In my continuing efforts to blog about things that none of my readers care about, today I bring you my thoughts on a 75-page document recently issued by the Vatican, The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization
Wait, come back! It's all about gender and sexuality and stuff!
Last fall, Pope Francis announced that he was convening an extraordinary meeting of the synod of bishops to consider the state of marriage and family life. Francis asked every diocese in the world to study the issue, survey the laity, and weigh in on where Catholics stand on various issues affecting family life. (I participated in my diocese's survey, which I'll say more about below.) The resulting document, known as an "instrumentum laboris," or "working instrument," contains a preliminary report on those findings, and it's meant to be the starting point for the work of the synod, whose first meeting will be in October.
Francis's initial announcement of the synod got some coverage in the mainstream press--in part because of the short timeline and in part because of the sweeping scope of the project: this is the first time that ordinary Catholics have been asked for their feedback. There has been speculation, at least in the American press, that the conference might be the occasion for major changes in the church's positions on such things as divorce, birth control, and same-sex marriage. But despite that initial coverage, as far as I can tell, last week's release of the instrumentum has received zero attention outside of Catholic circles (that last link is to Rocco Palmo, always the best source for news on the global church).
I'm not an expert Vatican-watcher and there are a lot of basic things I don't know about the synod or its mandate. And though I've read the instrumentum, at times I have trouble deciphering its "voice"--that is, whether a statement is merely descriptive (this is what the church has said on this subject in recent decades) or prescriptive (this is the church's teaching, which is not up for debate). Nevertheless, some things are pretty obvious. Issues surrounding divorce and remarriage get more attention in the document than any of the other subjects that preoccupy American and European Catholics, which leads me to suspect that there could be some real changes there. I also believe that changes around the edges of birth-control policies are likely, and though I'd be surprised to see major changes on same-sex marriage, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of some conciliatory gestures (for example, the document spends some time discussing how to welcome same-sex couples who wish to raise their children Catholic).
But really, what will strike any Western reader of the document is all the other problems facing families that the bishops are interested in--and the global perspective that those concerns reflect. Serious attention is given to domestic violence, incest, human trafficking, polygamy, poverty, and families separated by political unrest or forced migration. The other thing that will strike readers is how generous and compassionate the document can be toward both families and individuals. It waxes indignant about the ostracism and shame some people (single mothers, victims of abuse) are subjected to, and it's critical of clerics who don't fulfill their pastoral duties. The influence of Francis is clear in such moments.
There are less generous moments sprinkled throughout, though, and while I imagine that some of the oscillation between more compassionate and more condemnatory language reflects the conflicts and compromises inherent in a preliminary document written by a 15-person team, it's still a little disappointing. I'm also disappointed, though not surprised, that the instrumentum's discussion of the laity's attitudes is mostly couched in terms of what they "understand" about the church's teachings. Although each diocese apparently had some leeway in how it surveyed its laity, the form I got was focused on its respondents' level of engagement in Catholic life and familiarity with church teachings. And, dudes: I understand, with great clarity, the intricacies of the church's teachings on homosexuality. I've heard the best and most compelling arguments for natural family planning. That's not the same thing as agreeing with those teachings. What I wanted and did not get was a chance to say, "yes, I'm a Catholic who has received all the sacraments, who attends mass weekly and volunteers at her parish, and I don't agree with you on X or Y."
Most surprising to me is the document's near obsession with what it calls "the ideology of gender theory" (12)--a term that comes up at least half a dozen times. Although the bishops barely define it (and it's not clear that their familiarity with gender theory is at anything closer than third or fourth hand), they're plainly troubled by the idea that gender might be disconnected from biological sexuality. Throughout, there's an essentialist attitude toward gender and sexuality, and a suspicion of anything that might be considered non-normative.
And. . . it's at this point that I say, OH, COME ON! The Catholic Church has been celebrating non-normative sexualities for centuries. We're talking about an institution that has a celibate priesthood and celibate male and female religious. We're talking about a religious tradition that involves ecstatic, eroticized mysticism, that uses sexualized language to talk about everything from the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist to prayer and the operations of the Holy Spirit. I mean, I'm not calling the church freaky, but its attitudes toward sexuality are rich, interesting, and go beyond either the procreative or the ascetic.
Cosimo has remarked that female religious (whom he knew from childhood, thanks to his beloved aunt, a Sister of St. Joseph) were his first introduction to queer women: not because of anything he knew or presumed about their sexual orientation, but because of the palpable otherness of a community of women who lived entirely outside of the imperatives of heterosexuality. Indeed, celibacy is about as counter-cultural as you can get in the modern age.
I understand that the mandate of the synod is to deal with the changing shape of the family, not with vowed celibates or those leading a single life; I also have no desire to return to the centuries in which the church valorized celibacy and slighted marriage and procreation. But there's something exasperating about the refusal to consider love, marriage, and family life within the larger and more radical context of the church's history and teachings. As many people before me have pointed out, Jesus himself shows no interest in the traditional family. Not only was his own family nontraditional (and non-procreative), he himself never married and repeatedly tells his followers that to proclaim his kingdom they need to leave their families behind--not even pausing to bury their dead.
According to the instrumentum laboris, many bishops are calling for "theological study in dialogue with the human sciences" to better understand sexual orientation, homosexuality, and the differences between the sexes (52). I'm glad of that, and I think it's a hopeful sign. But I'd like for them also to wrestle with--or simply acknowledge!--the non-normative and non-procreative forms of gender, sexuality, and eroticism that have always been central to the Catholic tradition.