A Closer Look at the Vatican Document Guiding the Synod on the Modern Family (Part 3) October 3, 2014

A Closer Look at the Vatican Document Guiding the Synod on the Modern Family (Part 3)

This is Part Three in a four-part series about the Vatican document Instrumentum Laboris, meant to be a working guide for the upcoming Synod of Bishops focusing on the challenges of modern family life in Catholicism. You can read the other parts here: Part One, Part Two, Part Four.

Welcome back to Instrumentum Laboris. Today’s selection deals with “The Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges” — basically the section in which the bishops tell priests and other on-the-ground parish officials how they ought to treat ordinary Catholics. Should be interesting…

Chapter I: The Pastoral Program for the Family: Various Proposals Underway

This chapter is basically the place where the bishops write about some of the programs they’ve seen or heard described in Catholic parishes around the world. There’s a huge section devoted to “marriage preparation,” which I suppose makes sense if your major concerns are divorce, remarriage, same-sex unions, and contraception (and how to make sure Catholics know all of these things are bad). Then there’s a comparatively tiny bit on “familial spirituality,” which as far as I can tell seems to refer to efforts to get families to act Catholic by going to Saints’ Day celebrations or saying the rosary.

But first comes marriage preparation.

The bishops observe that “in many cases, couples give little attention to pre-marriage programs”… but they never actually ask why. They dismiss it with some remarks about “strongly secularized areas” and “mixed marriages” and priests who treat the courses as “an obligation.” But the problem I remember from my own marriage-prep courses is the same problem I’m finding with this entire document: the Catholic hierarchy has no interest in listening to the people they’re trying to serve. Even here, as they try to fix the problems with marriage preparation, the bishops are asking more celibate men what young married couples need. That’s never going to work, guys.

There are a couple of outside-the-box ideas that might or might not work, like assigning a “mentor couple” to the young marrieds or making parents of engaged couples take in-law preparation courses. Topics like conflict resolution and communication skills are a particularly welcome addition, in my opinion. But what they don’t ever consider is encouraging priests to actually ask married or marrying couples what challenges they face, what concerns they have, and what they feel like they want to know. Maybe they think the questions would be too difficult.

I can’t say that inspires a lot of confidence.

They also don’t consider the possibility of getting proactive on the aforementioned domestic violence problem by introducing couples to red flags for abuse. Perhaps if you’re going to tell people that divorce is an utter impossibility, to say nothing of the many children you expect them to raise, you have a responsibility to help couples evaluate the likelihood of abuse going in. Add in the far greater emphasis placed on “special recognition” for “those who faithfully remain with their spouses” than on a person’s right to leave if they’re being abused and degraded, and it almost makes me think they may not be too serious about their “supportive action” for abuse victims.

Given that a high proportion of domestic violence incidents have women as victims, and given everything else we know about the Catholic Church, it’s a bit rich that the document references “places characterized by a somewhat sexist cultural tradition.” No, really. It actually says that, in a context that makes it pretty clear the bishops don’t believe they’re talking about themselves.

Moving along briskly, the “familial spirituality” part lists all the different religious events families can participate in, notes that families who attend these pilgrimages and festivals are closer and happier and more bonded, offers neither definitions nor evidence to support such claims, and encourages individual parishes to support and publicize such events. Sorry ’bout your families, non-religious people. Should’ve gone to visit a saint’s shrine or venerated a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Chapter II: The Pastoral Challenges of the Family

The first part of this chapter actually made me feel a bit of hope for the whole messy document, because, after all the “perfect Catholic family” cheerleading in prior sections, especially throughout that last chapter, it acknowledges reality:

Some responses show how, in cases where the faith of family members is either weak or non-existent, both the parish and the Church in general are not seen as supportive. This probably comes from a mistaken idea of the Church and her activity due to socio-cultural circumstances, especially where the institution of the family itself is in crisis. In these cases, the ideal of living as a family is viewed as unattainable and frustrating instead of as a possible means for learning how to respond to one’s vocation and mission. Often, when the lay faithful sense the great distance between the ideal of family living and the impossibility of achieving that goal, the couple’s crisis in marriage and the family gradually becomes a crisis in faith.

I would argue that people suspect a lack of support from the Church in general based on an entirely accurate idea of the Church and her activity, but setting that aside, this is spot-on. Finally, they understand that their unattainable ideals of Catholic perfection discourage and alienate mere mortals! Finally, they’re willing to look at the needs of the non-ideal Catholic family, where pilgrimages to saints’ shrines just won’t cut it! Surely that’s what this is about, right? Surely now they’ll get serious about offering advice that’s not tailored to suit the shiny, happy Catholics?

