Friday, October 31, 2014

Synod on Family: Commentary by Juan José Tamayo, Jamie Manson, and Frank Brennan — "Trying to Confine the Genie to the Episcopal Kitchen"

As another work week ends, a round-up of several more statements about the recent Catholic synod on the family well worth reading:

At Iglesia Descalza, Rebel Girl offers her translation of Spanish theologian Juan José Tamayo's assessment of the synod in the journal Atrio. Tamayo begins by noting frankly that the synod 's final document represents a setback for the pope and his plans to reform the church — a "shipwreck." Francis encountered three obstacles at the synod, Tamayo maintains: 

1. The protagonists of the synod themselves, the bishops. 
2. The heritage of previous popes, which lay like a dead hand over the synod (the metaphor is mine and not Tamayo's). 
3. "[T]the creation, from the beginning of the preparation for the Synod, of an 'opposition front' to any change led by Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, President of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who was  appointed by Benedict XVI to maintain orthodoxy and avoid any deviation in doctrinal and moral matters."

Despite these obstacles, which resulted in a setback for the pope's agenda of reform, Tamayo thinks that "there were also signs of openness" at the synod. The question now facing the pope and the bishops of the church when they meet for the final stage of the synod on the family, he thinks: "Will they go on thinking in legal categories or go along with the rhythm of life and tend to the real problems of the family?"

Will the bishops be able to develop the awareness that, in their approach to the issues debated at the synod, the church may well be missing "the train of history," as Tamayo puts the point? Will this cause them to begin listening sensitively to the signs of the times (as Vatican II insisted the church must do) as they teach about the family? Or will they continue to insist defiantly and belligerently  that their church has no need of history's train, even as it bleeds members at an unimaginable rate in the developed and educated sectors of the globe? Due to the belligerent, unmerciful defiance of its "pastoral" leaders as they teach about issues of sexuality and family . . . . 

At National Catholic Reporter, Jamie Manson asks a similar question: can the pope and bishops begin to treat adult Catholics like adults? In her view, "The synod document suggests that the bishops aren't ready to treat the faithful like the mature adults they've become."

Jamie notes that Francis's closing address to the synod employed two metaphors that, while thought-provoking, strain under the weight he accords them: the church is simultaneously teacher and "fertile mother." Her reaction to these metaphors:

These men are spending the next two years contemplating teachings that deeply affect women (marriage, family, contraception, domestic violence). Yet women have never had a role in creating these doctrines, they continue to have no voice in developing these doctrines, and, in the end, they will not have a vote in deciding whether these doctrines have a future. 
Add to that the unseemly, if not deeply pathological, reality that a significant number of these bishops, who cannot decide whether gays and lesbians have gifts to offer to the church, are themselves closeted gay men. 
The mother and teacher metaphors might be more apt if the mother weren't so dysfunctional and the teacher weren't teaching from a place of deep deprivation.

I find Jamie Manson's and Juan José Tamayo's insistence that the magisterial teaching of the Catholic church on matters of the family (including divorce and remarriage, use of contraceptives, and homosexuality) can be credible only to the extent that it interacts respectfully and creatively with the sensus fidelium — with the lived, graced experience of real Christian families — echoed, as well, in Eugene Kennedy's latest essay at NCR, which argues that, insofar as any of the synod's final statements have anything of significance to say to lay Catholics, their power derives from their willingness to engage the lived experience of lay Catholics.

This vantage point on the synod seems to me also to be reflected in the analysis of Father Frank Brennan in the new Global Pulse magazine. Brennan maintains that the final synodal document represents a clumsy attempt by the fathers of the church to put the genie (the familial genie, I'm tempted to call it) back in the bottle — an unsuccessful attempt, since said genie is now out of the bottle:

It does not put the genie back in the bottle, but it does revert to much of the old style Vaticanese, trying to confine the genie to the episcopal kitchen.

And so, with the closing of the first stage of the synod, the people of God are now left with a genie, a bottle into which the genie cannot be returned, and a recipe book replete with old-style Vaticanese whose directions make sense only in episcopal kitchens, and not in ordinary homes. Many of us will, Father Brennan appears to think, wisely ignore what the synod has said to us, because most of what the synod concluded could not be more disconnected from our ordinary lives and the graced experience of those lives: 

For the moment, I would not see much pastoral point in sharing this document with the many young people I know who are living together, or with those who are gay or lesbian seeking a homecoming in the Church, or with those who have endured the pain of divorce and the moral angst of remarriage. I think I will be telling them to keep the door open, wait a while, and check back in a year to see how we are doing.

I find it fascinating to compare what has just taken place at the Catholic synod on the family, and commentary on it, with some of the commentary that has been coming out recently about this week's meeting in Nashville of the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), to discuss "The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage." Like the leaders of the Catholic church, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention chose in the final decades of the twentieth century to throw the wieght of their church on the anti-gay side in the fierce culture wars that engaged the attention of many right-wing believers as the century ended. 

And as with the Catholic church, the Southern Baptist Convention is now recognizing that it has, as a result, placed itself in an historical (and moral) cul-de-sac. So as Zack Ford reports for Think Progress, a gathering of "almost all pastors, almost all men," has now had to meet to struggle with the recognition that the anti-gay branding of the SBC has resulted in its loss of moral credibility, in its "speaking from the wrong side of the moral equation," as it addresses the issue of homosexuality and other moral issues today. 

As both Zach Ford and Jacob Lupfer note (Lupfer, for Religion News Service), the "almost all men" who are almost all ordained and who gathered at this SBC meeting could not quite find their way out of the cul-de-sac they have created for themselves above all. While the world around them is rapidly renegotiating the question of homosexuality and is finding humanity and moral worth in many gay people, these almost all men who are almost all ordained cannot quite find themselves prepared to recognize the full humanity of "these people" about whom they deliver moral declarations from their lofty, disconnected (and protected — by heterosexual power and privilege) moral perches.

For the almost all men, almost all pastors of the SBC, just as for the all men, all pastors of the Catholic synod on the family, gay human beings continue to be "these people," the "homosexuals" — an exotic, unimaginable variety of human beings who aren't quite human in the same way the fathers of the church are human, and who are therefore outside the church rather than inside it, due to the peculiar way in which their humanity is constituted. (Never mind that, as Jamie Manson points out, many of the men making these lofty declarations about "these people" are themselves closeted, and often self-loathing, homosexual men themselves.)

And so, as Lupfer notes, at the SBC meeting, this happened:

One gay atheist observer, covering the conference for a Washington-based media watchdog organization, tweeted, 'Kinda felt like we were being welcomed to a really friendly rehab clinic. But we’re not looking for treatment."

I think he might have tweeted precisely the same thing had he been at the Catholic synod on the family.

The mixed-message welcome mat graphic is from the Brit + Co website, by way of the Pinterest page of New Hope.

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