) and most speakers from Eastern Europe, clearly suggest that serious problems within existing religious communities are symptomatic of a crisis of faith. Bishop Timlin, for example, said that “at the very least, for one to be considered a religious, he or she must be what we call a ‘practicing Catholic.’ . . . How can one be a Catholic in good standing if he or she takes doctrinal or moral positions which are in direct opposition to the clear teachings of the Church?”

Another contingent (including several speakers from Canada, England, Australia, India and, notably, Thailand) advocates a “diversity” model for “renewal” of religious life: diversity of membership (laity, ex-religious, etc.) and/or diversity of belief, often masked as “inculturation.” The Thai bishops’ conference suggested considering “temporary vows” of one week to five years” in imitation of Buddhist monks. Mother Teresa’s intervention, was, of course, exceptionally affirming of the traditional religious mission to minister to the spiritual “thirst for Christ” of all people.

By contrast to Mother Teresa, Sister Doris Gottemueller, RSM, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), holds the “diversity and dialogue” view, expressed both in her intervention at the Synod, and in her August 29 address to the LCWR National Assembly in Chicago, “Befriending the Wind.” Another address at that LCWR Assembly, “Winds of Challenge,” given by Sr. Amata Miller, IHM, of NETWORK, was even more explicit. Beginning her talk with lyrics of John Denver’s “Windsong,” Sr. Amata’s outline for the future is the by-now familiar laundry list of left-wing political nostrums to purge the world of the evil structures of oppression with an admixture of “ecosensitive” spirituality.

The most strikingly feminist intervention so far, however, came not from a woman religious, but from an African Jesuit bishop, Ernest Kombo of the Congo Republic, who asked God to “inspire the prophetic attitude which consists in nominating women . . . to the highest positions of the hierarchy . . . as lay cardinals.”

Part of the crystallization — and the focus of increasing controversy within the synod — is an attempt to define “consecrated life.” The traditional view of consecrated life as vowed religious living in community is being contested by delegates who aver that baptism alone is the foundation for all “consecrated life.” According to this view, the laity are just as “consecrated” as vowed religious and this should be reflected in the makeup of “religious communities.” Veterans of the Cairo Conference and other conferences on population and family may be reminded of the effective impediment to fruitful “dialogue” that arises when no consensus can be reached about the meaning of terms essential to the dialogue.

Catholics who have become alarmed by the pervasive secularization and politicization of many established religious orders have come to see this “diversification” as one more means of alienating religious from any genuinely Catholic understanding of the religious life.

What will happen to the vast financial holdings of these orders — both the projects they currently finance and their community property — when there are no longer any vocations to the vowed religious life? This alone should be a great concern of the bishops and to the Church.

All delegates, whatever their point of view, seem to agree that religious life is in a serious state of crisis. The Pope’s Apostolic Letter following this Synod will undoubtedly give clear direction — when all “listening” has been done, and when all the dust settles after the “winds of change” have blown their hardest.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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