Wednesday, October 15, 2014

All the Bad News

So I’m continuing to read the interim report on the Synod to draw out what I see as its considerable merits and thoughtful discussion. It is, for sure, not a perfect document—written in haste, it could have used a mighty editorial hand to cut through some of the verbiage. But I just want to go through it a bit now, and touch on the good points and basic flow of the presentation.

So the first part simply lays out some of the socio-cultural challenges of family life. Individualism “distorts family bonds,” leading to people seeing themselves as subjects “formed according to his or her own wishes, which are assumed as absolute.”

This approach to life and community leads to “solitude.” Economic pressures, difficulties with employment, heavy taxation all create conditions in which marriage becomes very difficult for young people to enter. We have to remember here, we North Americans, that the Synod fathers are not really thinking of us here, but of other parts of the world. We have a tendency to live in a bit of a bubble in North America, and really not realize just how different and incredibly hard life can be in other countries.

The report goes on to discuss challenges of polygamy in Africa, arranged marriages elsewhere, mixed marriages in largely non-Catholic countries, and cohabitation, children born out of wedlock, divorce, domestic violence, migration, and the particular impact of war and other forms of violence. In other words—all the problems, in other words.

Some may say (someone did say in a comment yesterday) that this is all rather banal and obvious. OK, maybe so, but if the document had not laid out all of that, people would accuse the Synod fathers of being out of touch and unaware of ‘the real world.’ So it’s a bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ thing.

I find it very good—pastoral in the best sense of that word—that the report then connects all of this unstable challenging social situation with its effects on people’s interior lives: “a greater need is encountered among individuals to take care of themselves, to know their inner being, and to live in greater harmony with their emotions and sentiments, seeking a relational quality in emotional life. In the same way, it is possible to encounter a widespread desire for family accompanied by the search for oneself.”

The world is so chaotic, so pressurized, so fractured along many fault lines, and this creates in people a great insecurity, a need for emotional security. This is a very important insight. So much of the powerful drives we see for intimacy, for sexual expression, so often coming out in deeply disordered and very harmful ways (and I’m most certainly not just thinking about homosexuality here), is coming out of a profound dislocation and fragmentation in our society that creates deep insecurities and fears in people.

The Church, in its pastoral response, has to take that into account, and this is the major thrust of this report. It is not wishy washy or sentimental or laxist in doing so—the next paragraph says that “This is a great challenge for the Church too. The danger of individualism and the risk of living selfishly are significant.”

The following paragraph is not well written (convoluted and verbose), but is actually kind of important. It refers to the promotion of “limitless affectivity,” widespread “emotional fragility”, and “a narcissistic, unstable or changeable affectivity” which does not exactly promote “greater maturity,” but leaves many young couples “in the early stages of emotional and sexual life.” It goes on to link all of that to divorce, the destabilizing of the society, the harm to children, the decline in birth rates which causes its own problems for society.

Now, this is why I’ve been telling people to read the whole document instead of fastening on to the one or two scare quotes that are being bandied around in social media. The general criticism of the document is that it seems to be capitulating to the world and to its norms and values. But we see in this first section that this is just not the case. The Synod fathers are very clear that there are terrible problems in society and in family life causing terrible damage, and do a pretty good job here outlining the real situation -- all the bad news, if you will, before we get into the Good News for family life.

It is true that they don’t delve into the more spiritual side of the equation, which is the very serious matter of sin and salvation. I think that is a pastoral choice—one that is not above criticism—to appeal to what all men and women of good will can see to be problems, rather than theological realities that require the gift of faith to understand. I’m not sure it is wise in the long run to have left the concept of sin out of the report, and I hope that further documents will repair that omission, but there it is: not a perfect document. An interim report. And that’s all for now – I’m going to keep on this for a few more days yet, so stay tuned.

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