The Table

By all accounts, the theme of these Synod sessions should have been collegiality. Pope Francis, instead, has chosen a topic that interests and affects almost all Catholics, in some way: family. Every day, home-grown collegiality. Undoubtedly a populist, Francis has engaged the world’s Catholics in discussions of family life, the Sacraments, divorced and remarriage, family planning… it is incredible how this topic, (and even a flash of hope) has ignited the baptized to chime in.

In November and December 2013, fifteen U.S. Catholic reform organizations sent out a survey in preparation for the Synod on the Family. 16,582 participants responded.  Dr. Peter J. Fagan from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine analyzed the survey responses and produced the final report.

The results of the survey were similar to other sociological data, but the number of respondents who self-identified as weekly Mass-goers was 52 percent, a surprisingly high number given the overall average is 24 percent according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Demographically, 83 percent were laypeople and 11 percent vowed religious or ordained. On the important issues of contraception, sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics and same sex relationships:

Sr. Mary John Mananzan

Sr. Mary John Mananzan

● 1 percent said the teachings of Humanae Vitae were completely accepted. 76 percent supported alternatives.
● 75 percent of divorced and remarried couples felt they could approach the sacraments regardless of church recognition of their union.
● 73 percent said marriage equality was extremely or very important.

These numbers and the volumes of responses are not isolated to those in the U.S., but reflected many of polls from around the world.

“Right now it looks like there are very few participants at the Synod who will be representing the voices of many Catholics who already feel excluded from the Church,” said Deb Rose-Milavec of FutureChurch.  “It is our work to do all we can to make sure those voices are heard and that the circles are widened to include those who represent the sensus fidelium on issues  where our lived experiences cannot be expressed adequately by male celibates.”

Kate McElwee and Sr. Mary John Mananzan

Kate McElwee and Sr. Mary John Mananzan

As a representative for WOC I was able to share some of this work at the Catholic Reform forum held in Rome these past few days. Among the other representatives was  Sr. Mary John Manazan, OSB from the Philippines. An incredible feminist theologian, Sr. Mary John took a more expansive view as she outlined her suggestions to the Synod-goers: address patriarchy and kyriarchy in our church and in our families.  Patriarchy in all forms creates a culture of violence against women; therefore, starting with the Church, we need non-patriarchal families, where dominance does not decide the safety or health of women and children. Sr. Mary John brought the taboo issues of FGM, incest, domestic violence right to the altar of the Church where this meeting was held. Her presentation brought the realities of what is often couched in vague terms to the devastating, on-going effects of our Church’s and our own complicity. Other speakers included Robert Mickens, Paul Collins, Marilyn Hatton, among others. (Read more about the event here ).


Bishop Geoffrey Robinson speaking at the European Forum for LGBT Christians

In the afternoon the European Christian LGBT Forum hosted an event  “The ways of love” in the Faculty of the Waldenses.  The forum was chaired by the Vatican expert Marco Politi, and featured Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and theologian James Alison. The room was full of familiar faces from New Ways Ministries, FutureChurch, and Council 50 organizers, but also about 100 attendees, mostly Italians. An obvious lack of women’s voices (and presence) was the only short-coming of this well organized event.   

The following day, the International Movement We Are Church (IMWAC) hosted a press conference with representative from three continents sharing recommendations to those attending the Synods sessions. Many of the speakers highlighted flawed doctrine, misapplied “traditions,” and emphasized that theological and theoretical discussions should not be “played against” pastoral needs. IMWAC surveyed their members worldwide and produced a list of seven questions for the synod:

IMWAC press conference

IMWAC press conference

1. What Images of the family will be used?

2. What is a family?

3. Will the complexity of the modern world be addressed?

4. How can the situation of families and partnerships in crisis be addressed?

5. Will the differing circumstances of women and men in families be address?

6. How will the status of children be viewed?

7. What impact do modern reproductive technologies have on families, marriages, and partnerships?

The reality shared in the room was that Catholic people are already making decisions about their families and reproductive lives without the church: “that train has left the station.” But as Catholics we believe our church can be a moral leader in the world, by following the example of Jesus. (If we first even humanize gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons, affirm the bodily autonomy of women, embrace equality for women in all ministries and society, and reframe the imposition of celibacy on clergy, to name a few). One speaker referred to Pope Francis’ intentions to go the the margins of society and work there; however in our Church it is really the bishops who are on the margins of the complex realities of family life. Many mentioned the some “quick fixes,” the feasibility of some of these recommendations is seemingly possible and within reach — and yet Pope Francis has not made a move on some of these “easier” reparations.

It was acknowledged around the table that “women’s issues” always come last on these lists. And while as reformers we look to what Pope Francis not saying or doing, Miriam Duignan reminded the group that we must also pay attention to what Pope Francis is actively saying about women, the words that he does choose to say are flippant, sexist and rely on outdated and offensive gender roles.  If you haven’t watched WOC’s video, “Vatican: It’s a Man’s World,” most of these quotes come from Pope Francis.

Today another reform coalition called “Council 50” will meet to plan a gathering in a year’s time, marking the close of the Vatican II Council and the signing of the Catacomb Pact. Rome truly has been transformed these past few days by the presence of so many engaged, interested Catholics who are here to give witness to the pastoral and sacramental needs of families. I will be looking for where the Synod of Bishops becomes permeable to the choruses of voices literally surrounding them. Where, in their closed sessions will we see any bubbles from the letters, surveys, and reports calling for a more relevant, a more pastoral church?