Monday, June 30, 2014

The Vatican Document on the Pastoral Challenges of Family: Problematic Framing of Its "Communication" of "the Gospel of the Family"

Suppose you are, God forbid, in a difficult spot with your spouse of many years, and you both agree to resort to couples counseling to try to sort out your problems. You're convinced that he doesn't listen. He's certain that he's a very skilled listener. This presents a serious problem for both of you, this breakdown in communication, with the obstinate certainty of one of you that he listens and listens well, and your strong sense that you're, in fact, not really being heard at all.

You go to your counselor for your initial session. You talk, your spouse talks. You listen, he listens.

You feel relief at having spilled out your anguish, your frustrations, your hopes and your fears. You've shared out of your depths.

You return for your next session. As you sit down with the counselor, your spouse smiles broadly, produces a lengthy document with a big flourish, and says, "You see. I do listen. Here's what you said in the first session."

And then he proceeds to read his obsessive laundry list of every word you uttered — a list that totally misses the entire point of the previous session, in which you had thought that heart spoke to heart, as you poured your heart out to your spouse with the counselor facilitating the process.

Your spouse heard. He heard the words you spoke.

But he failed completely to hear: he failed to hear the words beneath the words. He did so because, at some level, he's adamantly convinced that he already knows, that he listens carefully, loves well, and really doesn't need these pesky intervention sessions, which only distract from his real task of taking good care of you and helping instruct you in the proper way to live (which is to say, his way).

His laundry list of every word you uttered both captures the bare words you spoke and spectacularly, wildly misses the point of everything you said. It misses the most fundamental point of all you sought to communicate in your first session with him.

Can you envisage such a thing happening? I can. 

Especially after I've finally plowed through the new aptly called instrumentum laboris prepared by the Vatican to facilitate "communication" at the upcoming synod on the family . . . . This "instrument" was prepared using the many responses that the Vatican received from around the world when it asked bishops and the laity to submit answers to a questionnaire about issues ranging from family life to contraception to divorce to same-sex marriage.

We layfolks spoke, in many parts of the world.

But this document does not give me the impression that the leaders of the church have really listened to what we had to say. Certainly the document hobbles together a rather impressive (though, I suspect, highly select) laundry list of what we layfolks said when we submitted our answers to the questionnaire.

But our responses are hobbled together in a higgledy-piggledy fashion that has little rhyme nor reason to it, since the document assures us from the outset that the leaders of the church already know what they need to know about the topics we had hoped to discuss with them. And our responsibility is to hear them tell us what they already know, since we, poor feckless fools that we are, just simply don't quite understand the intricacies of church teaching about these matters.

There is, in other words, a framing issue at stake from the outset in this instrumentum laboris, and it's a not inconsiderable one. It's one that threatens to vitiate the very objective many of us had supposed the Vatican had in mind when it solicited our input prior to the synod on the family — that is, to facilitate communication between the pastoral leaders of the church and lay Catholics.

This framing issue is all the more critical because the entire document, the whole instrumentum laboris, is framed quite precisely from its opening chapter as a document that is about "communicating the Gospel of the Family in today's world." The preface preceding chapter one opens with the statement,

The proclamation of the Gospel of the Family is an integral part of the mission of the Church, since the revelation of God sheds light on the relationship between a man and a woman, their love for each other and the fruitfulness of their relationship. 

This is, then, a document about communicating the gospel. It's a document about the proclamation of the gospel.

It's a document about sharing good news, that is to say. The good news it seeks to communicate and proclaim centers on an interesting neologism (since this phrase is not a deeply traditional one in Catholic teaching): "the Gospel of the Family." Which is tied to "the relationship between a man and a woman.". . . These are thematic emphases of the document to which I'll pay attention in a subsequent posting.

For now, I want to point to what appears to me to be a well-nigh insuperable problem built into this Vatican document from the outset: it stresses communication (literally, "becoming one with") and proclamation. And it notes that what it wants to communicate and proclaim is good news.

But what's not at all is clear is to whom the proclamation of good news is being directed. Or, to put the point differently, what's not at all clear in this document is where the good news the church wants to proclaim to the world about "the gospel of the family" is to be found. Does it reside among the laity as well as among the ordained? Is the communication mutual, a sharing of good news from one sector of the church to another?

Or is it unilateral and hierarchical, with one group envisaged as the passive receiver and the other as the active giver? Do the impassioned communications submitted by Catholic laity to the Vatican questionnaire on the family count for anything at all, in the final analysis, as the good news of "the Gospel of the Family" is communicated to . . . us? Them? The world at large?

Again and again, the way in which the instrumentum laboris treats these matters makes plain that, for the Vatican officials preparing the document, the communication going on here is almost exclusively a one-way street: it's a matter of "the Church" (i.e., church officials) speaking, and the rest of us listening. The good news about the Gospel of the Family resides firmly in the hands of ordained celibate men, and the obligation of the rest of us is to listen respectfully to those ordained celibate men as they communicate and proclaim the good news to the rest of us.

Though we actually live family and they don't . . . . And so it would appear, on the face of it, that we the people of God might have more to communicate about family to them than they to us.

The point I'm making here is glaringly obvious in the many references the instrumentum laboris makes to the need of the people of God to be "guided" by the ordained celibate men entrusted (as they insist) with the task of communicating the good news of the Gospel of the Family to the rest of us. For instance, as the document deals with the question of families of same-sex couples, it observes (§ 118),

The great challenge will be to develop a ministry which can maintain the proper balance between accepting persons in a spirit of compassion and gradually guiding them to authentic human and Christian maturity.

You see what's missing here, don't you? There's absolutely no suspicion of any awareness that the ordained celibate men who "guide" the rest of us might have something to learn about compassion and authentic human and Christian maturity —about family — from those they "guide." There's not a whisper of any consciousness that the self-proclaimed "guides" might benefit from being guided themselves, especially as they weigh in on matters about which they have no experiential knowledge at all, while those they are "guiding" are rich in experience about these matters.

As the instrumentum laboris considers "the family and the vocation of the person in Christ," it notes that real-life families encounter real-life problems that might have significant bearing on what "the Gospel of the Family" really means in the world today, and how this good news about family might be effectively communicated in the world today. But, strangely enough, those real-life problems encountered by real-life families are not envisaged by the document as teaching moments for the church itself, or, quite specifically, teaching moments for the church's pastors in which real-life families might have something of importance to communicate to those pastors: instead, they're seen as occasions for "the Church" to step in and offer "guidance" as it proclaims the Gospel of the Family to families (§ 31):

Real-life situations, stories and multiple trials demonstrate that the family is experiencing very difficult times, requiring the Church’s compassion and understanding in offering guidance to families "as they are" and, from this point of departure, proclaim the Gospel of the Family in response to their specific needs.

Something is clearly wrong-headed about this way of framing the "communication" and "proclamation" problem with which this document wants to deal, isn't it? Especially when that problem is about communicating and proclaiming good news.

I suspect that a large percentage of lay Catholics who had hoped we were communicating with our pastoral leaders when we submitted our responses to the questionnaire that issued in this document aren't going to find much good news at all in the document. Because it repeatedly glosses over what we actually said in order to tell us what we should have said — if we had only stretched ourselves to listen more carefully to the instructions that the ordained celibate men running the church want to give to us.

For a follow-up posting about the Vatican document, which focuses on the document's treatment of the scriptural foundations of its claim that proclaiming the "Gospel of the Family" is central to the church's mission, see here.

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