The consultation process for the 2014 Synod on the Family deserves our close attention because it may become a model for future synods, says Garry Everett.
BY Garry Everett
I cannot recall in my life a time when the Vatican asked the laity directly for their views on any matter affecting the universal Church. I do recall, sighing wistfully, that the bishops never consulted the laity about any synod which they were attending. The recent Synod on Evangelisation is a good example.
So it was a complete surprise when Archbishop Baldisseri, the Secretary of the Vatican Synod of Bishops, said recently “The consultation must gather information from the grassroots…”. The October 2014 Synod on the Family may be historic for this reason alone.
The consultation process deserves our close attention because it may become a model for future synods.
The consultation instrument, or survey, was designed by experts, according to Baldisseri. It was sent to bishops only with a request that the laity be consulted. Herein we encounter the first of many procedural problems.
The survey is couched in language we might call “Vaticanese”, with many references to philosophico-theological matters beyond the experience of most lay Catholics. This led some bishops to translate the survey, with the result that one could never be sure whether respondents were answering the same questions.
Secondly, some dioceses advertised the survey widely, while some did not. Some advertisements were online which probably disadvantaged those who do not have ready access to computers. Some parishes had never heard of the survey; some parishes held discussion groups, and some did not. This rather ad hoc set of ways of dealing with the survey, naturally led to another difficulty.
Thirdly, it is impossible to know at this stage what is represented by a parish response. Is it the views of the majority who attended the discussions? Did those who attended constitute a minority of the parishioners or a larger percentage of the congregation? What happened to dissenting views? Finally, when all the parish replies were collated, what conclusions might be drawn from the variety of replies? I will take up this question as part of my comments on the next problem.
Fourthly, in some, perhaps all dioceses, there were replies from small groups and individuals which were not sent to the diocesan bishop. There was a capacity to send the replies directly to Archbishop Baldisseri in Rome. It is always difficult to gauge the weight to be given to these replies, in terms of their importance. They might be small in number, but may have very valid and significant comments to offer. Hopefully the expert panel considering all the replies will find a way to deal with these non-diocesan contributions which is technically defensible and affords justice in the process.
Aside from the procedural problems, I can identify a few specific issues which were the subject of much discussion in the various real and online groups in which I participated.
Issue 1: Many people noted that there is no definition or description of the term “family” which is at the heart of the survey. There does appear to be an assumption that the term equates to the nuclear family – mother, father and their biological children. If this is the case, then it is unfortunate. The modern world recognises a wide acceptance of the term family: blended, which has parents who share the child-raising of non-biological children; homosexual families, in which children are raised by two fathers or two mothers; families in which the children are the result of IVF processes, and hence may not be biological offspring of the parents; and single-parent families. The assumption that the Christian model of family is somehow normative in the world today is a rather limiting approach for the survey to adopt.
Issue 2: Nowhere in the survey do we find the word “love” mentioned. There is no acknowledgement that in families many serious decisions are based on some form of love. Again, it seems to be assumed that Catholic couples make their decisions based on the Church’s formal teachings about the family. The reality is probably quite different. The experience of the awe and power of human love is often the primary motivation for the actions that occur in most families.
Issue 3: The section dealing with Natural Law assumes a philosophical and theological literacy that is not common among the laity. The survey asks a series of questions about how Natural Law affects aspects of society, families, civil institutions, marriage, and even non-practising Catholics. Most lay Catholics would find it difficult, if not impossible to answer such questions.
Issue 4: The survey also assumes that the laity has a deep, integrated understanding of the Vatican documents relevant to Catholic teaching about families. It will not be surprising to learn that this is not the case, and that in fact, significant catechesis on the family has been lacking for many decades. The laity, in general, has only a passing knowledge of the documents referred to in the survey. One major reason for this is that the documents are written in a mainly esoteric and inaccessible style.
So what might be the outcomes of the October Synod on the Family? Here are four possible outcomes.
Outcome 1: The Synod will call for a re-expression of the Church’s teachings on the family. This will lead to the teachings being more closely aligned to the experiences of people’s lives. The teachings will also be expressed in a language that the ordinary lay Catholic can access and understand.
Outcome 2: The Synod will call for a new and improved catechesis on the family, to include new material from the secular (for example, psychological) sciences about the priority given to love in the lives of families. This new material will strengthen the existing teaching and, perhaps, even bring such teaching up to date for contemporary times.
Outcome 3: The Synod may decide to continue or discontinue the process of consulting the laity on synodal matters. A statistically large response would encourage the Vatican to try this approach again. A statistically small reply from the world’s lay Catholics might raise serious concerns. It could signal a lethargy or a disinterest on the part of the laity in what the Vatican says or does about any matter to do with Catholicism. The Vatican may not wish to use consultation with the laity again.
Outcome 4: The Synod may encounter a “reception” problem. When the outcomes are announced, the faithful must decide their response. How teachings are received is a vitally important part of the Church’s life. At present, the hierarchy of the Church has lost a great deal of credibility when speaking about love, sex, power and relationships. The faithful will require that this credibility be restored before new teachings are embraced. Handled well, the Synod could be a vehicle to help in that restoration process.
As US Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister, wrote recently: “Self knowledge is the key to self development. But first we must be willing to admit to ourselves the difference between what we are and what we want to be”.