Why Catholics could vote ‘none of the above’ on May 7th

In response to the recent bishops’ letter offering guidance on voting in this year’s general election and calling for engagement with the political process, we asked two Catholic Voices speakers active in the Conservative and Labour parties to interpret the letter in the light of their parties’ platforms. Peter Smith made the case for voting Conservative, while Mary Clarkson urged voting for Labour. Now another CV speaker, JOE RONAN, explains why he is considering voting for “none of the above” on May 7th — and how this can be squared with the bishops’ call for Catholics to vote and engage with the electoral process. (To comment, email info@catholicvoices.org.uk). 

Joe Ronan1

Joe Ronan

In their letter the Bishops of England and Wales remind us that we have a responsibility to be involved in the democratic process, and that we have a duty to exercise the privilege to vote. I first voted in the General Election of 1979 and have voted in every parliamentary, local government or European election since. But in the coming general election I am finding it very difficult to work out where best to place my vote, and for the first time in my life, I am wondering whether to vote at all.

I wouldn’t be on my own. In 1950 there was an 83.6 per cent turnout with 28.7m votes cast. The election in 2010 saw a slightly higher number of votes cast (29.7m) but given an electorate that was over 7m larger, the turnout was 65.1 per cent. If the same proportion of votes has been cast as in 1950 nearly 8.5m more people would have voted.

This is a new trend. Until the 2001 election the turnout was, with the exception of 1918, always in the seventies, sometimes higher. But in 2001 it dropped to just under 60 per cent and has remained more or less there.

Why, in an era when marketing is such an art, when politicians have experts on demographics advising on how to appeal to specific categories of voter, when communication tools are so widespread and individually targeted, do large numbers of people feel that ‘none of the above’ is the best option?

As a Catholic, I am asked to consider how “in the light of the Gospel, can my vote best serve the common good”. Mary Clarkson and Peter Smith have given detailed and persuasive reasons why one party or another might claim my vote. But as far as I can see the general direction of policy in this country is the same whichever party is in power. I see no strategic difference between the established parties despite the faux fighting over details.

Policies that undermine marriage

Take marriage and family life, one of the areas the bishops would like us to focus on, and which they link to the question of housing and poverty.

Critical to the ability to bring up a family is the cost of secure accommodation. I was able to buy my first house in the south east of England at the age of 24, on a very average graduate salary. I was married at 26 and in the following years we were blessed with four children and able to finance the household with one salary at times, and to move house with relative ease to follow work and allow for growing children. It is all but inconceivable that a new graduate couple could follow our example now. Apart from having to pay twice for the cost of their education, they would struggle to afford accommodation for themselves with two salaries, never mind allow for children. Again, none of the main parties have expressed any strategic intent to reverse this bubble. In fact all policies seem aimed at maintaining or increasing property prices. The result is that a family life, as I knew it, has become less and less possible for a large number of young people.

The reality is that over the last 20 years politicians of all governing parties have systematically removed all support for marriage and family life. The tax allowance shared between man and wife was a great help to our family in bringing up our children, but it was seen as ‘divisive’ and discriminating against people who weren’t married.  The recent introduction of a ‘couples’ allowance comes only after the concept of marriage has been redefined more or less out of existence. None of the major parties has policies directed specifically at supporting marriage and family life with children, only tactical policies that throw crumbs to special interest groups, or as bribes to unwary voters. The policy preference is to have both ‘partners’ working, and whilst children are not encouraged, if they arrive then it is better that the state looks after them.

Energy & education

Energy policy is another area where all governing parties in recent years have systematically increased the burden on the weak and vulnerable whilst allowing vested interests to benefit from secure and nearly risk free profits of enormous magnitude, fed by subsidies which are paid for by increasing utility bills of those that can least afford it. Over 25,000 people in this country will have died during this past winter from cold. Despite this, the country faces energy shortages for which the policy response is to plan for rationing power using smart-meters, both by price and by availability.

