Two days of encounters, conversations and reflections have left me perplexed, inspired, challenged, and with a keen sense of ‘being there’.
When Vatican II was happening, I was a Presbyterian schoolgirl living in Lusaka, Zambia, attending the Dominican Convent School. I think I registered that something significant was happening when the nuns shed their wimples, one of them auditioned for The Sound of the Music at Lusaka Playhouse, two of them came to my Presbyterian confirmation service, and one left to get married. Dear Sister Ceslaus, the mighty maths teacher who was later murdered in an attack on a mission in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) during UDI, told her Protestant charges: ‘Now girls, don’t go home and tell your parents I told you this, but just remember the words of Martin Luther on his deathbed: “It is easier to live as a Protestant, but it is easier to die as a Catholic.”’ I don’t think Luther actually said that, but obviously her strategy worked.
Since coming to live in Britain in the late 1980s as a new convert to Catholicism, I have become a little bored by the nostalgia for the Council which constitutes a pervasive melancholic aura among liberal Catholics of a certain age. Today, there’s a new generation of Catholics who were born into the postconciliar Church, and many of them simply don’t care about the politics of the Vatican. They practise birth control, cohabit, ‘come out’, do whatever they need to do to survive as Catholics who are both faithful and intelligent. At the other end of the spectrum is a narrow group of ideologues (some of them also young), who believe themselves to be the custodians and progenitors of the One True Church over and against liberals, relativists, feminists, homosexuals, and all the rest of the wicked forces of modernity that are destroying God’s Church. Ho hum.
This week, however, I am so glad to be in Rome, because I suspect that, for the first time since 1968, the spirit of Vatican II is dancing in the streets of this city. The politics, the gossip and the intrigue are compelling.
The English translation of Monday's interim document has been reworded. The section on gays and lesbians has been retitled from ‘Welcoming homosexual persons’ to ‘Providing for homosexual persons’, and a few other changes have been made to the wording. Cardinal Raymond Burke has apparently confirmed stories that he is on his way out. Similar unconfirmed rumours are circulating about Cardinal Gerhard Müller, President of the CDF. Cardinal Marx has said that doctrine can develop and change. Cardinal Walter Kasper was accused of being a racist on the basis of a report by journalist Edward Pentin, whose impromptu interview with Cardinal Kasper outside the Synod Hall resulted in some comments on Africa by the Cardinal which were construed as racist in some reports, with an ensuing controversy as to who said what and how it was reported. [Please note I have changed the wording of this last sentence, since in two commenst posted below Benedict Ambrose pointed out I had his name wrong, and challenged my interpretation of Pentin's piece. See the first comment for a link to Pentin's clarification].
The point Kaspar was making is in my view one of the two central issues of this Synod: how to reconcile the vast cultural differences within the Church, in a Synod that brings together bishops from across the world’s cultures and contexts. It is a reminder that the unity of the Catholic Church is a liturgical and sacramental unity, not a moral and cultural unity. Bishops and cardinals from some African and Muslim countries have apparently been shocked by the open discussion of ‘taboo’ issues such as homosexuality, and there are diverse responses to the question of the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments, as I mentioned on a previous blog. Polygamy, forced marriages and similar issues have been on the agenda, but they have not attracted the same media attention as homosexuality.
I fact, I suspect that the media are to blame for giving the impression that this has been a Synod primarily concerned with homosexuality, in a way which suggests (wrongly I think) that fundamental threats to the well-being of families and individuals are being squeezed off the agenda. I heard from somebody that the highly popular Cardinal Taglia of the Philippines said it breaks his heart every time he goes to the airport in Manila, because so many people are leaving the country in search of work. Why is nobody covering the Synod writing about these things? What does it do to a family when a mother emigrates to act as cheap labour caring for other people’s children in London, New York or Rome? Indeed, I am suddenly struck by the extent to which, wherever you go in the world, dark-skinned people wait in attendance on light-skinned people. I find myself looking around with new eyes since hearing Taglia’s comment, and wondering about all these displaced human beings eking out a living on the margins of our modern world – the African men selling handbags on every Roman street, the shabby tour guides and street performers at every attraction, the desperate eyes of those who thrust cheap plastic trinkets and baubles in the faces of tourists, begging them to buy something. And these are the lucky ones. What about the bundles of rags in doorways and piles of clothing huddled on benches, which turn out to be human beings with nowhere else to go?
