Synod bishop expresses concern that prelates lack understanding of family

This story appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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One of the two prelates representing England and Wales at the ongoing global meeting of Catholic bishops has expressed concern that the church leaders are discussing issues of family life but may be limited in their understanding of those issues because of their celibate lifestyles.

Bishop Peter Doyle, who heads the Northampton diocese some 70 miles north of London, said in an interview Saturday he thinks "there is a bit of an issue."

"I thought I understood marriage and family life because I come from a family, because I've ministered for 37 years in a parish," said Doyle. "When I got involved in marriage and family life, I suddenly realized that there was a whole world there that I didn't know."

"I am a little concerned that there is a big area that we don't actually understand," said the bishop.

"Of course, we're bringing the views of everyone," he continued. "But I think it's quite difficult to kind of see things from a family point of view. I think there is a difficulty. I don't think there's any need to avoid that."

Related: Pope tells synod to be open-minded, cardinal says no to divorced and remarried

Doyle was speaking Oct. 3 in a joint NCR interview with him and Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who is head of the bishops' conference of England and Wales and is also attending the Rome meeting.

The meeting, known as a Synod of Bishops, has brought some 318 people to Rome for its Oct. 4-25 deliberations. It is the second of two synods called by Pope Francis for 2014 and 2015 and has been highly anticipated for its expected discussions on a wide range of issues facing families around the world.

Doyle was responding to a question about some who have expressed concern that a meeting focused on family is largely being conducted only by men, as some 279 male priests and prelates have been appointed by Francis as the voting members of the synod.

While there is a small group of women taking part in the discussions as collaborators and auditors, they are not allowed to vote on any final documents or issues.

"It's something I have thought about," the bishop said, responding to the question. "We do see things from a different perspective and something as intimate as marriage and family life I think probably needs both perspectives [male and female] to have a holistic conversation about it."

Nichols, who has led the Catholic archdiocese encompassing London since 2009 and became a cardinal last year, said that the pastors attending the Synod have an obligation to be "carrying the hopes and anxieties and the frustrations of people with us."

"This is not an exchange of opinion among male celibates," said the cardinal. "This is a period of prayer and reflection among the shepherds of the people."

Nichols also pointed to the fact that there will be 17 married couples presenting testimonies to the synod bishops during the meeting and that this year's synod has been organized with more time for small group discussions.

"There will be in every small group married people and women," said Nichols. "And what is to be noted is that this synod is going to spend much, much more time in small groups than any previous synod because this is part two and this is different. We've never seen this before."

"The substance of the work being done in small groups means that the actual voices of family and women will be much more to the fore because they will have a continual role in the small groups, which no person can have in the synod hall because there's so much demand of time," he said.

Nichols and Doyle were speaking in a 20-minute interview on the eve of the opening of the synod. They also touched upon their hopes and expectations for the event, how they respond to those who say church teachings seem outdated, and how they see the role of discussion on sensitive issues in the church.

Noting that Francis' first apostolic exhortation was called The Joy of the Gospel, Nichols said he hoped the end of the 2015 synod might see the pontiff write a new exhortation called The Joy of the Family.

The cardinal also said that the church "has to learn the ways in which so many families express deep commitment and unconditional love for each other."

"Most families ... don't break up simply over difficult behavior from the members," said Nichols. "Every family has difficulties. But most families don't break up over that. They struggle with it, they stick at it, they stay together, they sustain love for each other -- even though they might disagree about ways individual members are behaving."

"It think it's that kind of tough love that is really love … that the church can try and imbue and embody and express to people," he said. "So that they will always know [that] in the church they are loved and in the church expectations are there on them, to do better."

"I know my life is not what it should be," said the cardinal. "I don't mind being challenged every day to do a bit better. In the end, it makes me a better person."

To those who think some church teachings are outdated, Nichols responded: "Some people want to read the Gospel in the light of our contemporary experience. Other people want to read our contemporary experience in the light of the Gospel."

Speaking about the role of discussion in the church, the cardinal said he was reassured by Francis' role in the Synod that their deliberations will be fruitful and not result in disunity among Catholics.

Referring to the pope's address ending the 2014 synod -- in which Francis told the synod prelates that they could rely on him as the "guarantor of unity and harmony in the church" -- Nichols said that was "the most remarkable papal address that I've ever heard, without a doubt."

"What he said was you can speak here freely, you can speak with courage, you can speak with passion, and you can do all of that because I am here," said the cardinal.

"The Holy Spirit is the harmony of the church ... and the gift of the papacy is the work of the Holy Spirit," said Nichols. "So he said speak freely because the pope is here as the guarantee of the unity of the church."

"Anyone who thinks that this Holy Father is somehow papal-light, they don't understand him," said the cardinal. "He's got a very, very clear and strong understanding of the role that God has given him. And I've no doubt at all that that is the great security."

"I go into this synod quite peacefully, precisely because of those words," said Nichols. "There is no debating chamber in the world that has that gift."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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