Final Version – Response to Questionnaire for Family Synod
What I have written here is the result of numerous discussions with a number of folks and in greater depth than I expected. It was a learning experience for me. A lot of time, energy, and trusting went into it. I hope it will be treated with respect.
To his credit, Bishop Lennon was among the first US bishops to ask for input from priests. He did this with respect, and I am responding to him with the same respect.
Status: retired priest in good standing — as a retired priest I help out in a number of parishes.
1. How do people understand the Church’s teaching on the family?
These teachings are not much known or understood in general, and are commonly seen as a system of rules and threats which do not reflect family life as it is lived by our folks. Managers legislate for folks they do not see and do not know. Increasingly our hurting folks do not find the church ministering to them and so look elsewhere outside the church, or outside of religion.
Understanding the Church’s teachings takes time and effort, which most folks are not interested in doing. Classes, catechesis programs, and discussion groups are offered in many parishes, but the majority of people do not take part. While many people might have a superficial awareness of the teachings, most just ignore them and try to do their best themselves.
Many families are busy about many things and just don’t give much attention to the church and its teachings. Many good folks just seem not to care about what the church says on these and other matters. They have too many other things to be concerned about.
In this area, as in others, the church is increasingly irrelevant. Much of this is because of the bishops’ treatment of the sex abuse situation which reflects their overall arrogance. The church’s teaching on the family has minimal impact. Most families take their values from the way they were raised and from society in general, not from the church. Many families have no contact with the church and yet are doing quite well. Many of them are models for all families.
2. How do people understand the Church’s teaching on marriage according to the natural law?
The notion of natural law is not understood by many folks. Most families are just trying to live good lives and don’t have the time or energy to get involved in anything they do not see as ‘practical’.
There is a lot of resentment to unmarried males telling parents how to live the most intimate parts of their relationship and raise children, so by far most married folks just don’t pay attention to them. Church management focuses on sterile ideas in black and white, while real life is gray and messy. The celibate male management just doesn’t get it. Not many of them have changed a diaper, sat up all night with a sick child, deal with the challenges of raising children and finding/keeping a job, or had to suffer or make difficult decisions with a critically ill spouse, yet they claim to have all the answers for spouses and parents.
Many believe the church’s doctrines are based on disproved and obsolete concepts of biology and psychology, and ignore the emotional realities of human life and relationships. The decreasing number of church weddings and baptisms reflect the growing idea that the church has nothing to offer married couples.
Many folks know or are related to persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite, questioning, and do not see them as “intrinsically disordered”. Many have no problem with marriage equality, or with a religious ceremony supporting a couple’s love for each other.
3. Pastoral care of the Family in Evangelization.
While there are some parish programs, most families are just too busy to waste time on something they perceive as irrelevant. There are too many other things clamoring for their attention. Day schools are doing some good. PSRs, etc, aren’t accomplishing much.
Most families have nothing to do with the church. Some kind of outreach is necessary, because the Gospel has a lot to offer, but not by the way the bishops are demanding.
4. Pastoral Care in Difficult Marital Situations, eg, divorced and remarried.
There are no difficult marriage situations, other than those that don’t fit the church’s desired orderly facade and organizational structure. There are real people, couples in love and in need of the support of the Body of Christ. The church responds with threats and condemnations, always in the name of Jesus, saying basically that we will not help you unless you change and do what we tell you.
There is not much pastoral care, although many pastors are doing all they can. The scope of pastoral care has to be rethought and shared so that it is dealing with the reality or life. Peer relationships in this area of pastoral care could help.
Because they are perceived to be “living in sin” many divorced and remarried catholics just stay away, and deal with their pain as best they can by themselves. Many feel they are being punished by the church for failing in their previous marriage. They do not see themselves as sinful, but as having broken a church law which may or may not have anything to do with God.
Some, however, are making the choice that the bishops do not have the right to deny them full participation in the Eucharist, and they act accordingly. They realize they have not done anything that would cause Jesus to turn them away, and so do receive Communion. They just don’t tell anybody about their “status”. Many priests are supporting them in their choice. This reflects Francis’ saying the Eucharist is not a reward for good behavior, but nourishment for people in their weakness.
Turning divorced people away from the Eucharist was by far the cruelest gesture on the Church’s part. And the idea of Annulment is worse. Til death us do part is hard by anyone’s measure.
With co-habitation becoming increasingly common, many couples don’t bother with marriage, either civil or religious. In the military there are benefits for spouses to have ID cards, and civil marriage is required for this, not a church service. Many couples do not go beyond civil marriage, seeing no need for church recognition.
Perhaps it is time for the church to get out of the marriage business where it functions as an agent of the state, and instead focus on Sacrament of Matrimony for those who want it after they have already been married civilly. It ought to be up to individual couples as to whether or not to have a church marriage.
5. On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex.
A climate of fear is present in the church when our GLBTQ brothers and sisters are living in fear of losing their livelihood because of the way they are created. Often their parents share the same fear because they are supportive of their children. This fear is perpetrated by organizations and institutions who claim to act in the name of Jesus. As long as persons in a same sex relationship do not make their relationship public, things are relatively safe. The church is teaching folks to be less than truthful, as recent well known instances indicate.
