Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The Family: what is the real question for the Synod?

In a recent Victoria Derbyshire programme, a survivor of abuse in orphanages run by religious in Ireland talks of the impact of that abuse on her later life, including the impact on her own experience of being a mother. Her daughter also takes part in the interview.

Whilst the reason for "Irene" being placed in orphanages was that she was experiencing abuse in the family home, watching the clip from the programme prompted a thought that occurred to me at the time of the release of the film Philomena. At the time I didn't explore the thought and, not having a great familiarity with Catholic life in Ireland, I am still not in a position to do so fully.

The public comment about the experience of unmarried mothers placed in mother and baby homes in Ireland focusses around their treatment in those homes. It is right that abuse is the subject of vigorous challenge and appropriate redress, particularly when that abuse was perpetrated by religious. The responsibility for abuse is rightly assigned to those who carried out the abuse.

Why, however, did unmarried mothers experience such rejection from their family homes and local communities that there was the need for a network of mother and baby homes? I do not gain the impression that the homes purpose was just to provide clinical and social care that the family could not provide - if that were the case, the permanence of placement and separation from family that was the experience of women such as Philomena would not have occurred. What was the social, cultural - and, in the situation of Irish society at the time, religious - matrix that gave rise to this rejection, a rejection which appears to have had at least to some extent a systemic character? Whilst the responsibility for abuse rests rightly with those who actually carried out the abuse, is there not also a responsibility to be explored for the societal matrix which gave rise to an apparently systemic need for mother and baby homes?

I do not believe the question is purely academic, or purely a question of history. We can equally ask, in the context of the forthcoming World Meeting of Families (whose theme is Love is our Mission: the Family fully alive) and Synod of Bishops (dedicated to The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World): what are the situations in Catholic families today that might lead to the extent of rejection from family and ecclesial life that, in a former time in Ireland, contributed to the circumstances of the mother and baby homes, and the shame that that has subsequently brought on the Church?

What do family members make of a son or daughter who marries outside the Church, or who do not marry at all and simply cohabit? How does a parish react to a co-habiting couple who seek marriage in the Catholic Church? What do Catholics in a parish make of a daughter who is pregnant outside of marriage, perhaps even while still at school? What do Catholics in a parish make of a parishioner who has an abortion? The two situations that have given rise to a vehemence of debate in the run up to the Synod are in reality only two questions among others: what should Catholic families and parishes make of validly married couples who have civilly divorced and entered into new unions; and what should families and parishes make of members who enter into same-sex relationships be they instances of cohabitation or civilly recognised unions?

The question is much less one about reception of Holy Communion than it is one about a mission of hospitality (see below), and I think it is unfortunate that the question has been framed in terms of admission to Holy Communion or change in the Church's teaching on same-sex relationships. Those decrying "confusion about Catholic teaching" in these matters have, in my view, contributed as much to the discussion of the wrong question as have those who in the first instance are attempting to promote change in teaching and sacramental practice. Providing an answer to the questions above certainly will not be served by a derogation from Catholic teaching; but neither will it be served by reaffirming that teaching and offering nothing more than that reaffirmation (cf, for example, Pope Benedict XVI response to the last question during the evening of witness of the World Meeting of Families in Milan in June 2012).

Reading Chapter VIII of the catechesis of the World Meeting of Families 2015  is, I think, instructive in offering a response to the questions asked above. It opens by referring to the "hard teachings" of Jesus, that challenge the disciples, and even cause some of them to leave: should surprise no one that some Church teachings are also perceived as “hard sayings,” out of step with current culture, especially on marriage, sexual expression, and the family.
Starting from Pope Francis' image of the Church as a "field hospital", the chapter goes on to develop an account of the pastoral nature of the Church's teaching with regard to marriage.
Pope Francis helps us to see the Church’s “hard sayings” as words for our healing. But we need to engage in a kind of triage, treating the wounds according to their severity.
It sees the starting point as the call of every Christian has to a personal encounter with the person of Christ, and that the action of the Church and of her members is aimed at bringing about this encounter. In a strictly correct sense, the chapter indicates a need for accompaniment in a journey of spiritual growth that applies to all Christians, including those whose marital situations present difficulties. It also skillfully indicates that Pope Francis is in complete continuity with his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in this regard. What particularly strikes me in this chapter is its call on families and parishes to engage in a mission of hospitality:
Many of Christ’s moral teachings, and thus Catholic ethics, are demanding. But they presume in Christians a spirit of discipleship, a life of prayer, and a commitment to social and economic Christian community -   i.e., a family of other men and women who have encountered Jesus, who together confess that he is Lord, wanting his grace to shape their lives, and helping each other respond to him....
The key is to create within the family, the parish, and the wider Christian community an environment of mutual support where moral growth and change can occur...
 ... if ordinary parishioners understood the rationale behind celibacy as a community practice, and if more domestic churches took the apostolate of hospitality more seriously, then the ancient Catholic teaching on chastity lived in continence outside of marriage might look more plausible to modern eyes. In other words, if our parishes really were places where "single" did not meant "lonely", where extended networks of friends and families really did share one another's joys and sorrows, then perhaps at least some of the world's objections to Catholic teaching might be disarmed. Catholics can embrace apostolates of hospitality no matter how hostile or indifferent the surrounding culture might be. Nobody is limiting lay or ordained Catholics in the friendship we can offer those who struggle.
The barriers to achieving this will differ from place to place. But nothing is served by presenting this call to an apostolate of hospitality as if it is a denial of Catholic teaching.


Patricius said...

"The public comment about the experience of unmarried mothers placed in mother and baby homes in Ireland focusses around their treatment in those homes."

Indeed. How are we to judge the truth or otherwise of the claims being made? The media involved and many in the establishment are happy to hear such claims. Whose agenda is being served? Not so long ago we were hearing of babies being massacred and buried in a septic tank in Tuam. By the time the claims were proved false the media had moved on.

Shirelands Goldadors said...

We should avoid "shunning" people who don't live up to the Church's teachings.You ask really important questions. The Church & Mother & Baby homes get blamed for taking in the shunned. Living in Ireland now, I hear an absolute contempt for the Catholic Church by many young people. There is much work to do!

Joe said...

Patricius: Thank you for your comment.

Whilst it is true that we might not be able to judge the truth or otherwise of individual claims made in the media, nevertheless the evidence of inappropriate behaviour with regard to mother and baby homes in Ireland appears to me sufficient to accept that such wrong behaviour did occur.