Where are the Families at the Catholic Synod on the Family?

When Catholic bishops from around the world gather at the Vatican to discuss the challenges facing Catholic families (October 5-14), Catholics who actually live in families will be sparsely represented. Of the 253 participants at the Synod, only 14 married couples have been invited and they do not appear to be representative of the diversity of Catholic families. As Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland says, there is “just something profoundly wrong and skewed” about celibate males drafting guidelines about sexuality, marriage and family life. Furthermore, only 24 women will be at the Synod and they will not have any voting rights. This hardly reflects Pope Francis’ call for “a more incisive female presence in the Church”. Decisions in the Catholic Church, from electing a pope to offering moral guidelines, are made by ordained men – despite an abundance of qualified Catholic women and lay men. The Catholic church simply cannot live up to its call to be a beacon of justice when it is hiding the voices and the gifts of so many of its members ‘under a bushel’.

From the outset, a faulty process of information gathering has hampered the Synod. Despite the Vatican’s call for wide input from “local sources”, the questionnaire designed to capture this information was inconsistently disseminated by bishops and seriously flawed. The questions seemed to assume that with better instruction on Church teaching, (such as the ban on contraception, homosexual relationships, and the exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics from communion) Catholics would embrace the rules. There are many Catholics who understand full well the Church’s teaching on issues of sexuality and marriage, however after discernment, they question or reject it. Many do so on the basis of a belief in the primacy of an informed conscience and respect for the dignity of all human persons. If the Vatican’s recently published working paper is any indication, the Synod may be an exercise in reemphasizing current teachings rather than reevaluating them.

It is disappointing that existing Church mechanisms for broader input were not utilized. Diocesan synods would have given families in parishes an opportunity to be heard. These discussions could then have continued with national synods being held in each country. The Church permits up to 50% of these gatherings to be comprised of ordinary Catholics, albeit their role is consultative only. Regarding Catholic families, Church leaders would do well to adopt a principle from the world of patient advocacy: “Nothing about us, without us.”

Given this state of affairs, faithful Catholics around the world have taken their own initiative to organize conversations about the challenges facing families. Catholic Church Reform International hosted regional gatherings, wrote letters, created petitions and developed position papers that they have shared with the Vatican. They will also host a public Forum on the Family in Rome, just prior to the Synod.

In Canada, the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality, (CNWE) held group conversations across the country, to reflect on our lived experience of faith formation, gender and sexuality, marriage and family life. These conversations revealed a rich diversity of Catholic experience and understanding and the summary report has been shared with participants, posted on the CNWE website and sent to Archbishop Durocher, the Canadian delegate to the Synod in Rome.

As a network of Canadian Catholics working for justice and equality for women in the Catholic Church and in the world for over 30 years, we know that our concerns often fall on deaf ears among our Church leaders. We continue our advocacy for change, however, because institutions that perpetuate sexism in the world are also complicit in perpetuating the oppression of poor and marginalized women, often with tragic consequences for them and for their children. Our solidarity with those around the world working for reform in the Catholic church gives us hope for human flourishing in the light of the Gospel. We work to recover the original Greek meaning of the word ‘synod’, which is “to walk the road together”. A broadly inclusive, accountable and collaborative Catholic church leadership will need to be the new path.

Mary Ellen Chown, Cathy Holtmann,

Members of the National Work Group,

Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (cnwe.org), Canada.

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