Many respondents point out that a crisis in faith can either lead to failure or be taken as an opportunity for growth and an occasion to discover the deeper meaning of the marriage covenant. In this way, the loss of a sense of meaning, or even the breakdown within a family, can be the means of strengthening the marriage bond. Families, willing to offer support to a couple in this difficult situation, can help them overcome this crisis.

So a crisis in faith can lead a family to overcome the crisis, thereby becoming the ideal Catholic family, or they can fail. Presumably failing means losing faith entirely.

Pretty harsh on the nonbelievers, don’t you think? Keep in mind that some of the faithful will have atheist friends, relatives, parents, children, or spouses who are atheists. The bishops are calling their loved ones failures. Pastoral care, everybody!

The bishops go on to identify a whole host of “critical situations in the family.” Some of these are real issues that I think pretty much everyone could agree deserve attention and care:

  • sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of children;
  • mental, physical, and sexual abuse, mostly of women and children (which the bishops blame on “a false culture based on possessions”);
  • addictions to alcohol and drugs;
  • parental neglect (though it’s hard to tell whether the bishops are referring to genuine neglect or “failure to bring up children in the way we find most appropriate”);
  • the ramifications of misleading information on the Internet;
  • war and interfaith conflict;
  • the effects of economic instability, unemployment, and job insecurity upon the family;
  • poverty and the plight of migrant workers;
  • physical and mental illness.

But again, the Church talks out of both sides of its mouth here. They mouth platitudes about the ills of society while cutting off solutions with their theology. They call for laws to help working mothers balance workplace and familial responsibilities, but offer very few options to women who wish to avoid constant pregnancies. Likewise, they don’t offer a lot of help to poor families striving to limit their children in a context where ill health and lack of resources might make fertility tracking a good deal less reliable. They profess concern about people’s physical and mental health, but when preventative measures arise — whether it’s condoms for AIDS sufferers or gay-straight alliances to combat teen suicide — catechism wins over compassion every single time.

Then there are the other problems they identify, which are a bit more idiosyncratic:

  • sexual promiscuity (not defined, but presumably means “having sex while not married to one’s sex partner”);
  • “a contraceptive mentality,” which leads to abortions;
  • “methods of artificial fertilization”;
  • addiction to pornography (most often defined, in Christian circles, as “any pornography use ever”)
  • “many relationships which do not coincide with the idea of a traditional nuclear family”;
  • media depictions that affirm and normalize such relationships;
  • married partners who are not “open to life”;
  • uncertain gender identity;
  • lack of a father figure (a major cause of uncertain gender identity — citation not provided);
  • reliance on conscience to determine whether something is right or wrong (I guess they want you to look it up in their book instead);
  • individualism, which I think is a code word for “governments passing laws that allow individuals to decide whether or not they’ll have abortions or use birth control.”

That helpful list tells bishops what they need to make sure they’re against, and what to make sure their priests and parishioners are against, too.

Here’s a positive note, though: the one and only point in the document where the bishops acknowledge that the Church itself is one of its own worst enemies based on the way it treats lay Catholics, especially ones who struggle or fail to conform. I’ll just quote it in its entirety because it’s such a gem, and bask:

Responses from almost every part of the world frequently refer to the sexual scandals within the Church and, in general, to a negative experience with the clergy and other persons. Sex scandals significantly weaken the Church’s moral credibility, above all in North America and northern Europe. In addition, a conspicuously lavish lifestyle by some of the clergy shows an inconsistency between their teaching and their conduct. Some lay faithful live and practice their faith in a “showy manner,” failing to display the truth and humility required by the Gospel spirit. The responses lament that persons who are separated, divorced or single parents sometimes feel unwelcome in some parish communities, that some clergy are uncompromising and insensitive in their behavior; and, generally speaking, that the Church, in many ways, is perceived as exclusive, and not sufficiently present and supportive.

It saves so much time and energy when the bishops are so successful at critiquing their religion. They really ought to do it much more often. And maybe try taking their own observations to heart instead of scolding the laity for failing to drop their brains and moral compasses in the gutter before entering.

There are few solutions presented here, but one assumes the Synod of Bishops will discuss potential solutions to the thornier problems when they convene next week.

