The Synod on the Family and the Developing World

Opening_Session_of_the_Extraordinary_Assembly_of_the_Synod_of_Bishops_at_the_Vatican_on_Oct_6_2014_Credit_Mazur_catholicnewsorguk_CC_BY_NC_SA_20_3_CNA_10_7_14

First World Problems?

Not long after his election, the new Pope explained why he had taken the name “Francis”: “Ah, how I would like a church,” he said, “that is poor and is for the poor.” It was refreshing: the Pope was going to change the basic terms of the conversation between the Church and the world. Instead of waging a grinding “culture war” against a secular West, the Church would instead speak to the most urgent concerns of the global East and South. The first Pope to come from beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin promised to be the champion of those who lived in the parts of the earth where hunger, injustice and persecution abounded. Places like the Philippines, Mexico, and Nigeria had already become the true center of gravity of a global Church, displacing Quebec, Chicago, Milan and Vienna. The new Pope would speak for the populations of the emerging world – for their suffering, their desperation, their resilience, their energy, their sense of hope. The “North/South” polarity would supplant the “Left/Right” one. The Church would make the pivot to poverty. In making that turn, it would address the West too – but by awakening it from the deadly self-absorption of the affluent.

So when one learns that the Synod of Catholic cardinals and bishops summoned by the same Pope has returned the conversation to the culture wars of the West – though with unmistakable overtones of capitulation on many of the bishops’ part — it is, to say no more, a disappointment. Try as it may, the Church under Francis seems to be unable to resist scratching the sores of Western sexuality. The consuming obsessions of the West, now in the terminal phases of the sexual and cultural revolutions that have swept over it for more than half a century, are dominating the Church’s agenda once again. At the Pope’s insistence, the bishops did a reset, plunging the Church into renewed debate over divorce and homosexuality and cutting short the conversation that the Pope had earlier invited over famine, persecution and want. With Islamist terrorist groups like Boko Haram recently murdering 2500 Catholics in one Nigerian diocese alone, and with Christian children being crucified or cut in half by ISIS, you might think that the world’s bishops would have more pressing things on their mind than the compatibility of same-sex unions with Church teaching. You would, of course, be wrong.

Indeed, even considering “family” issues alone, the non-Western Church was short-changed: how much attention was given to the question of inter-faith marriages, despite its being a major concern for the Church in India? In the Philippines, many marriages break up because poverty forces a spouse or parent to migrate overseas in search of employment, leaving home, spouse and children behind. Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle noted this problem, saying that poverty “goes right at the heart of the family” in his country ; but how much attention did this issue get?

What is more, the organizers of the Synod openly expressed their indifference to – if not contempt for – the opinions of the leaders of the non-Western Church. They spoke as if the opposition of the African bishops to their “modernizing” program could stem only from irrational hatred and prejudice. What the Africans needed, they seemed to be saying, was a good, stiff dose of Richard Posner’s writings. In the controversy over the initial draft of the Synod’s statement, Cardinal Walter Kasper, an octogenarian German theologian and a favorite of the Pope’s, infamously said:

Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects.

Kasper later denied having made those revealing remarks – a denial that was then proven to be false. In any case, the remarks hardly seemed out of character for the Cardinal. In an interview with the German magazine Focus published under the heading “Third World Land,” Kasper was reported to have said, “When you land at Heathrow you think at times you have landed in a Third World country.” The German Cardinal obviously notices different things when he is at the airport from what Cardinal Tagle does. The Philippine prelate spoke of his anguish in watching Filipino mothers at airports forced to part from their children because their poverty is so desperate that they must leave their families and search for work abroad.

Not Just Cardinal Kasper

Even if Cardinal Kasper’s statement were merely condescension on the part of the passenger with the first-class cabin towards the passengers in steerage, it would be bad enough. But Kasper and those like him simply did not seem to understand the position. Perhaps the Africans and Asians are not just squinting narrowly at the issue of homosexuality, but rather looking at the state of Western culture as a whole? And perhaps they do not like what they see? Perhaps the cultural exports of the secular West – its current practices regarding marriage, abortion, childbirth, the family, the relations between the sexes – are no more wanted in Africa and Asia than the West’s toxic wastes and sewage effluents? (New York Cardinal Dolan’s wonderful defense of the “prophetic” African Church effectively made these points. )

But the problem with the Synod went far beyond the tactlessness and incomprehension of elderly European churchmen. Apparently at the Pope’s insistence, the Synod’s final report included three controversial articles that had received the approval of a Synod majority, but not the supermajority required for consensus. The final report will now go to the Church throughout the world for discussion and debate before the Synod reconvenes. You can be sure that the media coverage of the debate in this intervening period will focus overwhelmingly on the articles that the Pope reinstated. Cui bono? In their effort to get the conversation back on the familiar tracks of the Western culture wars, the Pope and his bishops are doing serious harm to millions of faithful Catholics trying to live out the Gospel in hostile and often dangerous conditions in the emerging world.

