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Church's family reality check


Lesbian mothers sit with a young child (illustration)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 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.

The third challenge for the Synod lies in a significant omission in the document. It shows little interest in the correlation of patterns of child rearing and marriage with fashions in economic theory and developments in technology.

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.

The place of the market in society will always be the subject of debate, but when it becomes the lens through which a culture evaluates the world, religious faith and the relationships in which the raising of children are set will be seen as matters of purely private choice.

That suggests that when Catholics reflect on the future both of church and family, they should first ask whether the ordering of the economy serves human values.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Same-sex parents image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

In Paul Harding's very fine novel "Tinkers", an old man lies dying, confined to bed in his living room, surrounded by family. These words encapsulate, for me, what marriage and family is about: "When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart." The church has much work to do to probe a complex structure like 'the family'. Approaching in humility would be a good start.

Pam | 13 November 2013  

Well, Andrew, it took me very little time to make my comment for the Synod of Bishops.I scrolled to 10: and asked them to read Hans Kung's book 'Can We Save The Catholic Church' and told them I endorse the opinions of this brave and enlightened man.

Patricia Taylor | 14 November 2013  

Thanks Andrew. Your excellent article revives my hope that this discussion has the potential to touch reality and bear fruit. The juxtaposition of an ad for Dan Murphy's beside family gives me pause ...

Fran | 14 November 2013  

Well done. This is a very actual and factual account of modern-day family life. The church will never effect any substantive changes until it realises that theology, tied up with feudal times is outdated in our society - not Christ's laws, Church laws. The ideal marriage as the pope is looking at what is desirable, church on Sundays, mandatory celibacy of priests - these have nothing to do with living in the 21st century and show a leader totally out of touch with what is real, yet, I don't believe Francis is like that. Then, cynically, I make the observation - is this pre-occupation with the Family a diversion from the millstone around the church's neck of sexual abuse and pervesion. Fix the latter and maybe, just maybe, people within the family unit may conjoin in church-motivated rites as they once did. One can't reverence with the irreverent, nor bring up a conventional family using "the church" as a model as once happened many moons ago..

Shirley McHugh | 14 November 2013  

I was under the impression that this questionnaire was addressed to the ordinary catholic. The above article tells me it was aimed at Bishops. I would be prepared to wager that, even, many of them would not have read the encyclicals mentioned and how many are fully conversant with the philosophical niceties of the natural law? How can the Catholic worshipper in the pews have any idea of the number of divorces, irregular unions, same sex relationships in his or her parish? The language and content of this document make me despair of our church as a communicator and if we are to know about these things, how about some decent Sunday homilies that address them rather than a retelling of the Sunday gospel that we have just read?

grebo | 14 November 2013  

Fr Hamilton canonises SSU et alii institutionalised mortal sin with epithet 'reality'! .In fact hard nosed factual sitz im leben is that Gods revealed will re marriage is the ultimate reality, regardless of economic-sociological-teething-2am bottle,dummy, nappy,scream reductionisms. Perhaps the ivory tower celibate is The Reverend Father Hamilton SJ Frankly as a pastoral priest of 38 years doorknocking /confessionals/,family celebrations and 5 years consoling Sydney's bereaved families as Roockwood necropolis chaplain, I had rare distancing from families[include boarding housemaster of 110 teenagers sans dummies], Time to jettison cheap slogans re church doctrine on married life! Viva Synod Survey!

Fr John George | 14 November 2013  

Andrew your article highlights the high problematic associated with the Vatican document. It will fail to bridge the gap between church teaching and the practices of Christian families. I believe this document is doomed to fail the people simply because as you said: a homogenised document will emerge that has lost the sharpness and diversity of the original submissions. The high theological ideals proposed by celibate men bear no actual resemblance to the many and varied experiences found in family life. If the church exists for the sake of conversion to Christian love then it needs to focus on real issues that arise for women in a Theology of the Family. Family context is a very different experience from a Family Theology formed with idealistic notions of natural logic. When it comes to the reality of being a wife and mother the Vatican logic is far removed from ‘common sense’ and bears little or no resemblance to the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Church and its bishops are uncomprehending because they have no real experience in such matters, especially when it comes to laws that effect women and family dynamics.

Trish Martin | 14 November 2013  

Families have long ago given their views on the Church by voting with their feet! Families, in their myriad forms, have long abandoned the Church because it no longer speaks for them, often does not recognise them as valid and even worse has publicly rejected their particular forms of familial union. The world is now a far more complex place with many wonderful forms of family the Church cannot seem to come to see as acceptable in the eyes of the God of love. When I was a child I was part of a family that the Church found difficult back then because my father was a "hell bound Protestant". That was when the horse began to bolt for me and I thank the Church for inadvertently opening my eyes to the bigger loving God I now know and rely upon.

Martin Loney | 14 November 2013  

I'm not sure why we thought the survey was to be addressed directly to the laity. The Pope did request that the Bishops confer widely within their dioceses before the Synod. Of course, they don't have to consult the laity if they don't want to. Most dioceses seem to have just republished the document the Bishops received themselves, which does, of course, put many questions out of range of most of us. Some dioceses (Rockhampton?) are facilitating processes which will enable Catholics to gather, discuss and answer the rephrased questions. This latter method might enable a gathering of information from the grassroots, leading to a theology reaching up towards God rather than being handed down from above. Can our Bishops hear us and overcome their own prejudice in favour of the familiar? We'll see.

Joan Seymour | 14 November 2013  

please--how can we participate in the survey for the Synod

bernie treston | 15 November 2013  

A colleague and I simplified the questions because we believe that it is very important for ordinary Catholics to contribute. I too worry that what happens in ordinary lives will not be heard.

Norma Marot | 15 November 2013  

Mr Loney 'walkathon polls'! are not the revelatory source of Catholic dogma and morals,but a measure of poor faith level and collateral deterioration-[such 'pedestrian' polls prevailed in histories' faith crises [eg Arian Crisis,Reformation fall out, French Revolution & our postgonesilier circus]. Surveys detect best pastoral solutions, versus histrionic, erratic, dumping dogma/morals overreactions .

fr john george | 15 November 2013  

Great to see the incisive and objective look as what is. re family units. I think that extension of this analysis would find that much of urban disadvantage arises from the multiple complicated forms of family liaisons. What to do?!

Sue Lambert | 16 November 2013  

Joan Seymour might note re 'sensus fidelium' ['theology from below''] #In literal terms, sensus fidelium simply means the "sense of the faithful", and refers to doctrinal truth recognized (sensed) by the whole body of the faithful. #In a speech to the International Theological Commission on 7 December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI distinguished between the authentic meaning of sensus fidelium and a counterfeit understanding: "It is certainly not a kind of public ecclesial opinion, and invoking it in order to contest the teachings of the Magisterium would be unthinkable, since the sensus fidelium cannot be authentically developed in believers, except to the extent in which they fully participate in the life of the Church, and this demands responsible adherence to the Magisterium, to the deposit of faith. Thus,Joan Seymour, NB the clear primacy of 'theology from above' viz Sacred Revelation in Scripture,defined and elaborated by the magisterium as the proximate yardstick of authenticity of theology, lest perchance, based on mere ephemeral public opinion polls.

Father John George | 19 November 2013  

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