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The Church’s extraordinary Synod on the family hasn’t gone down terribly well with secular pundits. It’s been billed as a failure on the BBC, which declared that gay Catholic groups are 'disappointed' with the inability of the Synod to make progress towards acknowledging gay relationships. Other groups are similarly disappointed by the Synod’s refusal to admit divorced and remarried people to communion. As Damian Thompson observes, Pope Francis probably has no-one but himself to blame, in that he allowed so much of the pre-Synod discussion to focus on these contentious areas.
All the same, it’s reductionist to equate the success of a Synod on the family – certainly the first phase of it - in terms of the Catholic church’s progress towards contemporary norms (viz, sort of parity of esteem for every relationship and family structure: gay or straight, permanent or ad hoc, first marriage or subsequent ones).
That parity of esteem is more or less axiomatic in contemporary politics. But it may be, you know, that the Church has useful things to say about our collective inability to sustain marriages, or indeed permanent relationships at all. It may not be the Church that has failed to achieve our secular, enlightened understanding about relationships; but secular people who have failed to grasp important things about the family, about commitment, about the relations between generations.
The Synod isn’t just confining its observations to Catholics, but directing them at everyone. It doesn’t occupy an enclave designated as 'religious', with no bearing on the activities of normal people. There are obviously aspects of the Synod that affect only Catholics – the admission of people to communion, say – but most of the substance is the kind of thing that secularists could usefully reflect on. The very first bit of the discussion paper, for instance, deals with the socio-cultural context for marriage right now. It talks about 'an exasperated individualism', the problem of solitude and crushing socio-economic circumstances, due to 'precariousness in the workplace, or heavy taxation that certainly does not encourage young people to marriage'. Yep, that sounds about right
Later the discussion document (reproduced by the Catholic Herald) goes on to talk about something it calls the promotion of 'limitless affectivity' - or what we might call emotional incontinence - as a problem for marriage. And that ties in with the opening remarks about 'exasperated individualism', which you might sum up as the state of mind that sees marriage as being 'me, me, me.' And my feelings. Again, it makes pretty good sense for people other than Catholics.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, in an interview with the Tablet’s Elena Curti, insisted that the discussion group the Synod members were divided into had interesting things to say about any number of issues. The French speakers focused, for instance, on support for elderly family members, or rather the absence of it. The Spanish-speaking delegation insisted that the Synod should be, more than anything else, a trumpet-call for marriage. The English speakers talked about the dehumanizing environment of cities in which people think of themselves as economic units, obsessed by consumerism.
It’s all terrifically worthy, meaty, important stuff. But of all this, not a sausage came out in the coverage of the event.
As Damian says, the distortion of the Synod's agenda and the notion that its success or failure will be defined by outsiders in terms of gay relationships and the divorced and remarried, is mostly the fault of the Pope. But he too has interesting and useful things to say about the family way beyond these two rather tired and divisive subjects. It’s just a shame we’ll almost certainly hear nothing about them.