US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Good news/bad news on lay involvement in the upcoming synod on the family

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint |
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The Vatican has published the full list of participants for the much anticipated October Synod of Bishops on family life. And, not surprisingly, most of them are bishops. But there's some good news for those hoping that lay Catholics--those who actually live the challenges of following their faith amidst daily family struggles--would have a voice in the synod. Among the announced 253 participants are 14 lay married couples, two of whom are from the United States.

And now for the bad news: Those couples are more representative of official Catholic organizations and institutions than they are of the people in the pews. The first is Stephen and Claudia Schulz, executive coordinators for International Catholic Engaged Encounter. The other U.S. participants are Alice Heinzen, coordinator of natural family planning for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and her husband Jeff, who previously served as the diocese's director of marriage and family life. As Jesuit Father Tom Reese writes at the National Catholic Reporter, "We will have to wait and see whether the auditors will represent to the bishops the views of lay Catholics, but it is hard to argue that they are representative of Catholics at large."

Jeff Heinzen offered a glimpse of his thinking on the synod in a press release last month announcing that he and his wife had been selected to participate: “The Synod is not about redefining anything” he said. “Rather, our task will be to work with the Bishops to clarify and strengthen the teachings of the Church on marriage and family in a way that people will embrace the truth and say ‘Yes, that makes sense--I get it.’” 

Granted, it makes sense that the church would turn to its own lay employees as sources when looking for the input of married couples. And those who work in family life and marriage preparation for the church do indeed come in contact with a lot of other Catholic couples and would be in a position to share a lot of stories. But they also run the risk of being part of the echo chamber and, as Reese points out, may hesitate to be truthful because of their connections to the institutional church. Or maybe they are just too far removed from the people on the margins of the church, who are really the audience the church needs to figure out how to reach when it comes to its teachings on marriage and family life.

Of course, only time will tell what the synod will mean for the church. But for now, you can get a bit of a preview by subscribing here to receive our October issue, which includes an in-depth interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, one of Pope Francis' direct appointees to the synod.