Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Vatican Document on the Pastoral Challenges of Family: "Gospel of the Family" and the Bible (but Where's the Good News?!)

When I first wrote about the document recently prepared by the Vatican as a foundation for discussion of family life at the upcoming synod on the family — the so-called instrumentum laboris that will guide the synod's discussion and which reports on the responses submitted by lay Catholics and bishops to a Vatican questionnaire on the family — I noted that one of the document's significant shortcomings is that it reads like a laundry list in which every affirmation it makes is equal to every other affirmation. The document is, in key respects, a replication (though obviously a highly select one) of what lay Catholics and bishops told the Vatican as they responded to its questionnaire on the family, but it lacks a clearly discernible theological center in which to put its lengthy list of concerns into a meaningful, coherent scheme that would provide a helpful snapshot of precisely what the people of God believe about family matters at present.

In its everything-counts way, the document moves rather facilely from reflections on the gospels and their testimony about family life as the Word of God on which the church is founded, to chatter about the rosary, Angelus, and Marian pilgrimages and prayers to the Holy Family, as if all these laundry list items are equal to each other and carry the same weight. As if the church is as equally grounded in the rosary as it's grounded in the Word of God . . . . 

The problem of this theologically dubious approach to meaningful discussion of the family is nowhere more apparent than in the document's opening sections (§ 1-3) on the biblical teaching on the family. This foundational document prepared to facilitate discussion of the family by a synod of the entire church has to start with the scriptures as the Word of God for a number of obvious reasons.

In the first place, as I noted in my first discussion of the document, it introduces into the discussion of Catholic teaching about family life a neologism not deeply rooted in Catholic tradition, the phrase "the Gospel of the Family," and from the outset of the document, the theological assertion is made that communicating and proclaiming "the Gospel of the Family" is a fundamental obligation of the church. The phrase "Gospel of the Family" (which the document employs 16 times) clearly links anything that the church might say about family to "the" gospel — to the good news of God's salvific embrace of the world through Jesus Christ, for which the four canonical gospels of the Christian scriptures provide essential, indispensable grounding.

Since the church is grounded in the Word of God as set forth in scripture and flows, in particular, from the four canonical gospels . . . . .

Anything the church says at any point in its history about "the Gospel of the Family" — any theological assertion it makes about family and the centrality of family to the church's proclamation of the good news of God's loving embrace of the world in Christ — must flow from and be inherently connected to the Word of God. And so this document on the family must, of necessity, ground what it says about the importance of the Gospel of the Family to the church's proclamation in scripture, first and foremost. 

Hence the opening sections of the document, which focus on the scriptural testimony, and which are surprisingly, well, insubstantial. They're surprisingly thin. We're told immediately after these sections that "[t]he life of the Church in these times is characterized by a widespread rediscovery of the Word of God, which has had an impact in various ways in dioceses, parishes and ecclesial communities" (§ 8).  But you'd never know this is the case, if this document happened to be all the evidence you had at hand to demonstrate that a thirst for the Word of God and deep knowledge of the Word of God inform Catholic theology, magisterial teaching, and parish life today.

What the document has to say about the connection of its Gospel of the Family to scripture is thin gruel, indeed. It begins by asserting (à la Pope John Paul II with his theology of the body) that the Gospel of the Family is initially rooted in the teaching of Genesis that God made human beings male and female, but it then totally ignores — it completely passes over — the thorny problem of the testimony of the book of Genesis (and the entire Jewish scriptures) about what marriage and family really were for centuries on end: one man holding many wives, whose socioeconomic status was that of slaves.

The document engages in a kind of sleight of hand, in other words, which requires us to ignore the very scriptures on which it claims to be basing its proclamation of the Gospel of the Family, as we seek to show how that gospel is rooted in and intrinsically connected to the scriptures! And then the text moves on to the Holy Family of Nazareth, as, with equal glibness, it seeks to convince us that Jesus's ideal model of the family reflects his experience of family life with his mother Mary and step-father Joseph. Who is seldom mentioned, it has to be noted, outside the infancy narratives of the gospels, and who, according to long-standing Catholic tradition, vanished from the life of the Holy Family by dying early in Jesus's life . . . . 