Chapter III: Difficult Pastoral Situations

This chapter begins by quoting a papal document, Evangelii Gaudium (“the joy of the Gospel”):

The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open… where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.

The chapter then goes on to identify certain groups of people for whom there is no place.

Okay, that’s not actually what it says. But it does identify certain people as living outside of the Church’s moral code and calls on priests everywhere to “bring them healing so that they might continue their journey with the entire ecclesial community.” That sounds like a vaguely tactful way to call out sinners who, barring major life changes, are cruising down the highway to hell.

Let’s look at a few categories in the Vatican’s field guide to sinners:

Cohabitation: Many couples choose to live together without benefit of marriage. For some reason, the Church seems particularly upset that these relationships don’t always end after a “trial period” but sometimes carry on indefinitely. The Church encourages prevention in this case: emphasize chastity before marriage to young adults, teach children to value commitment, and make sure the adults in the parish are setting a good example.

Divorced-and-Remarried People: This situation is euphemistically called “canonically irregular,” but what it really means is that your civil divorce doesn’t count until and unless you get an annulment, so you’re still considered married to your first spouse. That makes your new marriage adultery. As if that’s not unsettling enough, you’re also not permitted to take Communion (which is kind of the centerpiece of every Catholic service). The bishops acknowledge that these couples may suffer greatly when this happens, but they insist: being excluded isn’t really a punishment, however it feels, and you’re still part of the Catholic community even if you’re visibly relegated to second-class status. Besides, there are always options — either reconcile yourself to being excluded from your community’s most important ritual, or never have sex with your new spouse again. So simple!

Divorced-and-Chaste People: Some people resign themselves to living sexless and single after their marriage breaks down. They are still able to take Communion. These “separated and divorced persons who remain faithful to their marriage vows call for the Church’s attention in their situation, which is often lived in loneliness and poverty.” Yikes. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Teen Mothers: The bishops want the Church to be extra nice to these young women, who could’ve had an abortion and didn’t.

Non-practicing Catholics Who Want To Marry In Church: Rather than being a cause for celebration — the prodigals return! — this is an annoyance for a lot of clergy because the couple usually wants the Catholic wedding for bad reasons: pretty wedding photography, nice atmosphere, Grandma will just die if they don’t get married in a church ceremony, and the like. Once the ceremony is over, no matter how welcoming the priests have been, the couple often doesn’t come back. The Church doesn’t seem to see this as an indication that Catholic teaching is in any way off-putting.

The Gay Couple: If priesthood were a video game, and sinners were the bad guys, the gays would be the level-nine boss. Quoting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the bishops say “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” In other words, they don’t even really count as families. Then the CDF goes on to recommend against “unjust discrimination.” Sure, no problem.

The bishops have a lot of concerns about the children of same-sex couples, as well as the children in gay-affirming societies more generally. They seem to fear sex-ed classes leading to some kind of gender apocalypse, where the idea of complementary sexes falls by the wayside and allows men to care for infants and women to become presidents — or priests. (The horror!) What’s more, there’s really no reason to deny adoption to gay couples if children don’t really need opposite-gender parents to develop healthily. To keep men and women firmly ensconced in their limiting sex-role stereotypes, the bishops recommend Catholic sex-ed programs “which offer young people an adequate idea of Christian and emotional maturity to allow them to face even the phenomenon of homosexuality.” (The either/or split between “homosexuality” and “emotional maturity” comes up more than once.)

Nonetheless, the bishops recommend that gay parents wishing to baptize their child Catholic for whatever reason be treated no differently than any other parents seeking baptism for their child, with extra support in cases where they believe “a reasonable doubt [exists] in the capability of persons in a same sex union to instruct the child in the Christian faith, proper support is to be secured in the same manner as for any other couple.”

Except it won’t really be “the same manner as for any other couple,” because the bishops note all kinds of reluctance and resistance to pastoral care for gays. Some respondents express a fear that, if they try to be accepting to gay people, they’ll be seen as condoning homosexuality — heavens forfend! Others worry about making a distinction between “good gays” (who approach their lives with appropriate levels of shame and concealment) and “bad gays” (the out-and-proud kind, the ones who dare to actually like themselves). Of course, those aren’t the terms used in the actual document, in which we’re reminded that we really probably shouldn’t use words like “gay” or “lesbian” at all, lest we confer legitimacy on those identities through our word choice.

Nothing says “we are a warm and accepting faith community” like trying to define somebody else’s identity for them… and then condemning them for it anyway.

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