In education, the state is taking more to itself in the way that children are brought up. Parents are increasingly prevented from taking decisions that affect the moral upbringing of their children, and the increasing pressure on Catholic schools to reflect the morals of the state rather than the Church is starting to find it’s way into ever more restrictive statutes.

This goes against the Catholic value of subsidiarity. So does the centralization of the European Union. Over 70 per cent of legislation that goes through Parliament originates in Brussels, and is implemented with little regard for local tradition or need.

Given the criteria the Bishops have laid out in their letter, I can’t point to any one party that I believe has at its heart a strategy that could claim my vote.

Quizzing candidates

What about individual candidates? The message from the bishops is clear that I should look at candidates’ views, irrespective of their parties.

Without a doubt, there are impressive candidates around the country that I could vote for, often in different parties to the one I would consider my natural home. But in my constituency I have a sitting MP who has consistently voted against positions that we would consider central to Catholic teaching, and the other candidates, where they have expressed a view, would clearly do the same.

Some might say: then stand yourself! A good response, but practically very difficult. In days gone by your local constituency association would know the members and would choose its own candidate. Now the local party is more likely to receive a list of who it may choose, a set of those well connected with the central party, and often on the political career path.

The levers of power are moved by narrower and narrower groups ever further away from the lives of ordinary people.

An alternative way to engage

How, then, can my vote serve the common good?

Firstly, as a Catholic, I should take a full part in the general election process. Even if I decide not to exercise it, my potential vote has a value to candidates. I should take pains to establish what my local candidates think. I should also take every opportunity to let them know what I think, whether by individual meeting, or attending their meetings and hustings. My duty is to research those issues that are important to me, and understand as well as possible where the candidates stand, and to feed my views back to them. That takes time and effort, and can be frustrating when a politician is keener to tell you what he thinks rather than listen to you.

Secondly, I should be encouraging others to be active. Whether in the parish or diocese, or amongst colleagues at work, or with friends at the pub, we should all be debating the issues and making our points of view heard. It is very surprising how a few focused voices can cause big ripples.

I should also be praying. Praying myself, and with my parish. Praying for wisdom and guidance for ourselves in making our decision, and for those who are elected – that they may keep in mind the needs of the country as they take up their task in the new parliament.

If I have done all that, and yet on election day cannot see how a vote for any of the candidates could lead to policies in line with my understanding of my faith, then I believe I am justified in not voting, and joining the 10m people for whom ‘the same old faces’ just do not deserve our support.

But then, I have a further responsibility: to be a voice in the land that says “this needs to change”; to describe the needs, to outline the strategy, and to be an active part in making it happen; and help make sure that next time, or the time after that, we will be heard.

[Joe Ronan lives in Hexham] 

Posted in General Election 2015 | Tagged

Cardinal O’Brien: the road to a resignation

Cardinal O'Brien in 2012

Cardinal O’Brien in 2012

[Martin Conroy writes from Scotland]: Last week’s announcement that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation from the College of Cardinals of Keith O’Brien, along with all the rights and duties of the title, brings to a close a tense period for the Scottish Church.

The former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh will continue to observe the strictly private life he has lived since he stepped down in February 2013, following allegations in The Observer of serious sexual misconduct towards three priests and a former priest dating back to the 1980s. There were no allegations against minors, although some claimed he had abused his authority.

At first he contested the allegations but offered to resign as archbishop after admitting: “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.” He apologised,  asked for forgiveness from those he had offended and from the wider Church, and recused himself from the conclave that elected Pope Francis.

In May 2013 the Vatican said O’Brien would leave “for several months for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer and penance”, noting that “any decision regarding future arrangements for His Eminence shall be agreed with the Holy See”. The following month it was announced that the Vatican would conduct an investigation. The papal nuncio said he was grateful to those bringing the allegations for their courage in speaking out.

Maltese archbishop Charles Scicluna

Maltese archbishop Charles Scicluna

Last year Pope Francis sent a personal envoy, the Vatican’s former point man on abuse and now Archbishop of Malta, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, on a fact-finding mission to Scotland. Based on his report Pope Francis reached his conclusion.

