Vatican Synod on the Family: My Feminist Thoughts

By on Feb 23, 2014 in Gender and Religion | 0 comments

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On Friday, Pope Francis convened a two-day closed synod at the Vatican about modern family life. The issues up for discussion include communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and other hot-button issues, such as contraception, couples living together outside of marriage, abortion and possibly even gay marriage.

The details of the synod are a bit murky and it seems like the cardinals in attendance won’t be issuing press releases anytime soon. This particular conference is a lead up to a larger, more comprehensive synod that will take place in October, and then another in 2015.

Though the cardinals’ current conversations at the Vatican may not be released publicly, Religion News Service reporter David Gibson did get some interesting feedback from the participants prior to the synod’s commencement:

Francis wanted the entire College of Cardinals to have a chance to talk about the controversial themes, which are to be discussed at greater length this fall at a landmark Vatican meeting of many of the world’s bishops.

But Francis also asked the hierarchy in each nation to provide feedback ahead of time about the attitude of their flocks; the blunt responses so far have already made public the sort of views that many church leaders would prefer to ignore or only speak about privately.

“There is a big gap between the Vatican and reality,” the Japanese bishops wrote in a frank assessment, published on Wednesday, of the views of their flock on contraception and related topics.

And the church is not helping matters, they added: “Often when Church leaders cannot present convincing reasons for what they say, they call it ‘natural law’ and demand obedience on their say-so,” the bishops wrote.

Bishops in other countries have found similar results when they surveyed the faithful. They have stirred debate not only by publishing the results but by calling for — as German and Swiss bishops did — “a new approach concerning Catholic sexual morality.”

The bishops of England and Wales were among the first to survey the pews but recently decided to keep the results secret, prompting sharp questions from some in the church. “It is somewhat bizarre to consult the faithful on matters of doctrine and then not to tell them what the consultation amounted to,” wrote the editors of The Tablet, a leading Catholic periodical.

In the U.S., some bishops have decided to poll their dioceses, but many have not, and it is not clear what information the American bishops will send to Rome about the attitudes of American Catholics.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George also had some interesting things to say about the Vatican Survey that was released last year and meant to be distributed to among the laity:

“Not enough time was given to do the job correctly,” George said. “And the questionnaire was not able to be used, even by people who truly wanted to contribute to the discussion.”

Referring to a planned second synod meeting in 2015, George said: “The situation will be saved if they use the year between Synods to create a more user-friendly instrument and give us time to make it more widely available.”

I consider myself to be a pretty religious person. I try my best to go to Church on Sundays and attend confession regularly. I’ve been a Catholic since birth and as an undergraduate I was pretty active in my college’s Catholic community.

But I’m also an ardent feminist. Not that those two things are inherently contradictory. In fact, they really aren’t. There are plenty of Catholic feminist theologians, such as Elizabeth Johnson at Fordham University whose groundbreaking work, She Who Is, really revolutionized the way women understand God and the Catholic faith. There are also plenty of Catholic feminist activists and scholars who have been pushing for a much more scholarly and robust understanding of women’s early role in the Church.

But, as if it isn’t already obvious, the Catholic Church (and most especially the Vatican) is still an extremely patriarchal institution. All of its top leaders – the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, etc – are and can only be men. Women’s voices, perspectives and input are systematically ignored and marginalized.

That is why I am interested in these synods on the family that the Pope is currently and will be hosting in the coming two years. His Vatican survey that was to be distributed to the laity is a pretty unique step. I believe no other Pope has done something like this before and it has encouraged Catholics around the world that maybe now their thoughts and viewpoints will finally be heard by all those male Catholic leaders living a gilded life so far removed from reality.

Unfortunately, according to the above quotes, it appears not every diocese in the United States had the decency to distribute the survey to the faithful. Lucky for me, Cardinal George did make it available on the Archdiocese of Chicago website.

At the bottom are my responses to the questionnaire. I have no idea if my answers will ever be read or forwarded on to the appropriate people at the Vatican, nor if anyone’s responses will be. But I can only hope that these surveys do have some impact, at least on the local level. Perhaps they will make at least one or two bishops or cardinals question whether the Vatican has to rethink some of its social dogma.

The issues I am most concerned about: the lack of senior leadership roles for women in the Church Church and female ordination. I think it is absolutely obscene that a supposedly “feminine” and “mother” Church can only be run entirely by men. (hmmm…perhaps penetration is a better word here?) That whether a person is worthy enough to represent Christ on the altar is dependent on whether that person has male genitalia. That only one-half of the population (a.k.a. men) can make theological pronouncements and doctrinal decisions, even if these pronouncements heavily impact the other half (women). That women are essentially given no voice or authority in the Church.

The media has recently really made a go of describing Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air. I don’t buy it. His message is still inherently the same as that of his predecessors – it contains the same sexism and patriarchy as before.

Case in point, when the media speculated about whether he might appoint women as cardinals for the first time, his response: “Women in the Church must be valued not ‘clericalised’. Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.”

