13Dec Why I am not willing to complete the synod survey

Thank you for your invitation to complete survey on the Family.  I regret that I am unwilling to respond to the survey, in its present layout, for the following reasons:

  • The survey seems more concerned with current knowledge of Catholic teaching rather than collating an awareness of the challenges to the Christian family today.
  • The opening questions, regarding knowledge of Catholic doctrine and teachings on natural law, are in themselves a demonstration of a bias by the designer/collator, who, consequently, is likely to be dismissive of non-academics and of those whose approach differs from the current accepted theology.
  • These questions tend, also, to dissuade those primarily concerned with living their Christian faith rather than with theoretical considerations of moral dogma.  A layperson is unlikely to be interested in a survey primarily concerned with natural law and therefore the completed results will be skewed.
  • Many of the questions request opinions based on generalised observations rather than requesting factual data or, at the very least, the individual’s personal beliefs.  As such, the survey is relying on hearsay and anecdotal evidence.  This type of evidence would never be accepted or respected as having any informative value.  It is, in reality, the type of evidence that usually leads to inflammatory reactions based on emotive data.
  • I believe that the survey, in its current form, is viewing family mainly through the lens of sexual behaviour and faith development, while disregarding the importance of the family relationship dynamic in forming the core unit of a Christian society.
  • The very structure of the survey will be seen, by many, as a conclusive demonstration of much that is ill with the Church today, namely that its doctrines concentrate on a theological rather than a humane approach.  As such, they alienate the pastoral while empowering the legalistic.

For these reasons my fear is that the results of the survey will be used much as a drunk uses a lamppost: more for support than enlightenment.

I wonder, also, how this sexual/doctrinal emphasis concurs/conflicts with or undermines the statement by Pope Francis that, while the Church’s teaching on contraception and homosexual relationships remains unchanged, the time has come to focus on Christian values and practices rather than on theological ideals.

In my opinion, what is missing from the Church’s  theology of marriage is the acceptance that family is the forge in which the true values of Christ’s teaching, namely, kindness, understanding, acceptance, awareness, forgiveness, sharing, affection, involvement, listening, communicating and respect for the individual are promoted and practised.  It is through these values that family members are brought closer to  understanding  how the gift of God’s love, of, and for, each of us,  is relevant in the world of today.

A family member, in whom these values are inculcated, will grow to be an accepting and peace creating individual.  He will be inclined, out of a sense of belief in its worth, to turn his mind to the wonder of God’s creation, and to his own particular place in promoting Christ’s kingdom.  He will be inspired to practise out of a sense of belonging rather than a dutiful acquiescence.  Surely, this is God’s plan.

What, I believe is needed is a family theology based on primarily promoting the loving relationship between spouses.  As a marriage preparation course facilitator, I came to believe that this was promoting God’s plan.  As a marriage counsellor, I frequently find that marriages are foundering because of lack of awareness of the necessity to prioritise the loving couple relationship and because of ignorance of what this entails.

It is worth reflecting on the story of Jesus in the temple.  We learn that at the age of 12 years, Jesus amazed the teachers with his understanding and answers.  Obviously, he knew the scriptures and the law.

But Mary’s admonishment of him was based on the human emotion of anxiety.  “Son.  Why have you treated us like this?”  We might well rephrase this as “Why were you so thoughtless?”

The reply Jesus gave was “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’ house?”  Nevertheless, he returned home with them and remained obedient to them, growing in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and men.

Is it not reasonable to assume that Jesus learned that dedicating himself to theology only, without consideration of the basic anxieties of his fellow man, was not his mission?

Is it not safe to assume, in the intervening years spent in family and community, that he became popular because he became caring?

Is it not safe to assume that it was the influence of family which made him aware of the struggles of living in a challenging world?

The Jesus, who began his ministry, was a caring Christ, ever seeking to invite, ever seeking to heal, ever seeking to comfort, ever seeking to forgive and ever seeking to feed his flock.  While warning of the dangers, he also warned against placing heavy burdens on men’s shoulders.  He asked his followers to feed his flock not govern them.

Through the family, Jesus may have become aware of the human emotions and he may have become aware of the failings of the dogmatic and punitive approach of the Jewish Faith, many of whose members, like members of the Catholic Church, were good people.

His Church was to be a Church of love, love of God and love of neighbour.  Is this the Church we have today?  Is it not too easy to be a good Catholic through love of God alone?

By relying on a theology of marriage, which is based on the ancient texts of Genesis, the Church, in my opinion, fails to identify, as being of divine origin, the bond of love between a husband and wife, in which they find true acceptance of each other through the daily cultivating of their relationship.  Consequently, the Church is viewed by the laity as having an incomplete understanding of the sacrament of marriage.

