US sister-auditor: Synod shows cultural divide between bishops, laypeople

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

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The discussions at the ongoing Synod of Bishops have shown a clear difference in mindsets between the prelates considering issues of family life and ordinary Catholics looking to the gathering in hopes for changes in church pastoral practice, one of the non-voting participants in the event has said.

U.S. Sacred Heart of Mary Sr. Maureen Kelleher -- who is taking part in the Oct. 4-25 synod as one of 32 women serving in non-voting roles alongside the 270 prelate-members -- said there is a clear cultural divide between bishops' and laypersons' points of view.

"There's such a culture here and a common background," said Kelleher, speaking in an NCR interview. "These men have all pretty much studied together through formation and onward -- [and] are very steeped in the magisterium and the canons and the different papal documents that have come out and have formed them."

"And they're very, very -- well, they're in pain I think to deal with the pastoral situation and reaching for particularly the remarried after divorce in a way that would be accompanying them ... and yet being faithful to their understanding of Jesus' sentences on divorce and its consequences," she continued.

"I am watching people who have been very formed and steeped in language and concepts really trying to reach for a way that won't confuse us faithful laity and will be sensitive and yet be faithful to everything they believe," said Kelleher.

"I am watching a faith community in a tangle, in a knot, and I don't know what's going to happen when the pope gets this product," she said, referring to the final document the synod is expected to write and then give to Pope Francis.

Kelleher, a civil attorney who has specialized in working with low-income clients and was a founding member of the Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK, was speaking in a 30-minute interview Monday about her experience serving as an auditor at the synod.

Auditors are allowed to attend and participate in the synod discussions but not to vote on any final document or issues. Among the auditors at this synod are 17 individuals and 17 married couples. Thirteen of the individual auditors are women, including Kelleher and two other religious sisters.

Two of the 23 collaborators at the synod -- non-voting participants helping guide discussions with their experience in special competencies -- are also women.

In her interview Monday, Kelleher spoke most about the cultural divides she is seeing in the synod's deliberations. She contrasted themes and topics frequently brought up at the meeting with those that might be brought up by laypeople, giving the example of the crowds Francis encounters each Wednesday during his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square.

"It's very clear that the folks in the Square are faith-filled and see Pope Francis as Jesus' representative," said the woman religious. "I feel in the [synod] group a band of brothers who've had common formation and, deeply, they want to be loyal to past teachers and documents and their language and some of their concepts are not known in St. Peter's Square."

Kelleher spoke in the interview both of her experience in the synod's open sessions and in her small discussion group, one of 13 such groups meeting during the gathering according to language preference.

The woman religious' synod group is being co-led by Canadian Cardinal Thomas Collins and U.S. Archbishop Charles Chaput. U.S. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and U.S. Archbishop Jose Gomez are also members of the group.

Kelleher said she has faced some difficulty in the group. While she said she feels free to talk to any of the members in a friendly manner during coffee breaks, there are also "times that I have felt the condescension so heavy, you could cut it with a knife."

"I see a high level of non-acceptance of us as holding up half the sky," she said, referring to some bishops' difficulty in working with women.

"It's very clear that I'm not speaking with one iota of formation on some of the teachings that have formed these men in the seminary," said Kelleher. "Some of it is, 'Oh, here comes the bleeding heart. Well, she's a woman what else would you expect?', kind of thing."

Asked about the interplay between the church's understanding of mercy and justice -- sometimes seen as opposite approaches to how bishops should handle difficult situations like pastoring to divorced and remarried persons -- Kelleher said she thought that "being so faithful to the law is to constrict the Spirit."

"The Spirit can come through and surprise you and turn things upside down and open up things that were settled, so to speak," she said. "I have to wonder: Is the church so in tradition that when newness is afoot, and it’s afoot in the street with the experience of the people, are we missing it?"

Kelleher also spoke about her work with undocumented immigrants in the U.S. as an analogy to the bishops' discussions over how the church should handled divorced and remarried persons.

"When the undocumented come across our border, that's the misdemeanor," she said. "It's not a continuing misdemeanor everyday. And in their analysis of the marriage to the second partner, in this synod very clearly is the wrestling with their understanding that everyday he or she stays with the second partner ... he or she is sinning every single day."

"I really wish we'd get to an understanding that marriage is all about commitment -- deep, 'I am there for you. My life will be for you. And we will work together like partners,' " she said.

"When the second relationship comes and he or she breaks the first relationship, that's the real crux of the matter," said Kelleher. "And I would love to get to a point where we would understand that to be the rupture and what goes on when he or she goes home at night with the second partner would be understood as just like the undocumented in the U.S."

Kelleher also commented on the process of discussions taking place at the synod, saying the prelates might find it helpful to adapt some of the methods used by U.S. women religious in their own deliberations.

The lawyer particularly suggested that the synod have more time for members to prayerfully reflect on things they have heard from one another, and consider also having lecture time with experts on key issues so each of the members has a shared experience to draw on.

In this synod, for example, Kelleher said the members could have benefitted from scripture scholars giving context to different portions of the New Testament dealing with marriage -- particularly the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel on Mark that are said to prohibit divorce.

"It would be very interesting to have a couple of people who have read the original, whether it was Aramaic or Greek, talk about the words, talk about the context, so that we're all walking with a real understanding," said Kelleher.

"That would be very helpful, to have us go through a common input session and then wrestle with it in light of our individual realities where we're coming from," she said.

Kelleher also said she had been challenged by some at the synod who do not believe our understanding of the Catholic faith can grow.

"The revelation of God continues," she said. "Because we are pilgrim people, we are not fixed in cement. We will continually grow in knowledge of what is our faith."

"I get sometimes the feeling like it's a suitcase, it's been packed, it's finished, you go and you pull out what you need," she said. "I just don't see that. We do grow. Our God is still full of surprises and we're continuing growing and understanding the mystery of it all."

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

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