The Synod’s Interim Report: Ambiguity and Misinterpretation

The Interim Report (IR) of the Synod of Bishops on the Family released on Monday, October 13, represents a summary of the discussion of the first week of the Synod. Here’s the problem with the IR in a nutshell. It claims to offer “a significant hermeneutic key that comes from the teaching of Vatican Council II” (§17). There are elements of sanctification and of truth outside the visible boundaries of the Church that are forces impelling toward Catholic unity (Lumen Gentium 8). Furthermore, there are positive elements present in other religions and cultures. Analogously, there are positive elements even in the imperfect and incomplete forms of relationships that may be found outside of the fullness of marriage, but these forms “are in any case ordered in relation to it” (§18).

In fact, however, Vatican Council II does not argue that in the divine plan of salvation other non-Christian religions as such are vehicles of salvation ordered to the fullness of salvation. They may have goods and truth that are a preparation for the reception of the gospel, but these other religions as religions are not incomplete or imperfect realizations of the gospel. That is why Vatican II says that whatever goods are found in religion and culture need to be transformed by the gospel and integrated into the revelatory narrative of creation, fall, and redemption.

Because IR seems to read Vatican II in a way that suggests—wrongly—that religions not only contain goods/truths, but are themselves as such vehicles of salvation, it falsely interprets relationships like cohabitation not only to have some goods but also that they are themselves as relationships good, albeit imperfect or incomplete realizations of the full good of marriage. Furthermore, because it approaches marriage only from the perspective of creation, rather than from the comprehensive perspective of creation, fall, and redemption, it suggests that these so called irregular situations are relationships that may historically unfold in an individual’s life as they allegedly did in the divine pedagogy of the history of redemption on the way to the fullness of truth about marriage taught by Christ. Let me briefly unpack my argument against IR in light of specific paragraphs from this document.

In §16 of the IR, marriage is placed in the context of creation, fall, and redemption. Like the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 1601-1617), marriage is seen in God’s plan as grounded in the order of creation, under the regime of sin, and in the order of redemption, particularly in the sacramental economy of that divine plan. Although ID doesn’t unpack the meaning of marriage in this normative perspective, it does provide a starting-point that is indispensable for articulating the Church’s teaching on marriage. So far so good.


Discernment of Values?
The IR makes a move that is, however, rife with ambiguity and potential confusion. In §17-23, it chooses to limit its perspective to what it calls a “discernment of values present in wounded families and in irregular situations.” One of these “irregular situations” is cohabitation. The IR (§20) calls these situations “incomplete and imperfect,” relationships containing “positive values,” indeed, IR says “family values” (§38) that we need to appreciate “rather than [focusing on] their limitations and shortcomings.” What values does the IR have in mind? It’s not clear, but perhaps it is suggesting that such values are shown “when a union reaches a notable level of stability, through a public bond, [which] is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests” (§22).

Now, I am willing to grant for the sake of discussion that we can discern values in some such irregular situations like cohabitation. The question that now arises is whether cohabitation is itself a good relationship, albeit imperfect or incomplete, that is ordered to the good of marriage (IR §18)? Alternatively, does cohabitation contain good values that appear in a relationship that is as such a reflection of our fallen human condition, and hence that whatever goods are found there must ultimately be chastened by the transforming power of the Gospel and inserted into the revelatory narrative of creation, fall, and redemption? If the latter, if this relationship is a sinful one, then cohabitation cannot be ordered to the good of marriage.

Ambiguity and Misinterpretation
This ambiguity is present in IR because of the false interpretation it uses, suggesting a correspondence between a perspective “the [Second Vatican] Council opens up […] for appreciating the positive elements in other religions and cultures, despite their limits and their insufficiencies (cf. Nostra Aetate, 2)” (§19), on the one hand, and “the possibility of recognizing positive elements even in the imperfect forms that may be found outside this nuptial situation, which are in any case ordered in relation to it” (§18; italics added), on the other. The flaw is that Lumen Gentium 16-17, Ad Gentes 9, and Nostra Aetate 2 never state or imply that other non-Christian religions as religions have salvific value, being vessels of salvation. So in themselves other religions are not ordered to the Christian faith. Yes, they have goodness by the common grace of God’s general revelation—for instance, they may recognize a monotheistic God and the goodness of creation. Those who hold these views may be in the state of being receptive to the Gospel, as LG 16 holds that “Whatever goodness or truth is found among them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the gospel.”

But a monotheistic religion like Islam holds a version of Unitarianism—God is one and solitary—and hence even the good of monotheism is not ordered to the fullness of the Christian Faith wherein the “divine Unity is Triune.” In fact, even the truth of monotheism needs to be redeemed, transformed by the Gospel. As LG 17 states: “whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is not only saved from destruction but is also healed, ennobled, and perfected unto the glory of God, the confusion of the devil, and the happiness of man.” So, Vatican II looks at the elements of goodness outside the visible boundaries of the Church from the comprehensive perspective of creation, fall, and redemption.

The implication—and hence its falsity—of this interpretation appears clearly in IR’s claim that it is looking at marriage only from the perspective of the “order of creation.” On this interpretation marriage “unfolds historically, in different cultural and geographical expressions” (§19). IR seems to be suggesting—amazingly enough—that cohabitation, and other irregular situations are part of the historically unfolding path of marriage, albeit in an “incomplete and imperfect way” (IR §20). Analogously, IR suggests that the path to marriage in an individual’s life may similarly unfold. But how can cohabitation be a “path to marriage” when it is itself not a good relationship, but merely a sinful one—when viewed from the order of God’s normative intent for marriage—albeit that it also includes some good values? Don’t polygamy and same-sex relationships also often include kindness and sacrifice? But they are not ordered to the good of marriage.

What is distinctive about cohabitation is that the couples are having sexual intercourse without having made a lifetime commitment to each other (and as the divorce rates show is a bad preparation for marriage). What is distinctive about polygamy is that it involves many spouses; what is distinctive about adultery is that it involves having sex with someone who isn’t your spouse; what is distinctive about same-sex relationships is that they are not heterosexual and hence cannot attain a two-in-one-flesh union that is open to life. What is distinctive to cohabitation and each of these other relationships is that they are incompatible with marriage. They are not a suitable preparations or precursors to marriage. Simply stated, they are sinful relationships. They are not incomplete or imperfect relationships that are as such ordered to the good of marriage but they are violations of marriage.

Back to Creation
Intriguingly, the IR does acknowledge (§14) that Christ himself (Mark 10: 1-12) refers us to the seminal texts of creation (Gen 1:27 and 2:24) as foundational for the canonical and hence normative understanding of marriage. “Jesus Himself, referring to the primordial plan for the human couple, reaffirms the indissoluble union between man and woman, while understanding that ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning’ ” (Matt 19:8). This statement of Christ refers us to the normative order of creation—permanence, twoness, and sexual differentiation are foundational to a biblical understanding of marriage—because that understanding of marriage is universally valid.

Christ didn’t suggest that there were “incomplete and imperfect forms of marriage” on the way to the fullest realization of marriage, as if to suggest that these other relationships were part of the historically unfolding path of marriage. His divine pedagogy did not accentuate the “positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings” (§20). Rather, he refers us to the light of the normative creation in order to let it shine upon the fallen human condition in which human beings had made choices that were not worthy of the divine calling to marriage. The Church should continue to do the same.

(Photo credit: CNS / Paul Haring)

Eduardo Echeverria


Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He is the author of several books, including Dialogue of Love: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic Ecumenist (Wipf & Stock, 2010).