US theologians, sociologist weigh in on latest out of family synod

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

Reaction to the latest news out of the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family, where attendees issued a report calling for more openness toward nontraditional families and relationships, including gay ones, has been charged, to say the least. On the liberal side of the equation, the words "bombshell" and "earthquake" have been dropped. On the conservative side, the document has been called not just a "heresy," but -- get ready for it -- a "homoheresy."

Yet, for all the bluster, the news itself is essentially that of a series of shifts. A shift in the church's understanding of family life, away from it being a simple matter of church teaching toward a far more complex and nuanced "ecclesial reality." A shift in language, away from alienating and uncaring expressions like "intrinsically disordered" toward more compassionate ways of speaking about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Now, at least, the church recognizes that they have "gifts and qualities."

What do these shifts mean? And what might they signal for the future of the Catholic church in America? NCR asked theologians Julie Hanlon Rubio and Flossie Bourg and sociologist Mary Ellen Konieczny -- all of whom study family life -- to weigh in.

Theologian Flossie Bourg of the Loyola Institute for Ministry, New Orleans, and author of Where Two or Three Are Gathered: Christian Families as Domestic Churches, wrote:

I'm intrigued by the ecumenical analogy in sections 17-20. Similar to so-called "schismatics," "heretics," or "dissident brethren" whom Vatican II invited audiences to see as "separated brethren," various types of individuals and families are described in the Synod text as "wounded (by sin)" and as "fragile," rather than being described as "living in sin" or as simply "irregular" (though that term appears briefly). Vatican II encouraged listening to insights of "separated brethren." Similarly, this text encourages listening to insights shared by people whose families are "wounded" or "fragile." (Is any family unwounded or unbreakable?) Similar to Lumen Gentium 16 which described those who "through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience," the Synod text refers to those whose "familial fragilities ... more often than not, are more 'endured' than freely chosen." Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism states that "The children who are born into these [separated] Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection" (#3). Similarly, the Synod text says that, whatever theological conflicts remain concerning remarried divorcees or same-sex couples, their children should not experience "collateral damage" because of them (#s 47, 52). Similar to Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism, which acknowledged "both sides [including Catholics] were to blame" for separation among Christians (#3), the Synod's text urges Catholics to revise pastoral approaches which alienate some people due to their family backgrounds.

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This Synod text surely emphasizes compassion. I'm curious to see what pastoral initiatives will arise from it. As with poverty and illness, we are challenged as Christians to tend compassionately to the needs of people who are already-wounded and broken. But we're also challenged to examine whether their hardships can be minimized through prudent decisions. As with other issues of community health and stewardship, it's pastorally and politically tricky to propose personal or systemic choices aimed at preventing family fragility. Social scientists and health experts offer insights about choices which increase the likelihood of family stability. Even if they are uncontroversial, people may not be ready to hear or act upon them. People are emotionally invested in their families. Our families are linked to our personal sense of self-worth. We may feel threatened when choices made by ourselves or our loved ones are scrutinized, or when risks are exposed in social systems and customs we take for granted. Inertia can crowd out discernment. We cannot guarantee that any family will be spared serious wounds that call for our compassion. But some wounds are preventable. We need to share "best practices" of ministers "in the trenches" who are persuasive prophets as well as compassionate healers. The Synod is wise to highlight the living testimony of faithful family role models as sources for inspiration and wise discernment. We need compelling role models -- family-oriented saints -- who display the "joy that 'fills the hearts and lives' [when] in Christ we are 'set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness' (Synod #27)."

Mary Ellen Konieczny, a sociologist out of Notre Dame and author of The Spirit's Tether: Family, Work and Religion among American Catholics, wrote:

The emphasis among synod participants upon marriage as an "ecclesial reality" seems to be very much reflected in the Relatio document released [on Oct. 13], especially in the way it deals with the relation of Catholic teachings surrounding the family and mercy.

In the materials that have been publicly released from the synod, we've previously heard the Australian couple who spoke talk about the sacramental reality of marriage as a vocation that is both about family life, and the family's work of Christian mission. They made the point that married couples, especially as parents, necessarily do what the synod document is advocating: they balance the religious beliefs, teachings, and ideals to which they are committed with the need to have compassion and patience with their children, who, like all of us, inevitably make mistakes. In this, spouses living out sacramental marriage are witnesses of Christian living that the entire Church can learn from; and more than cooperators, they can exercise "co-responsibility" with priests and religious within the Church.

The document released by the synod today appears to take up this general theme of sacramental marriage as a vocation and ecclesial reality precisely in this sense. The document affirms the importance of the Church listening to the challenges, problems, pain and woundedness that many Catholics experience in failed or failing marriages, and responding with mercy, as many married couples do in their own lives, with family and friends. But more than that, the document also wants to better recognize, support, and teach that the graces given in sacramental marriage is, in part, so that spouses' Christian living can be a witness from which the entire Church might learn.

So what could an approach like this mean for the intersection of the Catholic Church with American society? Of course, it is perhaps too soon to even hazard a guess. But a Church that places listening to its faithful and seeing marriage as an ecclesial reality has the potential to develop our understanding of marriage as a Christian vocation of witness, such that well married couples may be encouraged and acknowledged to support for those who struggle in marriages (which most all married couples do at times), as well as to develop pastoral responses that combine Church teachings on marriage with mercy and healing.

And from Julie Hanlon Rubio of St. Louis University, author of Family Ethics: Practices for Christians:

The major shifts I see at work in the document released today are these: a willingness to see the diversity of Catholic families and listen to their ideas, a desire to find creative pastoral solutions that allow the church to welcome everyone, and a willingness to see good in the imperfect. All of shifts seem rooted in a more fundamental move to imitate Jesus, especially embracing his call for mercy.

1. Earlier documents of the Vatican, like the recent pastoral of the USCCB on marriage, sometimes seemed blind to the reality of diversity. Positive words could be alienating in their abstractness and negative pronouncements could seem tone-deaf to their potential to hurt. Evident throughout this document is a desire to see real people and listen to them, with a view to understanding how they see themselves.

2. The willingness to follow Pope Francis' call for boldness and creativity at the pastoral level is clear. The bishops are seeking new ways to minister to cohabiting couples, same sex partners, divorced and remarried persons, and couples using contraception. Across the board, one sees a desire to begin with the positive, avoid alienating language, and stop excluding people.

3. Seeing the good in the imperfect means moving beyond black and white categories to the messy reality of people's lives. There is a persistent theme of seeing married couples as a resource who can teach about the reality of the sacrament through testimony and witness. Also, clearly, pastors and families themselves who see grace at work in family situations we have often labeled "irregular" are being heard. Those who wanted a clear message restating Catholic doctrine will be disappointed. Those who have longed for understanding, support, and complexity will rejoice. The tone of EG has made it into our theology of marriage and family in ways that will surprise even the most hopeful Catholics.

Remarking on the concept of married life as an "ecclesial reality," Rubio wrote: "I think the idea of seeing married couples as an 'ecclesial reality' makes some sense, though honestly that language is somewhat more 'churchy' than the language in the document, which is why I like the document so much. Both esoteric sacramental language and abstract natural law language are avoided. I think the idea of learning about marriage as 'lived reality' from couples is better. The whole tone gives evidence that the bishops have studied the responses of Catholics around the world and are trying not just to restate old teachings but to learn something new. They realize they cannot say 'this is truth,' but rather have to encounter 'people's real lives' (#28) and find 'new pastoral paths that begin with the effective reality of familial fragilities' (#40)."


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