As the Catholic synod on the family nears, I'm spotting more and more commentary focusing on the distance (in the view of many Catholics) between the rhetoric of church leaders about pastoral issues, and the realtiy lived by those church leaders as they go about their pastoral work. There is a well-articulated fear in many quarters that the synod will be much more about rhetoric than about reality, that it will, essentially, change nothing, especially for those on whom the church's teaching and policies inflict serious pain.
To put the point otherwise: there is a very strong hunger in many sectors of the Catholic church for authentic dialogue, for action that goes beyond symbolic gestures, for truth rather than chimeras spun by adroit media spinmeisters. And as that hunger is not met, there is dwindling hope in the church itself. There is dwindling hope that the church will survive the historic crisis through which it has been passing in recent years, and will recover either credibility as it speaks in the public square, or the many, many Catholics now walking away in disgust (on the latter wave among younger Catholics, see Brian Cahill).
Here are some brief tidbits from theological commentary on these issues that I've read in the past several days (note: not all of these articles are speaking about the synod; I'm noting aspects of some of them that, in my view, have direct bearing on the discussion of the synod in Catholic circles right now):
First, at Iglesia Descalza, Rebel Girl translates an interview with Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara recently published by Adital. As she has done in her many published works on this topic, Gebara contrasts the fundamental starting point of feminist theology with the top-down, dogmatic, declaratory way in which the men who govern the Catholic church do theology. She notes,
This is one theological method I call feminist, though not exclusively, since it starts from the real situations in which people find themselves, considers individuals more important than laws, rules or doctrine. We are invited to experience life before thinking about it. We are invited to listen without giving immediate answers. We are invited to seek together the way out for many difficult and complex life situations.
By contrast, she maintains, church leaders refuse to engage in any kind of serious listening process involving those they govern, and refuse to pay any serious attention to the real-life situations of those to whom they issue moral imperatives that radically affect their human lives. When it comes to matters of gender, the leaders of the Catholic church seek to foreclose all conversation by absolutizing biology and pointing to Jesus's maleness as if that biological fact is at the center of the good news of the gospel, while ignoring everything Jesus actually stood for in his dealings with others:
The Church leadership fears being accused of misogyny and they defend themselves, but their behavior is more than misogynist. Unfortunately they cling to an incredible biologism and the concept of anatomy as destiny. They've deduced from the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was male, arguments for the exclusion of women. And along this line, they give more importance to the priestly role which Jesus wasn't part of, at the expense of a more ethical understanding of Christianity where many inclusive aspects could be accentuated. Jesus was not of the priestly elite of Israel. Rather, he criticized it and distanced himself from it. Jesus lived a life close to men, women, children, Jews and strangers. With them, he preached the kingdom of God throughout his life through concrete actions that change people's lives. That earned him misunderstanding, abuse and crucifixion.
And so, the adamant refusal to discuss women's issues or to engage real-life women in meaningful discussion reflects a "politico-ecclesiastical posture," a strategy of the men running the Roman Catholic show, which is designed to say that there is nothing to discuss when it comes to women's issues, since women simply aren't there — not in any effective way, not to be noticed in any effective way. They're beneath the notice of the men on top:
I don't think this silence is real ignorance of the facts, but a politico-ecclesiastical posture. Not speaking of someone or a worldwide movement, trying to ignore them, is not allowing them to appear in their historical strength. It's not giving them importance and not thinking of them as something that could bring any contribution to the Church.
And, yes, Ivone Gebara appears to think that this is where Francis himself is, vis-a-vis women in the church.
At Iglesia Descalza, Rebel Girl also recently published her translation of a presentation given by José María Castillo on democracy and human rights in the church. Castillo is vice-president of the Asociación de Teólogos y Teólogas Juan XXIII, and it appears he gave this presentation to that society's 34th Congreso de Teologia in Madrid early this month.
What Castillo has to say intersects with what Ivone Gebara says. He notes that it's impossible for the Catholic church to sustain moral credibility in democratic socieites when it refuses to adhere to democratic principles in its own self-governance, and to respect the human rights of its members. As does Gebara in her feminist theology with its critique of the church's misogyny, Castillo grounds a critique of a non-democratic church which cannot respect the human rights of its members in the example of Jesus:
Jesus took sides with the victims of the politico-religious system that is based and remains on the foundation of holy hierarchies, sacred powers, honors that come from above, privileges that "God's" dignitaries are entitled to.
Another theologian speaking of active, effective listening as the synod nears is Dutch theologian Aldegonde Brenninkmeijer-Werhahn, who proposes that the upcoming synod on the family should be much more about listening and engaging in dialogue than about declaring. In this way, the synod on the family can be, Brenninkmeijer-Werhahn maintains, a preliminary step towards the second and larger synod to be held in 2015.
La Stampa's "Vatican Insider" has published a statement Brenninkmeijer-Werhahn made to Iacopo Scaramuzzi. In this document, Brenninkmeijer-Werhahn, whose theological field of expertise is marriage and family life, notes that families are "domestic churches," "little churches" within the larger church. She thinks it's important to note that how families themselves, small churches within the larger church, handle issues of imperfection differs radically from how the larger church insists on handling them: as she notes, real families, real-life ones, seldom exclude or reject those who do not adhere to the highest ideals of a particular family.
Instead, they embrace and include these family members, seeking to find ways to understand their experiences. Brenninkmeijer-Werhahn asks,
Do we pay sufficient attention to the imperfect, weak, and sinful characters that can exist in a family? Does the "domestic church" belong only to a perfect household, because all the others do not fully correspond to those ideal characteristics of the Church?
But the leaders of the Catholic church, by contrast . . . . Brenninkmeijer-Werhahn is convinced that these leaders could learn much of great value from the real-life experiences of real families, as they make their solemn declarations about family life and the rules that govern them.
And that the upcoming synod needs to find ways to facilitate such listening, if it's to be successful . . .
The graphic: the classic theologian Thomas Aquinas, from Gentile da Fabriano's Valle Roma Polyptych, avaialble for sharing at Wikimedia Commons, and uploaded by Erik Möller.