What a farce. So women are too good to be clericized, eh? They deserve better, huh? All this essentially means is that by not being clericized (not being allowed to become clerics in the Church) women will never have access to top leadership positions. They will NEVER be priests, bishops, cardinals or pope. In other words, men will continue to make all the rules – they will continue to make all the theological pronouncements and doctrinal decisions. Women will continue to have little to no input. The “feminine” Church, the so-called Bride of Christ and mother of the faithful, will remain a patriarchy. The feminine Church will be an empty shell of a woman.

Pope Francis a breath of fresh air? I think not.

Here are my responses to the Vatican Survey. Most important points are highlighted in red. Left out my responses to question 6 because mostly wrote N/A for all of them.

Would love to hear your own thoughts!


The following series of questions allows the particular Churches to participate actively in the preparation of the Extraordinary Synod, whose purpose is to proclaim the Gospel in the context of the pastoral challenges facing the family today.

1. The Diffusion of the Teachings on the Family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisteriuma

a) Describe how the Catholic Church’s teachings on the value of the family contained in the Bible, Gaudium et spes, Familiaris consortio and other documents of the post-conciliar Magisterium is understood by people today? What formation is given to our people on the Church’s teaching on family life?

Many understand and feel the Catholic Church’s current teachings on the family to be not only “outdated” but, frankly, invalid. They were formulated only by males and within a very narrow and sexist/patriarchal mind frame. These teachings cannot be valid if they don’t take into account the considerations and spiritual wisdom and input of half the population (women).

b) In those cases where the Church’s teaching is known, is it accepted fully or are there difficulties in putting it into practice? If so, what are they?

No, it is not fully accepted. Again, many Catholics don’t accept or follow these teachings not just because it’s hard or they don’t have the willpower to do so. They simply believe the Church is completely wrong.

c) How widespread is the Church’s teaching in pastoral programmes at the national, diocesan and parish levels? What catechesis is done on the family?

Not nearly enough. I believe the only catechesis on the family is offered to lay people during pre-marriage counseling services.

d) To what extent — and what aspects in particular — is this teaching actually known, accepted, rejected and/or criticized in areas outside the Church? What are the cultural factors which hinder the full reception of the Church’s teaching on the family?

The problems lie within the Church. How can you expect lay people to accept these teachings when they are inherently sexist and patriarchal and formulated only by men to the negation of women’s input or wisdom? Women’s spiritual wisdom was not at all sought in the formulations of these teachings and women have been denied any sort of input since. That is why these teachings are rejected and criticized by much of the public and parishioners.

2. Marriage according to the Natural Law

a) What place does the idea of the natural law have in the cultural areas of society: in institutions, education, academic circles and among the people at large? What anthropological ideas underlie the discussion on the natural basis of the family?

The idea of “natural law” is an idea believed by many to be harsh, discriminatory and patriarchal in essence and therefore not reflective of true human experience.

b) Is the idea of the natural law in the union between a man and a woman commonly accepted as such by the baptized in general?


c) How is the theory and practice of natural law in the union between man and woman challenged in light of the formation of a family? How is it proposed and developed in civil and Church institutions?

It is challenged frequently and many individuals no longer accept the Church’s teachings on it.

d) In cases where non-practicing Catholics or declared non-believers request the celebration of marriage, describe how this pastoral challenge is dealt with?


3. The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization

a) What experiences have emerged in recent decades regarding marriage preparation? What efforts are there to stimulate the task of evangelization of the couple and of the family? How can an awareness of the family as the “domestic Church” be promoted?

The pre-Cana classes for couples are considered largely a waste of time and ineffective, as well as somewhat embarrassing to attend. If the Church wants people to better understand its teaching, these classes need to be offered through Catholic education, from elementary school onward.

b) How successful have you been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture?


c) In the current generational crisis, how have Christian families been able to fulfill their vocation of transmitting the faith?

Through volunteer activities.

d) In what way have the local Churches and movements on family spirituality been able to create ways of acting which are exemplary?

Through service and volunteer opportunities.

e) What specific contribution can couples and families make to spreading a credible and holistic idea of the couple and the Christian family today?

Via love and acceptance for all, and generosity of spirit to those in need.

f) What pastoral care has the Church provided in supporting couples in formation and couples in crisis situations?


4. Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations

a) Is cohabitation ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage?

Yes, probably 90%.

b) Do unions which are not recognized either religiously or civilly exist? Are reliable statistics available?

Yes, of course. The state government can provide statistics.

c) Are separated couples and those divorced and remarried a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage? How do you deal with this situation in appropriate pastoral programmes?

Yes, not sure of percentage.

d) In all the above cases, how do the baptized live in this irregular situation? Are aware of it? Are they simply indifferent? Do they feel marginalized or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments.

They feel marginalized and frustrated that the Church is not willing to listen to their side of the story or at least empathize with their situation about how difficult or abusive their former marriages may have been.

e) What questions do divorced and remarried people pose to the Church concerning the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation? Among those persons who find themselves in these situations, how many ask for these sacraments?

N/A. Side note: I think many are not sure how excommunication for a serious sin (such as divorce or abortion) can be forgiven. Can a regular priest hear an excommunicated person’s confession or must a bishop be present? This impacts whether a person can receive communion and how easy they think it is to rejoin the Church.

f) Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognizing a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved? If yes, what form would it take?