Often ministry is provided below the radar, although there are some parishes that are “LGBTQ friendly”. Most people don’t pay attention to the bishops because they know their folks while the bishops don’t, and they reject church management’s statement that persons with same sex attraction are “intrinsically disordered”. All are created in the image and likeness of God.
A number of gay persons originally felt hurt by the church’s attitude towards them, but have worked things out. They feel God creates them and loves them as they are, and many don’t care if the Catholic Church accepts them because other churches do.
The perception is that it is not safe to be too public in this ministry. Adherence to doctrine and institutional rules is more important than caring for the hurting. While there are some parish support groups doing good work, a lot is going on below the radar. Many priests have no problem ministering to their folks, but do it quietly. The very fact that they have to minister in this way ghetto-izes our brothers and sisters. Folks realize that Jesus and his gospel are for everybody, regardless of what the church says. Jesus went to folks where they were, while the church says we will not help you unless you change to what we tell you to be.
In many parishes and church sponsored institutions claiming to act “after the example of Christ and at his command” there is an atmosphere of fear among folks that if they seem too “LGBTQ friendly”, seem to deviate from church norms, or are not anti-gay enough, they will lose their jobs or experience other forms of subtle or not so subtle persecution. Anecdotally there are numerous instances of such actually happening: parishioners being “discerned” as not qualified to serve as lector or ministers of the eucharist because their children are LGBTQ; students being afraid to be themselves because they will be bullied or otherwise mistreated; staff members being forced out of their positions because they are perceived as gay friendly or are not anti-gay enough; the list goes on.
6. The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages.
Since the family is the primary religious educator, children in “irregular” marriages are further alienated from the Church because the catechism that is taught does not match the reality of their lives. Why should a child go to mass or receive communion when their parents are unwelcomed at the Table? The Church is irrelevant because there seems to be little welcome and compassion, just rules and or elses.
7. The Openness of Married Couples to Life.
Most couples feel they have the right and responsibility to determine how best to raise a family, and they make their choices as best they can and with good will. They ignore the bishops, as ignorant or unaware of the reality of everyday family life. Most couples, and very many priests, do not see birth control as a sin, so, if they go to confession, which very few people do, they do not mention it. Also, solid christian couples who are infertile are not celebrated for choosing the gift of life but condemned for using means that the church declares to be intrinsically evil.
8. The Relationship Between the Family and the Person.
Most families take their values from society and their own upbringing, and not from the church.
9. Other Challenges and Proposals.
Often the problem is that the bishops in general are perceived as arrogant and irrelevant, so anything they say is ignored and their credibility is minimal. They have lost the respect of the folks. This is due to the way the folks, including the priests, have been and are treated.
The emphasis is on “bishops in general” because there are many good pastoral bishops who quietly and pastorally serve their people. That said, leadership that is arrogant, irrelevant, and with reduced credibility is the norm, not the exception. This is a VERY bad state for the church. An organization, religious or lay, whose leaders are mostly seen as lacking credibility is an organization in trouble.
The problem with the church’s teachings is the arrogance of the bishops who are proposing it. While the teachings are rich, deep, and complex, their value is minimized by the image of the bishops imposing it. And they do impose doctrine, not propose it. They seem to believe that only they have religious freedom and any who do not agree with them don’t have it.
In this day and age folks do not accept that certain topics may not even be discussed, and they resent the punishment that is imposed on folks, especially priests, who dare discuss them.
The message of the gospel is forever fresh; it can resonate with each generation, but leaders have to create that resonance. Universal church with common dogma can resonate with varieties of faith communities and varieties of generations and historical periods. The message of the gospel remains the same, but how it is taught and lived changes: eg, Jesus didn’t have to worry about nuclear proliferation, AIDS, immigration, high unemployment, terrors, etc.
If the priests were asked what they think of the church as it is now, would the bishops really listen? Many priests are afraid to speak out publicly on what they know is wrong because of the perceived power the bishop has over them — assignment, salary, retirement, livelihood, silencing, etc.
In general the bishops have lost the respect of the folks. They have a credibility problem. They don’t know real life. Folks know that bishops in other countries have taken strong stands on things like the missal translation and communion for divorced and remarried catholics, and are wondering why the US bishops don’t do something similar.
As one person put it, Jesus wanted us to love one another and that He was joyful. The Bishops etc, need to help the people find Joy in the Lord. I have never heard this mentioned. Why are the bishops making it so difficult to get to God?
The parish/church is important only for special occasions, e.g. baptism, wedding, funeral. This also is diminishing. People are leaving? Does anybody ask them why?
“Internal migration” (varying degrees of just going through the motions while not paying attention to church teaching and practice) is a common phenomenon, and management ought to look into it.
A good practice of leadership is the “exit interview”. Asking catholics to “come home” is great if the invitation to “come home” would be accompanied by interest in “why did we lose you?”, along with an honest attempt, once learning why, to adapt leadership practices? Why would catholics want to come back if the institution treats them the same was as when they left?
just sayin . . .