My former student, Andrew Ratelle, makes the point forcefully:

By upholding the nuclear family, the Church made what was perhaps the most important social investment in history. People in the poorer, more pagan regions of the world where polygamy, polyandry, arranged and child marriages were common, now had a place to look for support when it came to building a life that was most beneficial for themselves and their children. By weakening this support, or at the very least dispersing it to include more “diverse” arrangements, these bishops have weakened the very shield from which the nuclear family has received so much protection. Even in our own country, where “diverse” familial arrangements have almost become synonymous with urban poverty and crime (at least for those who have no gilded safety net to fall into), where should families look to now, since the Church has seen fit to dilute the medicine they have thrived on for so long?

Church leaders in the developing world understand this perfectly well. South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, for instance, wondered how he could deny communion to an African man living in polygamy in accordance with local culture and tradition, if he had to administer the sacrament to a divorced man married to his second wife? “Successive” polygamy, Napier pointed out, is hardly distinguishable from “simultaneous” polygamy.

Pope Francis was right (at first): it really is time to change the conversation. The global Church is not the parochial Western Church; the Church of the poor and the marginal is not the affluent, greying Church of Western Europe and North America. The Church should not be shadowing the West’s cultural trajectory all the way downwards. The future of the Church lies elsewhere. Ex oriente, lux.

Photo from the Catholic News Agency.

6 responses

  1. You think the culture wars exist only in “the West”? The Philippines are considering allowing divorce. Latin America has been swept with liberalization of divorce law and most of South America recognizes gay couples in the law.

    Only in Africa, poisoned by dishonest, grifting, anti-gay, American evangelicals are some countries turning against gay people, imprisoning and beating them. Yes, what a “prophetic” thing to cheer.

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  2. Bravo…Bravo…Hear.. Hear…This accounts for the vague queasy feeling that I was getting following the two weeks pretty closely…uneasy that capitulation was in the air when prophetic boldness and solidarity what the moment called for. Not again. Aaagghh. Providing a capitulatory coda to our own weakness and lack of witness to salve hurt here while our poorer southern brothers and sisters face a maelstrom of horsemen that would frighten and depress most of us into an early grave…and they look to the Gospel and the Church for a BETTER way,..and we can’t see the necessity of persistence clarity and power in our words, example and support for them. We would probably help ourselves out in the process…as is usually the case. Pretty sad preoccupation this business..kind of smiley-faced unconscious imperialism. Oremus.

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  3. The Church does not, and never has had a problem with arranged marriages. Arranged marriages involve(d) consent. Refer to books such as LIFE IN A MEDIEVAL CITY for more information. The problem is with forced marriages, not arranged ones.

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  4. //its current practices regarding marriage, abortion, childbirth, the family, the relations between the sexes – are no more wanted in Africa and Asia than the West’s toxic wastes and sewage effluents?//

    Then may I suggest they stop taking Western money and aid, and finally grow up.

    I would also like to point out that, while the West may have some issues, it is nothing to the depravity on the scale found in Africa. Africa has such wonderful culturally artefacts as; eating albino people, burning witches, rape as a weapon of war, female genital mutilation on a massive scale, Boko Haram, consuming bush meat (giving the human race both HIV and Ebola, thanks for that Africa), popular dictators like Robert Mugabe (a faithful Catholic, of course), and so on.

    To be honest, if “pro-family” politics produces the kind of cesspit that exists in most African nations, I am very glad to live in the “anti-family” West.

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  5. It’s a good position in theory, but one of the major complaints from some of the African bishops was the western pressure to enter the culture wars. Western nations were withholding aid unless they changed their laws with regard to the culture war issues. divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, etc. So on another level, it does have a huge impact.

    I’d agree wholeheartedly though, that we need more, not less emphasis on 3rd world issues like you mention. Perhaps that’s why there’s both an extraordinary and an ordinary synod…

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