In a café I sat near a bishop from the Congo. I wondered what stories he might tell about ‘families’, from that context of rape and war and poverty and despair. I remember a few years ago meeting a devout Catholic woman from the Congo, who had spent three years living in the forest with her five children, foraging for food, to escape the raping armies of whatever men were fighting for power at the time. What about her family? What about those from West Africa, where families are being shredded by the Ebola epidemic? And what of the bishops and cardinals from Muslim countries, where Christian and Muslim mothers alike are raped and children are murdered? I hear that some of those church leaders from such societies say that they forbid marriage between Christians and Muslims. Catholics who marry Muslims excommunicate themselves, they say. That is heresy, and surely the seeds of violence are fed the poison they need to flourish in the face of such bigotry. Others have pointed out that in a world of so many mixed marriages, so much cohabitation, so many forms of marriage and family life, the number of marriages that would be truly sacramentally valid in the eyes of the Church might be infinitesimally small.
Yet one would think, reading about this Synod, that the greatest challenge, opportunity or threat to the modern family (depending on how you see these things) is homosexuality. Having initially been irritated by what I thought was a distorted emphasis in this respect, I have in the last couple of days come to realize that this is indeed a core doctrinal issue, because more than poverty and violence, more than divorce and remarriage, it is a question that goes to the very heart of the Church's sexual anthropology. Is sexuality an intrinsically personal dimension of our need for and capacity to express love in a bodily way that engages our whole being in a relationship of intimacy, trust and vulnerability? Or is sexuality more about genital difference and procreation? Put it like that, and the answer should be obvious. However, Pope John Paul II's 'theology of the body', promoted around the world primarily by way of well-funded American campaigns, holds that sexual difference goes to the very core of our being, and to fail to recognise that is to distort our understanding of what it means to be human. Having spent years researching and writing about 'theology of the body', I think it functions more as a vehicle of resistance to feminism and homosexuality than as a genuinely viable account of human sexuality - notwithstanding the fact that couples who can afford large families, who are psychologically, sexually and spiritually on the same wave length, and/or who are obedient and dutiful servants of the Church, promote it as if encountering the sexual other were second only to the beatific vision. Fine when you're falling in love at the age of twenty, but a bit hard to sustain through forty years and more of married life.
Yet at the other end of the spectrum, there is also something ethically and existentially repellent about those advocates of gendered performativity who would reduce sexual difference to cultural conditioning and nothing more. Our bodies matter, and sex is a very large part of that mattering. We do not yet begin to comprehend that complex interface between culture and nature, where our sexed humanity is both given and constructed, fundamental to who we are in some ways, incidental to who we are in many other ways. However, one thing we can be sure of. Sexual difference functions as a powerful mechanism of exclusion when it comes to women, and nowhere more so than in this most clerical of cities.
This is the second big issue. No - this is THE BIG ISSUE. Where are the women in this Synod? It is beyond belief that, in a Synod on the family, the voices of women have been almost entirely excluded, except insofar as they speak as half of a couple. As one woman journalist observed to me, ‘Women are speaking only as couples. But couples don’t speak. Only men and women can speak.' Where are the mothers and daughters, the sisters and aunts, the members of religious orders who mother the poor and care for those who have nobody else to care for them? Where are those who would cry to the heavens about the fact that 800 of the world's poorest women die every day through causes relating to childbirth, yet they never merit a mention in this church of the poor? In his latest 'Letter from Rome', Robert Mickens points out that 'In a meeting room filled with more than two hundred people, mostly clerics (bishops, priests and seminarian-aides), only twenty-five are women. It’s not exactly an edifying image of inclusiveness.' As the absence of women begins to gnaw away at me, I find myself in a state of jaw-dropping incredulity. How is it possible for a Synod of more than two hundred people to spend nearly two weeks discussing the family, without a single representative of women being allowed to speak as a woman, on behalf of herself and not on behalf of 'the couple' or 'the family'?