In renouncing all the rights and privileges of being a cardinal, O’Brien will no longer perform any public, religious or civil duties associated with the title but will retain his ‘red hat’. The move follows a private discussion with Pope Francis which was preceded by a period of prayer and penance in order to reflect upon his misconduct.

Cardinal O’Brien said he accepted the decision of the Holy Father.

I wish to repeat the apology which I made to the Catholic Church and the people of Scotland some two years ago now on March 3, 2013. I then said that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me. For that I am deeply sorry.

The cardinal also said he wished to thank “Pope Francis for his fatherly care of me”, and added:

I will continue to play no part in the public life of the Church in Scotland; and will dedicate the rest of my life in retirement, praying especially for the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, for Scotland, and for those I have offended in any way.

A statement released by the Vatican said the Pope “would like to manifest his pastoral solicitude to all the faithful of the Church in Scotland and to encourage them to continue with hope the path of renewal and reconciliation.”

Cardinal O’Brien remains a cardinal in name only. He will no longer carry out any public religious or civil duties; he cannot officiate at weddings or funerals, or hear confessions or say Mass except in the privacy of his home. Nor will he take part in the next conclave.

He is the first cardinal to resign since Cardinal Louis Billot in 1927, although the Frenchman was compelled to renounce his red hat along with the title as well as duties of a cardinal. As John Allen notes, O’Brien “occupies a basically new niche on the ecclesiastical landscape: A titular cardinal, meaning one in name only.”

One of Scotland’s leading historians, Professor Sir Tom Devine, said that the Church could now draw a line under the story. “The Pope’s intervention is justice tempered with mercy. Dignity has been preserved, the priests involved have had their day in court and been listened to and the matter hasn’t been swept under the carpet.”

Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrews & Edinburgh

Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrews & Edinburgh

Archbishop Leo Cushley, Cardinal O’Brien’s successor, described Pope Francis’ decision as “fair, equitable and proportionate” and added:

Cardinal O’Brien’s behaviour distressed many, it demoralised faithful Catholics and it made the Church less credible to those who are not Catholic. I therefore acknowledge and welcome his apology to those affected by his behaviour and also to the people of Scotland – especially the Catholic community.

For my own part, I would like to express sorrow and regret to those most distressed by the actions of my predecessor.  I hope now that all of us affected by this sad and regrettable episode will embrace a spirit of forgiveness, the only spirit that can heal any bitterness and hurt that still remains.  Forgiving the trespasses of others is surely the only way to regain our human and Christian serenity after such events.

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A Guide to the Family Synod, Part II: ‘contemporary challenges’

[The second in a series by Elizabeth Howard considering the questions that have been put to the world’s bishops’ conferences in the run-up to the Synod of Bishops in October]

synod logoAfter the ‘Introduction’ (discussed in my previous post), the Relatio Synodi’s first section is “Listening”. Here (paragraph 5, wrongly numbered 4 in the English translation) the document outlines the changing situation of the family in the modern world.

It recognises some positive changes, such as “greater freedom of expression and a better recognition of the rights of women and children” but many challenges, including a “troubling individualism” and a “crisis of faith”. Many people experience loneliness (paragraph 6) or a feeling of powerlessness and are so burdened by unemployment and poverty that they are hesitant about starting a family and reluctant to look after the elderly. The duty towards elderly relatives has been recently emphatically highlighted by Pope Francis.

family picDifferent cultures manifest different challenges to the family (paragraph 7): polygamy, arranged marriages, and cohabitation are in conflict with different aspects of Church teaching. Mixed marriages can present difficulties but can also foster a spirit of ecumenism and religious dialogue.

Many children are born to unmarried parents (paragraph 8) and subsequently grow up with just one biological parent in a blended family. Fathers need to take more responsibility for their children. In a recent audience, Pope Francis took this idea further, arguing that workaholic fathers effectively make their children orphans. This paragraph also addresses the position of women. “The dignity of women still needs to be defended and promoted. In fact, in many places today, simply being a woman is a source of discrimination and the gift of motherhood is often penalized rather than esteemed”, the document notes, adding that violence towards and exploitation of women and children is a blight on society. Finally, migration is a problem undermining family life for many.