Is not its view of sexual desire and intercourse an imposition of a moral stricture on God’s gift?  Is it not saying to God that sex in marriage is good for the relationship but it is too pleasurable, so therefore bad?  Can there be, in the promotion of mutual love between married couples, a place for chastity or sexual duty?  As a married man, I have felt closer to God, and to an appreciation of His wonderful gift of love and acceptance by another person, after sexual intercourse than at any other time.

By stressing children as the outstanding gift of marriage (Gaudiam et Spes, page 61), the Church fails to recognise that it will be as an individual, in all my capacities, not just as a parent, that I will meet God.

A theology which focuses family on child rearing may, in part, be responsible for individuals both male and female finding, when the children are reared, that they are no longer close and that their relationship has been diluted through neglect.  A neglect, usually, fostered by wives focusing on their role of motherhood and husbands focusing on finding fulfilment through work and extra family interests.

While not in any way undervaluing the role of parenthood, is it not, naturally, relegated to a secondary function as the children become adults?  Indeed, the wish to continue to exert parental influence on young adults is frequently a cause of family discord.

My belief is that in the properly ordered family, it is the spousal relationship which remains paramount, punctuated by a period of child rearing, then returning to the relationship of the spouses.  In this model of family, growth in wisdom and love will accompany respect for and by the individual.  Adherence to the vows of matrimony is in itself a powerful acknowledgement of God’s plan, a powerful prayer

Without inspirational guidance, based on the characteristics of real loving, as inspired by Christ, many are doomed to fractious relationships based on unhelpful world value systems learned, or experienced, in their families of origin.  Worse, many children are influenced to learn unhelpful priorities and harmful strategies to resolve the daily challenges of family, marriage and social life.

As a 66 year old married man, a practising Catholic with four adult children and eleven grandchildren, I cringe at a Church approach that creates an individual inculcated with duty rather than with love, inculcated with a fear of being excluded.  An individual who, like St. Paul, before his conversion, obeys all the rules but, without love, misses the essential message of Christ.

  • I long for a Church whose homilies address promoting and enhancing love rather than faith.
  • I long for a Church which teaches acceptance of those traumatised and broken, by marriage breakdown, by biological difference and by a society founded on rules, laws, individual achievement and material wealth.
  • I long for a Church which, rather than concentrating on the maintaining the traditional family, challenges Government policies that allow individuals to abandon the emotional, spiritual and corporal upkeep of their children and spouses.
  • I long for a Church which challenges a society which promotes work above family.
  • I long for a Church which educates society to understand that true individual achievement is found in the ability to form and maintain relationships with a close spouse, with one’s children and with every human met on life’s journey.
  • I long for a Catholic Church which is identified by its care of the individual and its compassion rather than its strict adherence to dogmas, in particular, those related to sexual mores.
  • I long for a Church which includes rather than excludes.  To my mind, anything, which promotes division, exclusion and/or feelings of rejection, within the Church, cannot be in keeping with God’s plan.
  • I long for a Church, of which I can be a proud member because of its reputation for promoting love rather than doctrine.
  • I long for a Church unafraid to highlight the countless selfless acts of all clergy, religious and lay members who devote their lives not just to spreading Christ’s message but to the temporal and spiritual betterment of those in need.
  • I long for a Church which is recognised for its condemnation of social injustice by individuals and systems alike.
  • I long for a Church which focuses on helping the lambs, savaged by a lack of consideration, rather than one focused on changing the nature of the wolves through legislation.  (Has any ideal ever been accepted through force, fear or coercion, or even by the threat of eternal damnation?).

Is not a smile of greeting more effective, in promoting accord, than a menacing stare?  Are not cotton wool boundaries likely to be more accepted than harsh discipline?  Are these not the lessons the church can learn from the family?

Should not the Church’s mission for family be: to inspire all families to promote loving relationships between spouses, between spouses and their children and, through acceptance, respect, consideration and inclusion, to promote the unity of all peoplle.

Michael A. Kavanagh, Galway

9 Responses

  1. Teresa Mee

    Michael, you say,’I regret that I am unwilling to respond to the survey, in its present layout’.

    But you have responded here, and your response is implicitly raising huge questions on several fronts. Among these questions, according to my reading, is the question of the appropriateness of approaching the whole living out of the vocation to marriage and family life as a series of problems requiring definitive answers from celibate men.

    I believe the bishops preparing for this Synod have a great deal to learn from your experience of marriage and marriage counsellor.