Today, we eagerly await publication of the final document from this Synod, though rumours are that it might not be released until Monday or Tuesday. That is when the important business will really begin, and it is in the interests of every woman, child and man in the Church that we women insist upon having a voice and being heard in the process of deliberation that will occupy the life of the Church between now and the next Synod in October 2015, when the discussions and dialogues opened up this week are finalised and translated into doctrine and practice. That is not long, particularly when one is dealing with two thousand years of history. But do not believe anybody who tells you that those two thousand years have been an unchanging history of ‘the family’ - the semper idemists, as one person called them this week. There is no such thing as The Family. There are only human beings, vulnerable and muddled, woven together of starlight and dust, of memories and dreams, of flesh and fantasy, all of us hungry for only one thing that can truly sustain us and feed us and express what it means to be human – love.
Somebody only half-jokingly said to me that the Church in Rome is ‘the vortex of dysfunctionality’. I found myself smiling about that phrase through the rest of the day, and I began to think that surely, that could be a good way of describing ‘the family’? This is where each and every one of us learns to love and be loved – for better for worse, for richer or poorer. This is where all our dysfunctionalities are forced out into the open and we go through the painful, unending process of learning who we are and hopefully how to become better at that task of being. To stay committed to love, come what may, in such a context, is perhaps the most challenging task any of us faces, and the fragility of our successes always stands under threat by the woundings of our failures. That's what families are about, but what matters is not ‘the family’ but the love that makes and breaks each person within that communal group that is sometimes about love and cherishing, but that is sometimes also about hatred and violence.
Cardinal Dolan gave us the benefit of his own private fantasy world when he wrote a piece on ‘The Noble Nature of Marriage and Family’, floating away on the ethereal mists of his own eloquence:
Ours is the task of recovering the truth, beauty, and goodness of marriage and family. In a world that wonders if anyone can really say “forever;” if fidelity is possible; if children are a gift and never a burden; we say, yes! We echo what God the Father, His Son, and His Spirit alive in the Church have revealed: that the bond between a man and woman in marriage, faithful and forever, leads to a healthy, sound civilization, with happiness here and in eternity.
We dare to be poets and romantics, reclaiming the foundation of the “civilization of love” and “culture of life” that can transform the world, resisting the temptation to conform to a world that wonders if any love—God’s love, or the love of a man and woman in marriage—can ever be forever. In a world that often answers “no,” we thunder a yes!
That’s my sentiment as I prepare to return home to you, my people, with a renewed admiration for our wonderful married couples and families! I love you! I thank you! I need you!
Walking home late on Thursday night from St. Peter’s to Trastevere along the river, I noticed flowers and a child’s mementoes attached to the railings of Ponte Mazzini. I stopped to read the notices which explained what had happened. I read the short, unbearable story of Claudio Franceschelli, ‘the angel of Ponte Mazzini’.
Sixteen months old, Claudio, the son of Claudia and Patrizio, was staying with his grandmother in Trastevere. It was early morning – a freezing, snowy February morning. Claudio was snuggled in bed asleep between his nona, Rita, and his pregnant aunt, Manuela, when his demented father arrived at the apartment. The father took the child out into the icy streets and carried him to the bridge, fighting off everybody who tried to stop him, breaking the desperate grandmother's finger in the process. He threw the dazed child into the river. The English translation of the note on the railings explains that ‘We want to believe that Claudio never touched the chilled water of Trevere, but flied directly in the sky, becoming Ponte Mazzini’s Angel’.
Maybe cardinals who want to write poetically about the family should go and do so on Ponte Mazzini, and pray for inspiration from The Angel of Ponte Mazzini.
Children have a right to be loved. Humans have a right to be loved. From that right flows every other right, and if that right is denied, no other right will ever make us truly human.