Frank Brennan SJ. The Vatican’s Synod Questions for the Australian Catholic Church

Dec 12, 2014

Following up on the Relatio Synodi, the Vatican has now released the lineamenta (

for next year’s synod on the family.  They have appended a list of 46 questions and they want the world’s Catholic bishops’ answers by April.  This will be a demanding task for the Australian bishops for three additional reasons.  First, they have not shared with the public the results of the first round of questionnaires circulated before this year’s synod.  Second, the country is about to retire for the summer recess.  Third, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ACBC) is not due to reconvene for a plenary meeting until May 2015.

Before being asked to consider the 46 specific questions, the bishops are asked: “Does the description of the various familial situations in the Relatio Synodi correspond to what exists in the Church and society today? What missing aspects should be included?”

It is useful to consider some Australian statistics to set the scene.

Australians and marriage

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has a wealth of reliable statistics.  Here are some.

The crude marriage rate in Australia was 7.3/1,000 in 1901.  After reaching an all time high in 1942 (12/1,000), the rate fell until 1945, then increased sharply the following year, but generally fell again in the late 1940s and during the 1950s. The 1960s saw the rate increasing again.  It peaked again at 9.2/1,000 in 1971, and then progressively decreased in the last three decades of last century. The rate has remained fairly stable since 2001 when it was 5.3/1,000.  In 2012, it was 5.4/1,000.

16% of marriages in 1975 were preceded by cohabitation. By 2000, the proportion was 71%. The proportion was 78% in 2012.  Most young couples live together before marrying nowadays even if they are Catholic.

In 1908, 97% of marriages were performed by ministers of religion.  In 1999, there were for the first time in Australia more marriages performed by civil celebrants than by ministers of religion. In 2012, most marriages (72%) were conducted by civil celebrants.  Across the states and territories, civil marriage ceremonies are most common in the Northern Territory and least common in New South Wales.

Cohabiting couples are twice as likely to have a civil marriage ceremony than couples living separately.  When a religious celebrant is chosen to perform a marriage ceremony, the rites are most commonly Catholic (33%) or Anglican (19%).  Catholic ceremonies are the most common religious ceremonies in all states and territories except Tasmania.

The majority of Australian children live with both their parents until they leave home and begin to form their own families. In 2006, the living arrangements for children under 15 years old were:

74% with both of their biological parents;

18% in a lone-parent family (virtually all with their mother);

6% in a step- or blended family; and

2% in other living arrangements.

Australian Catholics and Church 

In February 2014, Dr Robert Dixon, Director of the Pastoral Research Office of the ACBC addressed a church conference telling us that Sunday mass attendance was now down to 12.2%, with overall mass attendance figures having declined by 23% just between the years 1996 and 2011.  In 1996, about 136,000 young Catholics (aged 15-34) attended mass on any Sunday in Australia.  By 2011, it was down to 80,000.  Attenders aged 15-19 make up 4% of the congregation, while those over 80 make up 8%.

While only 5% of young Catholics attend Sunday mass regularly, 30% of those in their 70’s do so. The attendance rate across the age spectrum for Catholics born in Australia fell from 17% to 10% in just fifteen years from 1996 to 2011.  Catholics born in non-English speaking countries have maintained a strong 24% showing.

If we listen ONLY to regular Sunday mass attenders, even less than half of them accept the Church teaching that pre-marital sex is always wrong.  40% of them do not accept that the divorced and remarried should be denied communion, with a further 16% undecided.  54% of those aged 15-34 attending Sunday mass regularly admit to using artificial means of birth control, and 48% of those aged 35-59.  So image the percentage for those between 35 and 40!

The 46 Questions 

Approaching the specific questions, the bishops have been urged to start ‘from “life’s periphery” and engage in pastoral activity that is characterized by a “culture of encounter”’.  They are invited on the path ‘of recognizing the Lord’s gratuitous work, even outside customary models, and of confidently adopting the idea of a “field hospital”, which is very beneficial in proclaiming God’s mercy.’  In their reflections they are asked ‘to avoid, in their responses, a formulation of pastoral care based simply on an application of doctrine, which would not respect the conclusions of the Extraordinary Synodal Assembly and would lead their reflection far from the path already indicated.’

While being asked what they are doing to demonstrate ‘the greatness and beauty of the gift of indissolubility of marriage’, and ‘in light the Church’s teaching in which the primary elements of marriage are unity, indissolubility and openness to life’, they are to address many complex issues including the three neuralgic ones highlighted by the more contested votes at the synod: the pastoral care of those living together without a sacramental marriage, the access to the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, and the place of gays and lesbians in the Church community.  These issues arise particularly in questions 33, 38, 39, and 40.  Here are the questions:

33.  (In light of ‘the difficulty of young people to make lifetime commitments’), is the Christian community able to be pastorally involved in these situations? How can it assist in discerning the positive and negative elements in the life of persons united in a civil marriage so as to guide and sustain them on a path of growth and conversion towards the Sacrament of Matrimony? How can those living together be assisted to decide to marry?

38.  With regard to the divorced and remarried, pastoral practice concerning the sacraments needs to be further studied, including assessment of the Orthodox practice and taking into account the distinction between an objective sinful situation and extenuating circumstances. What are the prospects in such a case? What is possible? What suggestions can be offered to resolve forms of undue or unnecessary impediments?

39.  Does current legislation provide a valid response to the challenges resulting from mixed marriages or interreligious marriages? Should other elements be taken into account?

40.  How can the Christian community give pastoral attention to families with persons with homosexual tendencies? What are the responses that, in light of cultural sensitivities, are considered to be most appropriate? While avoiding any unjust discrimination, how can such persons receive pastoral care in these situations in light of the Gospel? How can God’s will be proposed to them in their situation?

How heartening it is to see buried in Question 43: ‘The Christian lives maternity or paternity as a response to a vocation.  What formation is offered so that it might effectively guide the consciences of married couples?  Are people aware of the grave consequences of demographic change?’  In a world of 7.2 billion people, in an Australian Church of declining mass attendance, I wouldn’t be saying too much about Humanae Vitae.  When Paul VI issued that encyclical the world’s population was less than half what it is today. Very few sexually active Catholics are now helped by this papal teaching when making conscientious family planning decisions. There comes a time for some past papal utterances to be quietly dropped even by our bishops working in the ‘field hospital’ proclaiming God’s mercy.

On returning from the synod, Archbishop Denis Hart, president of the ACBC said, ‘Pope Francis has reminded us that we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many challenges that families must confront, and to give answers to the many discouragements that surround families.’  There are only four months (including a long hot summer) to consult the faithful and send answers to Rome.  Let’s start with the facts, and if there’s time, let’s be attentive to the voice and experience of the young who are living together unmarried, the divorced and remarried, the gay and lesbian, as well as that minority of Catholics who are happily married and fronting up to mass every Sunday with the kids.


Fr Frank Brennan SJ is presently the Gasson Professor at Boston College Law School





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