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The 1980 Vatican Synod On Family And Familiaris Consortio

As the Second Vatican Council adjourned, many church leaders felt that the ancient practice of holding regular church meetings or synods would be useful in implementing the reforms of Vatican II and for dealing with pressing issues facing the church. The Vatican has convened synods in roughly three-year intervals since 1965. In 1980, the first synod was held in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Its topic was the role of the Christian family in the modern word.

More than 200 bishops representing the Catholic Church from around the world met for five weeks of discussion. In general, the concerns of the bishops were divided into two sets of issues.

For bishops from developing countries, there were many issues raised dealing with such matters as family survival under difficult political and economic circumstances, the role of the state in determining family size, and the survival of the Christian family where Christians were a minority of the population.

For industrialized countries, the concerns were more concerned with internal family issues. Bishops focused the challenges of maintaining intimacy in marriage, the church's response to divorce, the need for family spirituality, and the roles of women and men in the family. The results of all these deliberations were handed over to Pope John Paul II, who then responded in a major teaching document. A year after the synod on the family adjourned, he issued Familiaris Consortio (On the Family). It was easily the lengthiest treatise on marriage and family ever created in the Catholic Church.

The papal document was divided into four sections. The first section of this apostolic exhortation (its official church designation as a document) deals with the realities of family life today. Based on the testimony of bishops from around the world, the pope notes that there are both positive and negative forces that influence family life. Like other parts of human life, the family is a mixture of the light and darkness.

The second section notes that the family must affirm and respect the full personhood of every family member. No other community can value the individual person more than can the family. The depersonalizing forces of society can be countered by an acceptance and love that is a primary part of the God-given role of the family.

Section three presents the heart of the document when it describes the comprehensive role of the Christian family. It divides the family's role into four parts. First, it is to form a community of people, bound together for life while enriching each other, especially through acts of care, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love. Its second role is to serve life from its beginning in the mother's womb until death. The family is to be a community of life, protecting life from all that diminishes it, supporting life in all circumstances. Third, the role of the family in society is developed by comparing families to cells that contributes directly to the life and health of the whole body. A strong message of interconnectedness and interdependency comes forth in this part of the pope's exhortation. The last aspect mentioned is the family's role in the life of the church. Here new theological ground is created by showing that the family is not just served by the church or contributes to the church, but rather that the life of the family itself is a significant part of the church's life. This teaching reaches back to the notion of the family as the domestic church, language first expressed in the early church and recaptured in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Section four of Familiaris Consortio calls for a comprehensive plan of support for family life from all the other sectors of church life. It calls for a pastoral outreach to all the types of family structures. It requests that local churches serve the needs of single parents, the widowed, the divorced, and the separated. In other words, there is an acknowledgement and respect given to people in a variety of family structures, which is clearly the trend that has developed in contemporary times.

The basic message of this extensive document on the family is that the church must respect and assist Christian families in whatever way it can. Clearly, the family stands at the crossroads of change in modern life. The Catholic Church is called to see that the future of the family is its own future. This perspective comes from both a sense of crisis and an awareness of a pastoral opportunity for church renewal. A family-sensitive approach to church life has roots going back to the beginning of the Christian era. In brief, the Catholic Church now affirms that the family is an essential life-giving part of the church and that it is a source of on-going vitality for entire church.


Barton, S. C., ed. (1996). The Family in Theological Perspective. Edinburgh: T and T Clark.

Cahill, L. S. (2000). Family: A Christian Social Perspective. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Foley, G. (1995). Family-Centered Church: A New Parish Model. Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward.

John Paul II. (1981). Familiaris Consortio—On the Family. Washington, DC: Office of Publishing Services, United States Catholic Conference.

Kasper, W. (1980). Theology of Christian Marriage. New York: Crossroad.

Lawler, M. G. (1998). Family: American and Christian, Chicago: Loyola Press.

Lawler, M. G., and Roberts, W. P., eds. (1996). Christian Marriage and Family: Contemporary Theological and Pastoral Perspectives, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.

Mackin, T. (1982). What is Marriage? Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press.

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Ruether, R. R. (2000). Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family. Boston: Beacon Press.

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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsCatholicism - The Beginnings Of A Social Concern For Families, Catholic Teachings On Marriage And Family Life, Catholic Teachings On Human Sexuality