As a donor-conceived adult, I would have loved to have seen some mention of donor conception in this section. I agree wholeheartedly with the Church’s teaching on donor conception (in short – don’t do it: see Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2376) but donor-conceived people exist and it would be very heartening for us to have some explicit words of welcome from the Church. (When I was considering becoming Catholic, I attended classes run by a Dominican friar. During the session on ensoulment I worried briefly that I might not have a soul because of the way I was conceived. I’ve straightened out that misunderstanding now, but it would still be very meaningful for the Church to spell out that donor-conceived people are no less human than anyone else.) There is a very good article on the dignity of donor-conceived people here.

family graphic 2The next sub-section, “The importance of affectivity in life” seems to suffer a little from being rather hurriedly translated from a typically abstract and complex Italian passage. What it seems to be saying is that, while it is good that people are taking more account of their feelings, it is important that these feelings do not turn inward so that individuals become overly preoccupied with themselves and their own needs and desires. The document states that marriage is a strong antidote to such a tendency. In this context, the growth of pornography and its ubiquity thanks to the internet is a major challenge for many people. Many couples fail to mature in their relationship and the resulting crisis in their marriage can lead to divorce and family breakdown with catastrophic consequences for the individuals concerned and for society as a whole. The falling birthrate in many countries is also a pressing concern: this was alluded to by Pope Francis in his comments after his trip to the Phillipines, the nuance of which was lost in the coverage of his “rabbits” reference (see CV Comment here).

The section ends by offering hope: despite the many challenges faced by families, the Church has a wonderful message for the people of the world: we are all made by God in His image and this truth can have a profound effect on us and on our relationships. The Church needs to come alongside people in their concrete situations, offering them Christ’s “dynamic of truth and mercy”.

The Lineamenta — which have been sent to the world’s bishops’  conferences in advance of October’s synod — asks these questions relating to this section:

  1. What initiatives are taking place and what are those planned in relation to the challenges these cultural changes pose to the family (cf. ns. 6 – 7): which initiatives are geared to reawaken an awareness of God’s presence in family life; to teaching and establishing sound interpersonal relationships; to fostering social and economic policies useful to the family; to alleviating difficulties associated with attention given to children, the elderly and family members who are ill; and to addressing more specific cultural factors present in the local Church?

kids drawing divorceThese questions are clearly addressed to church leaders rather than lay people. I hope that our bishops respond positively to the challenge they contain. I am not aware, for example, of any initiatives “geared to reawaken an awareness of God’s presence in family life”; yet they are key to revitalising the family.

  1. What analytical tools are currently being used in these times of anthropological and cultural changes; what are the more significant positive or negative results? (cf. n. 5)

I do not know of any “analytical tools” being used by the Church to look at societal changes, but this suggestion echoes an article by Stephen Bullivant in the Catholic Herald in which he argues that any attempts at evangelisation are doomed to failure unless we understand why people are leaving the Church.

  1. Beyond proclaiming God’s Word and pointing out extreme situations, how does the Church choose to be present “as Church” and to draw near families in extreme situations? (cf. n. 8). How does the Church seek to prevent these situations? What can be done to support and strengthen families of believers and those faithful to the bonds of marriage?

The work of lay ministries such as The Association of Separated and Divorced Catholics is crucial here, as are apostolates which support and strengthen families of believers: The National Association of Catholic Families, Teams of Our Lady and the Emmanuel Community are just a few. Their wisdom and experience need to be distilled and passed on to the synod.

  1. How does the Church respond, in her pastoral activity, to the diffusion of cultural relativism in secularized society and to the consequent rejection, on the part of many, of the model of family formed by a man and woman united in the marriage and open to life?

weddingIn my parish, there is an annual Marriage Mass where couples can rededicate themselves to each other. The Westminster diocese has an annual Mass to which couples celebrating a significant anniversary are invited. These are moving ceremonies for the couples and the rest of the congregation. But much more needs to be done to allow Catholic couples to affirm the deeper, richer meaning of marriage in a culture that has reduced it to a transitory partnership of mutual convenience.