As Rolando noted recently on this blog, if we look carefully at what the canonical gospels actually say about Jesus's family (and how Catholic tradition embroiders this gospel testimony), we find that the Holy Family is a somewhat curious foundation for notions of the "traditional" family as proclaimed by the Gospel of the Family:

The Holy Family is extremely confusing. It begins with a young virgin betrothed to a man, possibly a widower. She becomes pregnant, but not by him. Being a righteous man, he marries the virgin and adopts her son. For some reason, known only to tradition, they must remain chaste. They are not open to new life unless there is another Divine intervention. Even though the man accepted and acquiesced to Divine will, when he took his wife and son to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill their obligations, the son revealed that the man with his mother was not his father. The man is mentioned no more. Apparently, the woman had to rear the child and take care of him on her own, especially since he became a very controversial figure and never married.

In its treatment of the New Testament foundations of the Gospel of the Family, too, the document  elides critically important material, as as it does when it scans Genesis and the Jewish scriptures (actually, other than Genesis and the single phrase about God making human beings male and female, the document ignores the rest of the Jewish scriptures, with their complex, rich testimony about how the Jewish tradition on which the Christian church is grounded actually "did" family). What is elided is the noteworthy and obvious fact that, over and over in his proclamation of the coming reign of God, Jesus (who never married and was a peripatetic rabbi surrounded by disciples who left their families to follow him around) subordinates family to the reign of God in a way that cuts fundamentally against the grain of what this document wants to say about the centrality of the Gospel of the Family to the mission of the church.

In key respects, Jesus is more anti-family — if family is understood in the Western bourgeois, man-woman-children way in which the church wants us to understand it as it tells us the Gospel of the Family is the center of the Christian proclamation — than he is pro-family. He tells his followers to repudiate father, mother, brother, and sister in order to follow him and seek the reign of God.

He tells them that the blood ties of family are hardly everything, in the way in which bourgeois models of family want those ties to be, since, in the reign of God, family is everyone: everyone is our brother and sister. Absolutely no glimmers of what Jesus actually said about family and family life in his proclamation of the reign of God as reflected in the canonical gospels appear in this document, which asserts that we must ground everything we say about family in the Word of God, if it's to be theological compelling.

And then, strangely enough, having provided such insubstantial ground-laying analysis of how something it wants to proclaim as the absolute center of the church's proclamation —the so-called Gospel of the Family — in its opening section, the instrumentum laboris proceeds to chide the people of God for not understanding what the church teaches about family and how that teaching is grounded in holy scripture:

The People of God’s knowledge of conciliar and post-conciliar documents on the Magisterium of the family seems to be rather wanting, though a certain knowledge of them is clearly evident in those working in the field of theology (§ 11).

Note the very strange, the downright grotesque, phrase "Magisterium of the family," which the document slips in here as equivalent to its other neologism, the "Gospel of the family." The clear implication of this statement is that the "Gospel of the Family" is none other than the "Magisterium of the family." What the people of God don't understand is that every word spoken by a pope and the top men of the Vatican is somehow the Word of God, so that it's ultimately not that important to show how the "Gospel of the Family" connects to the testimony of the actual Word of God, the scriptures.

It's enough to parrot what the magisterium has said about these matters. That's where the people of God clearly need catechizing, since they're not yet the docile parrots the pastors of the church expect them to be. 

As I said last week regarding this document on the family, for lay Catholics seeking real good news in the church's teaching about family life, marriage, divorce, contraception, same-sex marriage, this document doesn't provide a great deal that's noteworthy. Count its references to the Word of God, for instance, and you'll find that this phrase occurs only five times. But magisterium? Fourteen times. 

You'll encounter the word "joy" a mere eight times in this document about the "good news" of the family. Pope? A whopping 28 mentions, augmented by four references to the holy father and 35 mentions of bishops.

When all is said and done, there's just not much good news to be found in this document, for lay Catholics, at least. Especially with its grating recurrent references to "these people" who demand pastoral attention from the fathers of the church, and who are mentioned ten times —  "these people" experiencing marital difficulties (§ 80); "these people" cohabiting without benefit of marriage (§ 86); "these people" living in canonically irregular situations but wanting sacraments (§ 94); "these people" who are separated and divorced (§ 97, 103, 104); and "these people" who happen to be gay (§ 115-116).

More than a document on the Gospel of the Family, this statement about how the pastors of the church view family life and their responsibility to families at this point in Catholic history seems to be a document about "these people" and their vexatious demands on the time and energy of the pastors of the church. Or so I concluded, sadly, after reading it.

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