    Would you consider adding your response to those of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, http://www.acireland.ie? The members of the Synod on Family must surely include parents.

  2. Mícheál

    Beautifully put. I share your longing.

  3. Kevin Conroy

    I would need to do a survey to answer these questions. I can answer for my own personal experience, understanding etc…but for ‘Catholics’? Which? How many? Where?
    6. Describe how well the Catholic Church’s teachings on the value of the family is understood by Catholics today?
    7. What education is given to Catholics on the Church’s teaching on family life
    8. In those cases where the Church’s teaching on family life is known, is it accepted fully?

    I stopped at question 6. Seems they’re collecting global prejudices as data.

  4. Pádraig McCarthy

    The survey document and the questions are poorly designed and communicated.
    However, it is a step in the right direction, even with a faulty design. I’m recommending people to respond, indicating also where they find the survey inadequate or misconceived, so that “they” in the hierarchy and the Vatican will know that people really do want to have their voices heard.
    So perhaps Michael would use the opportunity, especially in the final three questions on the ACP website, to communicate his reaction to the questionnaire as in his reflection here.

  5. Seamus Ahearne osa

    Michael: If the Survey for the Synod, evokes and provokes such a response: It has succeeded! The Roman document is clumsy. It is caught up in its own jargon. It is leaden. However – a request has gone out to the Bishops that they consult. Their efforts at this consultation may also be rather feeble, but some are trying. The ACP tried to be true to the questions and also attempted to make the issues somewhat more user-friendly. The effort by Rome to Consult is in itself a major step forward. How will the responses across the world inform the Synod? I don’t know. Who will respond? I don’t know. How can it be collated? I don’t know. But I do know that the very process is in itself useful. It may also open up the local Church into similar processes on all kinds of lived experiences. Unless the clamour,noise, mess and experience of family life is hurled towards the Synod; the outcome could be written before the Synod takes place. (As some suggested about other Synods – Francis is at least trying to move things away from such behaviour in the Curia) Michael thanks for writing. Don’t opt out of doing the Survey. Spread your story. Send it to the Bishops. Send it to Rome. Sent it to Charles Brown. And encourage others to do their own writing.
    Seamus Ahearne osa

  6. Fr John Wotherspoon

    Thank you Michael for saying what so many people feel. God bless you for your wisdom and courage

  7. Larry Gordon

    I agree with everything that Michael says including his decision not to complete the survey. The only fault that I have with him is that I think that he is a little naive. I believe that the hierarchy responsible for this survey are not in the slightest bit interested in getting the views of ordinary Catholics. The document is the most loaded survey I have ever seen. It is purely a pretence at consultation and it is worse than nothing because it is already skewing the results to push the agenda of those who wrote it. I also was unable to find it online when I went looking which makes me very suspicious. Instead I have the written form which I will complete by totally ignoring the loaded questions and writing what I want to say.

  8. Fr Seán Coyle

    Without commenting on the survey, about which I know little, or on his reasons for being unwilling to complete it, I want to thank Michael A. Kavanagh for his emphasis on the centrality of the spousal relationship in marriage and the family. Over the years, through friendship with many married couples and through my involvement with Worldwide Marriage Encounter, I’ve become convinced that the basic vocation from God of married persons is to be spouses. Being parents is a consequence of this.

    At every wedding at which I officiate now I stress the fundamental importance of the spousal relationship in my homily. A couple I know in England, married more than 50 years now, once said to me that they have to work harder at being a couple now than when they were newly married. But you can feel the power of their love for one another.

    I think that the Church should emphasise marriage more than family. I see marriage as the foundation of the family. A few years ago at a family day here in Bacolod City, Philippines, organised by Worldwide Marriage Encounter, there was an activity for pre-teens in which they were asked what they loved most about their parents. One boy aged 10 or 11 really hit the nail on the head for me when he said ‘What I love most about my parents is that they are always together’. I picked up on this in my closing remarks and was later approached by a journalist who happened to be there, a young single man. He told me he had never heard anything like this before, the centrality of the spousal relationship, and wanted to hear more.

    Though the marriage of Mary and Joseph is different from that of most married couples in one significant way, the Church honours St Joseph above all as the Spouse of Mary, on 19 March and now in the four main Eucharistic Prayers. It was as husband of Mary that he was able to be a father to Jesus.

    Thank you, Michael.

  9. stan mellett

    Michael forget the questionnaire format and send in your piece as it stands. The valuable information it contains will hopefully be read by someone and its contents fed into the preparatory work for the Synod. I wish you a happy Christmas.