The Importance of Affectivity in Life (ns. 9 – 10)

  1. How do Christian families bear witness, for succeeding generations, to the development and growth of a life of sentiment? (cf. ns. 9 – 10). In this regard, how might the formation of ordained ministers be improved? What qualified persons are urgently needed in this pastoral activity?

Here it seems clear that the formation of priests needs to be improved, and that marriage preparation needs to be strengthened. My own marriage preparation seemed to consist solely of filling in forms and reassuring Father that we understood the three essential components of marriage. Acquaintances of mine, marrying late in life, were excused their marriage preparation classes by the priest because they might feel embarrassed to be sitting alongside a roomful of youngsters. These situations may be the exception rather than the rule, but the Church needs to ensure that every couple receives appropriate, rigorous and demanding marriage preparation. As Pope Francis put it in an recent interview, “we think it’s enough to offer them three talks to get them ready for marriage. But it’s not enough because the great majority are unaware of the meaning of a lifetime commitment.”

If we put in hours of preparation to pass our driving test, how much more should we be ready to dedicate time to preparing ourselves for a lifelong marriage!

RVFBHeaderEqually vital is support for couples already married. Charities or parish-based programmes such as Ealing Abbey Counselling Service or Retrouvaille, a couples ministry for marriages in crisis, do excellent work and need more support and publicity. Marriage Encounter runs weekends for engaged couples preparing for marriage, and for married couples wishing to deepen their relationship. There is a similar course run by Holy Trinity Brompton which many Catholic couples have found helpful.

The ubiquity of pornography is a problem both for young people forming their world view and for adults. The Church could do much more to combat this problem and offer support to people who struggle with temptation in this area. The American church can offer us some examples of good practice: for example, the My House initiative from the Archdiocese of Kansas City. Its aims are to protect children and families from pornography; develop a deeper understanding of the beauty and sacredness of God’s gift of human sexuality; and experience freedom from the effects of pornography. Demonstrating that the internet can be used for good as well as for ill, there is also an online programme for those addicted to pornography: Reclaim Sexual Health.

Pastoral Challenges (n. 11)

  1. To what extent and by what means is the ordinary pastoral care of families addressed to those on the periphery? (cf. n. 11). What are the operational guidelines available to foster and appreciate the “desire to form a family” planted by the Creator in the heart of every person, especially among young people, including those in family situations which do not correspond to the Christian vision? How do they respond to the Church’s efforts in her mission to them? How prevalent is natural marriage among the non-baptized, also in relation to the desire to form a family among the young?

family graphicHere, as elsewhere, Church teaching must be conveyed dynamically to all age groups, especially young people. Catholic schools have a crucial role to play. When I was teaching in a Catholic school, the RE department invited a married couple to come to speak to the year 11 classes about marriage and specifically about Church teaching on responsible parenthood. The words of a real couple, joyfully living Church teaching, had a big impact on the young people who heard them. Similarly, the Ten Ten Theatre company offers dynamic presentations about many pressing issues facing young people: “The five-year programme approaches issues such as the internet, friendship, sex, alcohol, abortion, marriage and family life whilst at the same time providing young people with a vision which is both counter-cultural and life-affirming.” Confirmation programmes would be an ideal opportunity to reinforce Church teaching in this area. Youth 2000 and other youth ministries can offer an inspiring witness to young people in this and every area.

As well as providing a reflection document, ‘The Call, the Journey and the Mission’ (download here), the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has asked for people to respond to a survey canvassing views on family life to help its two delegates, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton as they prepare for the October Synod. It would be very helpful to them, and to the synod, if as many people as possible could share their views.

[Elizabeth Howard is a speaker for Catholic Voices, and coordinator of the Synod media team].

