Below is the next installment of Bondings 2.0’s reports from the Synod on Marriage and Family in Rome. New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo will continue to send news and commentary from this meeting. Previous posts can be reached by clicking here.
A blog is a part of social media. That means it’s not just channel to channel communication between writer and readers, but collaborative, interactive, and interdependent between these two agents.
I learned that lesson on Tuesday as I waited for the midday press briefing to occur at the Vatican’s synod on the family here in Rome. A few minutes before the briefing began, I received a comment to Monday’s blog post from Annette Magjuka, a regular reader and commenter to Bondings 2.0. Annette’s comment, which described her experience of motherhood and trying to pass on values that were not always accepted, ended with this reflection about children who don’t always follow the rules:
“[T]hey need a hug, soup, and HOME. They need to feel there is a place for them to BE.
“I think this is what the Pope means by the church being the mother. The rules can be the rules, but moms are different in their parenting approaches. . . . The church is suffering the loss of many who yearn to be able to come home. The question is, can you come home even if you do not do everything your mother asks? Does the love go away? Moms can make their point. But I think it is is tragic for families to give up years of meals, sharing, and communion over a rule. Jesus showed us what to do. Break bread. Stop scolding. Try not to sin and examine what that really means. Be serious about your soul. But walk with and support one another.”
That made me think. One of the phrases that we have been hearing here at the synod is that the Church should accompany people like a mother.” When I read Annette’s interpretation, I wondered if the folks in the synod felt the same way. So I decided to ask them. As it happens, two of the three guests at Wednesday’s press briefing were women: Moira McQueen, director of the Canadian Catholic Institute of Bioethics; and Therese Nyirabukeye, advisor and formator for the African Federation of Family Action, Rwanda. They were joined by Abbot Jeremias Schroder, arch-abbot of the Benedictine Congregation of St. Odile, Germany.
My question to them:
“We’ve heard other speakers say that it’s been proposed several times that the Church should be “an accompanying mother” to families. I’d like to ask two parts: 1) Does the mother have a different role in the family than the father? 2) Since this is a proposal for something new, does that mean the Church has been too fatherly in the past, and not motherly enough?”
Moira McQueen was the first to answer, saying;
“We have always used language to refer to the Church as Mother, so I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to refer to the Church as accompanying mother. And so I think it is a very good designation. It shows both sides of the coin, if you like. We talk about the Synodal Fathers because they are all male, but I find it interesting that that can then be included in their own talking of the Church as the accompanying Mother.
“Again, I think the language is very interesting, and I think resonates these days then just [using] one or the other. Has the Church been seen as too fatherly? I’m not sure if what you mean by that is ‘paternalistic’ which is a little bit different and maybe it means all sorts of other things. There is no doubt that in days gone by that would have been the perception and may in fact in many places have been the reality. But as Therese [Nyirabukeye, another press briefing guest] has also been pointing out that the inclusion of women in many different commissions in the Church at the highest levels again shows an awareness and a willingness on the part of the church to recognize maybe they have appeared to fatherly in the sense that they were all male before, and again this inclusion of women respects both sides of the coin.
I think McQueen misunderstood the question. I was trying to ask what it synod participants mean by talking about the need for the Church to be seen as a “mother” and not as a “father.” Her answer tried to show that women have a role in the Church, which is not what I was asking. Her misinterpretation is understandable, given the fact that the press briefings are a highly stressful environment.
Abbot Schroeder also offered an answer about the use of the the term “mother”:
While it is very poetic language, very beautiful of course, before we get smothered by it, we must remember that we are talking about Christians who are children, but also mature adults. I think the language of fatherhood and motherhood referring to the Church only goes so far. Essentially, we are also communio–community–and we should bear that in mind as well.”
Schroeder’s answer was more on point. And I agree with him that we should not get too caught up in the metaphors being used by Church leaders. However, the persistence of such metaphors of parenthood, and particularly of gendered parenthood (mother or father) means that these ideas must have some significance to those using them. I don’t think that they were using “motherhood” in any sort of gender-neutral way.
Therese Nyirabukeye also offered her comments:
“In this Synod there has been discussion of situations that are very special, very delicate, that require a greater tenderness. I think that in the family, the mother’s way of accompanying is marked by more tenderness, by more attention and in this context of accompaniment it was necessary to speak of the Church as mother. She must show her tenderness in family situations where people are wounded or are going through very special situations. I regretted that in the Instrumentum Laboris [the synod’s working document] not enough space was devoted to the accompaniment of normal families, those who are not in a special situation, to show clearly how the Church takes on this motherly role with respect to the development of each couple that goes from life’s beginnings to its end. It should be shown how she takes care of the development of the couple in the normal situation and how she takes care of families that are in a situation of fragility. I think it’s important to emphasize both aspects.”
[Nyirabukeye spoke in French. The translation of her answer was provided by Michael Clifton of David and Jonathan, France’s national LGBT Christian group. Merci, Michael!]
Therese was the only one who indicated that there seems to be a distinction between why the Church is referred to as a “mother,” and not a “father.” What I get from her answer is that mothers are the ones who provide tender loving care.
Which brings me to my second question which was has the Church been too “fatherly” in the past. Despite McQueen’s assumption that I meant “paternalistic,” that was not what was on my mind. Instead, I was wondering if the difference between motherly and fatherly approaches is the same as the difference between pastoral and legalistic approaches. As a Church, we are emerging from a long period of strict legalisms, and that Pope Francis’ strategy is to move the Church to a more pastoral approach.
But do these two poles have to be gendered? I agree with Abbot Schroder that the metaphors should not be taken seriously. But so much of Church teaching does take the gender images seriously. So many of the restrictions on ordination come from the fact that the Church is viewed as female, not male. I think that one of the gifts that the LGBT community offers to the Church is a new way to think about gender by helping to challenge some of the stultifying gender roles that have plagued our thinking and culture.
At Wednesday’s press briefing, we were presented with the reports of the 13 small groups in which the bishops have been having discussions, broken down according to language. The following section from one of the English-speaking groups touched on the need for both pastoral and legal approaches to be utilized, though emphasizing the pastoral one over the other:
“The group felt a strong need for a deeper reflection on the relationship between mercy and justice. . . . [W]e should always remember that God never gives up on his mercy. It is mercy which reveals God’s true face. God’s mercy reaches out to all of us, especially to those who suffer, those who are weak, and those who fail.”
So much better to talk about mercy and justice than mother and father. [For an excellent summary of the reports from the English-speaking groups, read The National Catholic Reporter’s article by clicking here.]
And I thank Annette Magjuka, a faithful Bondings 2.0 reader and commenter, for planting the seed of this idea in my mind.
What are your thoughts on the Church as “mother” or “father,” as pastoral or legalistic? What are your thoughts about this synod in general. Offer your ideas in the “Comments” section of this post. Social media should be social !
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry