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Church's family reality check

  • 14 November 2013

The invitation by the Vatican to lay Catholics to offer their views on the family to the coming Synod is welcome. It is an understandably awkward first step, but the document that accompanies the discussion questions shows the need for wide consultation. The document illuminates by its silences as well as by its words the immense challenges the Synod faces.

The document was written primarily for bishops and assumes familiarity with theological terms and arguments. It is followed by 40 questions grouped under eight headings. They invite discursive responses which will be collated and synthesised and sent to the Vatican where presumably they will be further synthesised. The risk in this process is that a homogenised document emerges that loses the sharpness and diversity of the original submissions.

Three features of the document suggest the challenges facing the Synod. The first is the 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. This theology, of course, has been developed principally by celibate men, no doubt familiar with family life through their childhood and pastoral ministry, but at a distance from it. They may know that young parents may be up five times a night to tend to a teething baby, but the knowledge is not carved into their hearts and minds.

The gap between the ideal Christian family and the relationships in which children are reared in Australia is large. 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.

Second, the account of family life in the document is coloured by nostalgia. It looks back to a period when marriage alone had legal sanction, most marriages were in churches, divorce