Synod on the family proves that father still knows best

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Jamie Manson

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Anyone who regularly reads Pope Francis' speeches quickly realizes that he hasn't met a metaphor he doesn't like. In his closing address of the Synod of Bishops, he used two images for the church that seemed to capture the imagination of several commentators. "And this is the church ... ," Francis said, "the fertile mother and the caring teacher."

Though both metaphors are lovely, they also seem to strain under the weight of the reality that they were intended to signify.

Consider the circumstances of the synod fathers. The "fertile mother" is made up solely of men -- men whose authority is based on their capacity to be both male and (in theory, at least) celibate.

These men are spending the next two years contemplating teachings that deeply affect women (marriage, family, contraception, domestic violence). Yet women have never had a role in creating these doctrines, they continue to have no voice in developing these doctrines, and, in the end, they will not have a vote in deciding whether these doctrines have a future.

Add to that the unseemly, if not deeply pathological, reality that a significant number of these bishops, who cannot decide whether gays and lesbians have gifts to offer to the church, are themselves closeted gay men.

The mother and teacher metaphors might be more apt if the mother weren't so dysfunctional and the teacher weren't teaching from a place of deep deprivation.

Nevertheless, NCR columnist Thomas Reese in his commentary on the synod last week found these images helpful in explaining why the synod fathers may have struggled with some discord during their two-week meeting.

"The bishops as pastors faced a fundamental conflict: How to have the church be a loving mother while at the same time being a clear teacher. Every parent can relate to that problem," Reese writes.

For all the reported division among the bishops, I'm sure most of them would agree with Reese's sentiment. My question about the synod is: Can the hierarchy reach a point where they no longer see themselves as parents and the laity as children?

For all of the good press the synod document received, I have been struck by a particular presupposition that ran throughout the bishops' statement: The church may be a mother and a teacher, but in the end, father still knows best.

The synod document admitted that "irregular" relationships (like civil marriages, cohabitation, or even same-sex couples) may have some "positive elements." But ultimately, the hierarchy still deems these relationships "imperfect." Why? Because according to the bishops, only a sacramental marriage between one man and one woman in which contraception is never used and in which all acts of sex are "open to life" can be coherently faithful to the sacrament. (Let's be honest: How many sacramentally married Catholic couples fit that bill?)

Throughout the document, the bishops express their desire that all Catholics will gradually become awakened to the truth and beauty of Catholic teachings on family life. For the cohabitating and civilly married, that means getting sacramentally married. For same-sex couples, that means never getting married (and, very likely, learning to live celibately).

Pope Francis essentially said as much during an audience over the weekend:

Can everything be called a family? How many families are divided, how many marriages are broken, how much relativism there is in the concept of the Sacrament of Marriage. ... What they are proposing is not marriage, it is an association, but it is not marriage! It is necessary to say things very clearly and we must say this! ... They are new forms, totally destructive and limiting of the grandeur of the love of matrimony.

The synod document depicts laypeople as lost sheep in profound need of the bishops' pastoral guidance on issues of sexuality, marriage and family. Paragraph 23 of the statement encapsulates this:

Imitating Jesus' merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm. 

J.R.R. Tolkien once reminded us that "not all those who wander are lost." I would argue that if anyone needs guidance at this point in history, it is the bishops who need to be shepherded by the laity.

Many bishops have spent the last three decades remaining silent on issues related to the family or silencing those who dared to question the institutional church's teachings on sexuality. In the meantime, Catholic theologians, ethicists and laypeople have been pursuing deeper inquiries, listening to concrete human experiences, and developing contemporary moral frameworks grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Many laypeople have already cultivated their own capacity for moral discernment; they have exercised their God-given gift of conscience; they have managed to grow spiritually without institutional church's constant instruction; they have found that their relationships, which the bishops would label "irregular," are, in fact, deeply sacramental. The synod document suggests that the bishops aren't ready to treat the faithful like the mature adults they've become.

Francis wants the bishops to love us, guide us, and be merciful to us. But do any of these bishops want to hear the truths that Catholic laypeople have discerned and discovered in their own theological reflections on their lives? Or do they simply want to continue to treat laypeople who live in "imperfect" relationships (that is, the vast majority of Catholics) as misguided children in need of a parent or teacher?

One of the unfortunate repercussions of the having a popular pope is that the conversation about the empowerment of the laity seems to have taken a backseat. On issues related to sexuality and the family, the voice of the laity, in all of its diversity, could not be more crucial.

The parent/child dynamic was never meant to be permanent. Eventually, children become adults, and their relationships with their parents must mature and change. The People of God have grown up. They are beyond ready to be spoken to and listened to as adults. The synod process will reveal whether the hierarchy is willing to grow with them.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Jamie Manson's column, "Grace on the Margins," is posted to Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 21-Dec 4, 2014 print issue under the headline: Synod on the family proves that father still knows best.

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