The best thing to do is raise awareness about annulment procedures: who qualifies for an annulment and how to best go about getting one from the Church.

g) Does a ministry exist to attend to these cases? Describe this pastoral ministry? Do such programmes exist on the national and diocesan levels? How is God’s mercy proclaimed to separated couples and those divorced and remarried and how does the Church put into practice her support for them in their journey of faith?

How can the Church provide ministry or support for divorced and remarried Catholic when it doesn’t view their new unions as valid? It’s a contradiction. And most likely, a divorced or remarried Catholic would feel the Church is acting two-faced and would not be comfortable accepting these ministries or support.

5. On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex

a) Is there a law in your country recognizing civil unions for people of the same-sex and equating it in some way to marriage?

In some U.S. states there are such laws.

b) What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union?

Obviously the churches are against it.

c) What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?

How about full-on acceptance and the realization that love comes in different forms and people can’t change their sexual orientation?

d) In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?

Accept these families for what they are! Accept that same-sex marriage is not a “sin,” that their love for each other is valid and that they frequently raise healthy and well-adjusted children. Truly many laypeople don’t understand what the big deal is about gay marriage. All people want love and it’s barbaric to deny some people that opportunity just because you may not feel comfortable with their type of union. But who are gay couples hurting (answer: no one)? Who are you to judge? Let them live their lives, as long as they are doing so out of love. Otherwise, you are just going to create a lot of depressed, alienated and frustrated Catholics who feel the Church will never accept them for who they are and who feel their mere existence is a sin (because the Church’s distinction between having homosexual inclinations and actually acting on those inclinations is largely irrelevant and contradictory).

7. The Openness of the Married Couple to Life

a) What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae vitae on responsible parenthood? Are they aware of how morally to evaluate the different methods of family planning? Could any insights be suggested in this regard pastorally?

There is barely any discussion of family planning methods pastorally. Such information is only offered during pre-marriage counseling (Pre-Cana classes) by the Church and the teaching is largely ineffective and confusing.

b) Is this moral teaching accepted? What aspects pose the most difficulties in a large majority of couple’s accepting this teaching?

Frankly, many Catholic simply reject the teachings of the Church on contraception as wrong and pigheaded. They view the teaching as largely sexist and a way to keep women subjugated by men (constantly pregnant). Most couples also can’t afford more than two to four kids and think the Church doesn’t understand their financial situation. They also view natural family planning as difficult to put into practice and unreliable.

c) What natural methods are promoted by the particular Churches to help spouses put into practice the teachings of Humanae vitae?

None. Priests really don’t talk about it unless a couple is planning to get married in the Church and has to take the pre-Cana counseling sessions. Otherwise, it is not discussed on Sundays or in homilies.

d) What is your experience on this subject in the practice of the Sacrament of Penance and participation at the Eucharist.

Mostly well taught.

e) What differences are seen in this regard between the Church’s teaching and civic education? N/A f) How can a more open attitude towards having children be fostered? How can an increase in births be promoted?

Instead of just teaching Catholics about how important children are, why doesn’t the Church put its money where its mouth is? The Church should be providing significant financial assistance to impoverished families and especially to women (especially rape victims) who are keeping their babies because the Church teaches abortion is a sin. This goes beyond just providing a couple of packs of diapers to families or a crib. I’m talking about MAJOR financial assistance: subsidized housing and education. Paying of burdensome medical bills. Providing daycare services for working parents. The Church should use its wealth to provide for these poor and distraught families. This is the only way the Church is going to create a culture of life! Simple preaching doesn’t work.

8. The Relationship Between the Family and the Person

a) Jesus Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the human person. How can the family be a privileged place for this to happen?

By instilling love for one another and extending that love to society at large.

b) What critical situations in the family today can obstruct a person’s encounter with Christ?

Money problems and poverty. Sexism and discrimination based on sexual orientation by Church officials.

c) To what extent do the many crisis of faith which people can experience affect family life?

It can make entire families question whether the Church is right for them or whether the Church actually understands their problems. That’s what happens when you only allow celibate men to become priests.

9. Other Challenges and Proposals

What other challenges or proposals related to the topics in the above questions do you consider urgent and useful to treat?

Gender discrimination and misogyny is widespread in the Church, and it is leading many women to abandon the Catholic faith. What’s the point for women to stick around if they are treated like second-class citizens and unworthy of representing Jesus Christ on the altar? Female ordination would be a big step forward to righting this wrong. Moreover it would be in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Rather than basing the validity of ordination based on the juvenile requirement that the person has male genitalia, it should be based on spiritual calling, faith and commitment.

The Church’s biological determinism mindset is insulting to women, out-of-step with actual Biblical and theological validity/scholarship, and highly patriarchal. It’s absolutely obscene that only one-half of the population (men) are allowed significant leadership roles (priests, bishops and cardinals) in a supposedly feminine Church and are allowed to make religious pronouncements that greatly impact women, yet the latter is given no input or voice! This is gender inequality and patriarchal barbarism in practice. It’s time for the Church to reform itself from a patriarchal institution to one that is inclusive of men and women.

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