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Third World issues illuminate Synod's first world problems

  • 29 September 2015

Bishops from around the world will soon be travelling to Rome for next week's Synod on the Family. The media portrayal of the Synod, and the interest of many Australian Catholics, has focused on the conflict between the liberal bishops led by the Pope, and the conservative bishops under Cardinal Burke.

The flash points of this conflict are whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to receive communion, and whether the Synod should extend an unqualified welcome to Catholics of a homosexual orientation or should accompany it by reiterating forcefully Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

The scope of the Synod, however, is much broader, and there are many other significant parties. Bishops of the Third World, for example, are impatient with their First World fellows' narrow focus on divorce and homosexuality.

They will want the Synod to focus on the life and death issues that face families in their region. These include acute domestic violence, fathers absent from home seeking work, hunger and shortage of water, and the delicate task of handling religious differences within families.

Many will also hope that the Synod will criticise an international economic order that in their region keeps families in poverty and rapes the environment on which they rely.

So, although important to respond to generously, divorced and homosexual Catholics will not be the only people who make a claim on the Synod. But they are important, and the divisions between the bishops are real. They are also generally misread by the media.

Most commentators divide the parties along these lines: One group takes it for granted that autonomous individuals choose their values, and have the right to live by them without discrimination as long as they do not harm others. Not judging implies approval of the value chosen.

This view is commonly held in Western culture, including by many Catholics. It implies that divorced and remarried persons should not be discriminated against by being denied communion, and that homosexual Catholics should not be judged, because homosexuality itself is a legitimate Catholic choice.

The opposed group holds that Catholics inherit a faith and moral tradition which is accepted and passed on to the next generation. Although people who do not live by this tradition should be treated courteously, the tradition of the Church relating to homosexuality, divorce and Eucharist should be spelled out firmly and uncompromisingly to an uncomprehending world.

The difference between the two parties is often portrayed as one between an