The 2014 worldwide synod on marriage and the family has made headlines not just because of its topic is so important, but because of the fact that the Vatican has, for the first time, encouraged bishops to consult the laity on these topics. In advance of the synod, the Vatican has issued a letter to the bishops including a set of 40 questions in eight categories, including a section on same-sex marriages.
Many have lauded the Vatican for doing the right thing in consulting the laity, the people who are most directly affected by these topics. One Australian writer, while praising the Vatican’s effort, has taken issue with the way the questions have been phrased. Writing at the Australian Catholic website EurekaStreet.com, Andrew Hamilton, notes that the questionnaire reveals several challenges that the bishops face in addressing these topics.
The first issue he has is how the questions imagine what a modern family looks like. He asserts that there is a
“. . . striking contrast between the ideal of the Christian family that it proposed and the reality of child rearing in our society.
“The document represents a fairly traditional Catholic theology of the family, setting it within a high theology and expressed in elevated language. . . .
“Many children are reared by single parent families, by serial parents, in unmarried partnerships, in blended families and in same sex relationships. Many Catholics, too, are married outside the Catholic Church.
“This contrast is significant because it makes it harder to argue persuasively that the rearing of children within a monogamous and enduring family is the normative state for all human beings rather than an ideal for the few. It makes more plausible the argument that state regulation and formalisation of marriage and family ought to be separated from church regulation and ceremonies. This in turn makes it more difficult to appeal in public conversation to arguments based on natural law.”
“It looks back to a period when marriage alone had legal sanction, most marriages were in churches, divorce was difficult if not impossible, to be born out of wedlock was a stigma, and there was no social support for raising children outside of marriage.
“Nostalgia tends to overlook the harsher aspects of relationships within many duly married families: the incidence of domestic violence, of loveless relationships, of neglected and abused children, the damaged health and early death of so many women, and the inequality of husband and wife.
“It is also easy to forget that critics of such family arrangements were motivated by concern for the human dignity of wives and children who were trapped in abusive relationships. They were led to press for divorce and for tolerance of different forms of child rearing by the failures in practice of the Christian ideal of marriage when embodied in law and custom.
“Whether changes in social mores have ultimately benefited or disadvantaged women and children is open to debate. But to ignore the failures of societies in which the Christian understanding of family life was imposed by law, and the ethical passion of many of its critics, is to underestimate the challenge facing Christian reflection on the family today.”
Hamilton’s third point is that the document fails to take into account economic contexts of families:
“In an economic order that is constructed around the participation of individuals in the market and values people by their financial success, it is expected that both adult partners will work to sustain the economy. Those who cannot engage in paid work are stigmatised and their benefits kept very low.
“This shapes family life. For example, someone who came to Australia from a rural society where the family was the economic unit may have been one of nine or ten siblings, but in Australia will have only one or two children. And it will be normal for the children to be placed in child care so that both parents can work.”
Hamilton’s points are good one, and they highlight the fact that the Vatican indeed does need to do this consultation. For far too long, church teaching has ignored the social and cultural contexts of families, and how faithful lay people responded to these realities, even sometimes in opposition to official church teaching.
A synod usually produces a teaching document for the church. For the upcoming synod, it looks like church officials will have a lot more to learn than to teach.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry