The Synod on the Family - journeying into the unknown
And it has been “a journey” – and like every journey there were moments of running fast, as if wanting to conquer time and reach the goal as soon as possible; other moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say “enough”; other moments of enthusiasm and ardour. There were moments of profound consolation listening to the testimony of true pastors, who wisely carry in their hearts the joys and the tears of their faithful people. Moments of consolation and grace and comfort hearing the testimonies of the families who have participated in the Synod and have shared with us the beauty and the joy of their married life. A journey where the stronger feel compelled to help the less strong, where the more experienced are led to serve others, even through confrontations. And since it is a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations ... (Pope Francis, Speech at the Conclusion of the Synod)In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis contrasts the politics of time with the politics of space. The politics of space is utopian, driven by a sense of urgency, seeking to achieve instantaneous fulfilment and therefore always short-term, frozen in time and vulnerable to abuses of power. The politics of time allows for transformation through growth, for change as a process, for acceptance of limitation and finitude, for the seeding of ideas and their gradual nourishment in people's hearts and minds, and in our institutions.
The Synod is a beautiful example of this wisdom at work, with its unfolding of a vision conceived in intense struggle, conflict, disagreement and commitment, that now has a year to germinate and begin to grow. The seeds of change have been sown. Now the whole community of God's prolific, diverse and unruly family must create the fertile soil in which these seeds might eventually bear fruit. That is the soil of prayer and reflection, of lectio divina - prayerful meditation on what the scriptures are saying to us. It is also the soil of open and honest dialogue, among people responsive to Pope Francis's call to travel audaciously to the wild frontiers of faith, and to resist the temptation to domesticate those frontiers and turn them into a laboratory for the analysis of abstract truths.
The Synod document has been published in Italian, with an English translation expected soon. Pope Francis's final speech to the Synod received a standing ovation. Many are expressing disappointment that, in the end, the tentative and pastorally sensitive paragraphs on divorce and remarriage, on those in 'irregular relationships', and on welcoming persons with a homosexual orientation that found space in the interim document were not included in the final version of the Relatio Synodi. However, in the remarkable spirit of openness that has characterised this whole Synod, the excluded paragraphs have still been published. It is worth nothing that, while they did not achieve the two thirds majority which would have allowed them to be included in the official document, they nevertheless received a significant majority of votes. (The paragraph on homosexuality failed to be included by only two votes). You can read them here with a tally of the votes. There is a delicious paradox at work in all this, because if one publishes the excluded paragraphs in a working document, in what meaningful sense can one possibly say they have been excluded? Everything is up for discussion. Nothing is set in stone. Nothing has, in fact, been excluded.
Until the election of Pope Francis, it would have been almost impossible to imagine an event like this happening in the Church in our time. The sclerosis of authoritarianism, the censoriousness of the CDF, the sense of scandal, corruption, cowardice and defensiveness infecting the hierarchy, these were all signs of a Church suffering from a profound sickness of the soul that would surely take generations to heal, if it were not - as some would argue - a church in terminal decline. When Francis was elected, many of us were as incredulous as we were elated, and that incredulity quickly gave rise to scepticism. He is a master rhetorician, a consummate story teller who intuitively understands the power of symbols and gestures to transform beautiful words into deeply moving and meaningful acts of solidarity, compassion and humour. But is there any more to him than that? Is it all style and no substance?
And now, Francis has opened the flood gates. All that was silenced, forbidden and hidden in the name of a burdensome and oppressive conformity can and must be said. The Church faces a year in which each and every one of us must take the opportunity we are being offered. This means entering into dialogue, tearing up the labels, disregarding hierarchical privileges and punishments, and becoming a community of disciples who are willing to go barefoot into the wilderness in order to struggle together to water the seeds of hope and nurture the tender shoots of new beginnings.
Challenging though these issues are, the monumental failure of this Synod has been the absence of women capable of representing the vast plurality and diversity of women's lives and struggles in the context of the family. Where are those who would speak for some 800 of the world's poorest women who die every day for want of obstetric care, including those dying from botched abortions? Where are those who would speak for the grandmothers of Africa, raising children orphaned by AIDS? Where are those who would speak for the mothers of the Philippines, leaving their children in the care of others so that they can go and care for the children of the wealthy in a strange land? Where are those who would speak for girls deprived of education and freedom by religious and political regimes which have yet to recognise them as fully human? Where are those who would have turned their attention on that absurd gathering of celibate men and demanded a greater voice for women at all levels of the Church's life?
Women have spoken only as wives and mothers, as one half of a couple carefully selected for its conformity to the Church's vision of 'the family'. This is not to deny that a number of them raised issues concerning those who might be in 'irregular relationships' or who might have gay children, but even so, these couples were speaking as and for the normative and narrow model of what it means to be a Catholic family. That makes it vital that many others speak out during this coming year - single people, including single parents; elderly people, including the bereaved or abandoned; the divorced and remarried; childless couples - I could go on and on. But what about those who have no voice, including the very old and the very young? What about those dying in solitude for want of love, in lonely and neglected homes or in prisons and ghettoes where solitude is an impossible luxury? What of those for whom 'family' is an unending daily grind of hunger, homelessness, violence and despair? What of those for whom 'family' is an impossible dream of wholeness woven against a shattered background of broken promises and hopes betrayed? Often, it is women and girls - as mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, siblings - who are in the front line of these situations as both victims and carers. They are the experts, the voices of authority. These are the voices that must be heard during the coming year.
Another vital and related challenge is that of bridging the gulf between the West and the rest, and this will require recognising that the Church truly is a living body that flourishes through unity in diversity. But what is the cost of unity, and how much diversity can be accommodated? That is a challenge to all sides.
By the end of the Synod, it was clear that the African bishops in particular had staked their claim to a say in the Church's teachings, and it was in no small part due to their influence that issues of homosexuality were sidelined. Africa is now home to 130 million of the world's Catholics, and the African Church is a vibrant and flourishing source of material as well as spiritual support to some of the poorest and most marginalised people on earth. It is also home to a burgeoning middle class and to an educated intellectual elite. It is impossible to speak in general terms about 'Africa', for it is a continent that is geographically, culturally, linguistically and religiously more diverse and multi-facetted than Europe. It is true that the fault lines which run through the Church around issues of sexual ethics are by and large those which divide western liberals from Catholics of the global South, but we should not forget that that means that women and oppressed minorities, including gays and lesbians and those belonging to minority religious and ethnic communities, can suffer even more harshly at the hands of those who embody frozen ideas of 'culture' and 'tradition', usually rooted in powerful patriarchal hierarchies.
Let me suggest that, in facing these challenges, we might follow Francis and unify all our endeavours in this mighty time of risk and opportunity around the question of inclusion and exclusion, not on grounds of sexual orientation or marriage, but on grounds of economic justice. As a feminist, I am increasingly aware of the gulf that is growing between socially-minded feminists whose first priority is justice for women who are victims of poverty, violence and various forms of displacement and alienation, and those who are more preoccupied with glass ceilings and career opportunities. If a woman smashes the glass ceiling to get to the top of the economic or political ladder and sends a lacerating shower of injustice down upon women still trapped on the ground, it achieves nothing worth having. (What did Margaret Thatcher do for women)? I think there is an analogy with campaigns for LGBTQ rights.
The LGBTQ community - and really, I think we are talking about gay men, for the voices of women tend to be muffled here too - has the distinct advantage of attracting the attention of the western media as no other group or topic can. Just look at how that issue has been covered to the exclusion of every other issue discussed during the Synod. Can those who enjoy sexual rights - fragile and contested though they often are - use that powerful voice to speak on behalf of all those whose rights are denied, and not just on behalf of their own particular community of exclusion?
If we can find consensus on issues of social and economic justice, then we can ask in what ways women and gay people are particularly affected by injustices that stem from poverty, lack of education, sexual abuse and stigmatisation. But if we focus instead on carte blanche issues of women's rights or gay rights, we risk promoting an agenda heavily biased towards a liberal western elite which, let's face it, in fifty years of gradually accumulated individual rights, including sexual rights, has done nothing to turn the tide of social and economic injustice. On the contrary. The era of individual rights in the West has been accompanied by the rise of a political system that is utterly servile to corporate interests and bereft of any vision of justice or the common good. It has produced a generation of children starved of the most fundamental levels of love and security - not all of them born into material poverty - and a generation of old people abandoned in care homes in helpless dependence on indifferent strangers. In other words, the era of individual rights has been a triumph of the politics of space over the politics of time - of avaricious individualism which wants it all and wants it now, over the virtuous pursuit of the good life which knows that the other side of 'all for one' is 'one for all'.
Archbishop Jos Kaigama of Nigeria spoke eloquently at the Synod about Africa's coming of age. He said that Africa does not need international organizations imposing their western ideas and policies, including their liberal sexual ethics, on African cultures and traditions. That does not necessarily mean he speaks for all Africans. For many Africans, including many, many African women, those cultures and traditions have been promoted and defended by powerful male elites in a way that has ridden roughshod over the needs and rights of the ordinary people. But the Archbishop was surely right when he insisted that what Africa needs is access to education and economic justice. If we ignore these needs by speaking as if sexual rights come before every other right, we should not be surprised if a rift opens up between the West and the rest.
In the coming year, can we find a common language that takes its cue from the lives of the powerless, the excluded and the poor? Let's examine every claim for inclusion, rights and justice in the light of those lives and ask what it means for them. Let's speak not for those experiencing poverty and exclusion (for that only increases the silencing and exclusion), but with them. Let's ensure that their voices are part of the conversation. Then I believe that we can go forward in a dialogue of mutual respect and trust as we grope towards a better understanding of what it means to discover unity in diversity, truth in vulnerability, love in the midst of this kaleidoscopic way of becoming and remaining human that we call 'the family'. It is in these messy, conflicted and committed relationships of our origins and endings, our tending and mending, that the love of God is ever incarnate among us in vulnerability, trust and hope.