Posted in Synod2014, Synod2015

Bishops ask Catholics to make their vote count in May general election

Calling on Catholics “to build a world in which respect, dignity, equality, justice and peace are our primary concerns”, the bishops of England and Wales have produced a checklist of issues they wish Catholics to raise with candidates at May’s general election. Above all their letter — signed by the conference president and vice-president, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark —  call on Catholics to engage with the elections. Reminding them of their duty to vote, they ask Catholics to think and reflect on the issues, follow the media debates, quiz candidates and to recognize the good intentions of politicians.

15144270519_f3c18c5036The bishops’ letter — introduced by Cardinal Nichols in this short video message  — sets out four core principles from which a politics geared to the common good should spring: respect for life in all its stages; support of marriage and family life and the alleviation of poverty; education for the good of all; building communities; and caring for the wider world.

While stressing that voting should never be based on a single issue, the bishops suggest that some issues — “especially those concerned with the dignity and value of human life and human flourishing”  — are “more central than others”.

Calling for “politics that protect the fundamental right to life”, the bishops reiterate the Church’s opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia laws while calling for more palliative care, as well as “a robust National Health Service on which we can all rely”.

They also argue that “commitment to support the family should be at the heart of social and political life” and point out that too many families depend on food banks.

The Catholic bishops have long called for a “just wage”, and in 2015 implicitly call for the extension of the living wage — which is now paid to all staff of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales and all employed in the Diocese of Westminster — in noting that too many families “do not have a living wage to support them and their families” and are forced to rely on state handouts. (Unlike the statutory minimum wage, the living wage is a recommended minimum that reflects living costs). The bishops say government policies should be assessed “on the ways in which they impact those most in need” and on “how they support and strengthen the family and its capacity to flourish”.

Noting that over 845,000 children in England and Wales are educated in Catholic schools that are more ethnically diverse than average, the bishops say government policy should “ensure that the poorest have access to high quality education and that Catholic parents have true choice for educating their children in Catholic schools”.

The longest section of the document, ‘Building Communities’, reflects the bishops’ concern at the loss of trust in society and their view that trust will be restored by enhancing community life in all its forms.

They ask Catholics to apply the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity in thinking about the future of Europe, and call on the parties to consider how to enhance the work of the voluntary sector.  They also call for a market economy that serves human needs, noting that “people are not merely economic units to be exploited”.

On immigration, the bishops focus on its roots in violence and conflict, and the way immigrants contribute to the common good through working to raise their families. While acknowledging that every country needs to control numbers of newcomers and to facilitate their integration, the letter however warns against blaming immigrants for social ills while calling for policies that recognise “the rights, dignity and protection of refugees and migrants”.

Under “Caring for the world” the bishops stress the duty of wealthy nations to assist poorer ones, and note that caring for the planet entails both concern for the environment and protecting the livelihoods of the poorest.

Concluding their letter, the bishops note that  “our actions are more important than our opinions”, and that a general election is not just about expressing an opinion but about contributing to an action towards an objective.

“It is important that we vote,” they write, adding that “it is a duty which springs from the privilege of living in a democratic society.”

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A Guide to the Family Synod, Part I: ‘Introduction’

[This is the first in a series by Elizabeth Howard looking at the questions that have been put to the world’s bishops’ conferences in the run-up to the synod of bishops in October]

synod misc 2After the Extraordinary Synod on the Family last October, the Vatican issued the Relatio Synodi, the detailed result of the assembly’s fortnight of deliberations. It was based on the week of discussions by the Synod Fathers and other delegates who contributed to each session, as well as by the reports of meetings in language-based groups who made a series of suggestions. Pope Francis ordered that every paragraph of the Relatio should be published, even though three paragraphs out of 62 did not achieve the traditional two-thirds majority of Synod Fathers’ votes. Two concerned the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, and the other the pastoral care of people with homosexual tendencies.

The Relatio Synodi is the basis of the Lineamenta, a document intended to spark further discussion in the year between the Extraordinary Synod last year and the Ordinary Synod (on “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World”) in October this year. The Relatio Synodi itself is followed by a series of questions which the 114 bishops’ conferences around the world are asked to ponder and respond to. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has issued its own document —  The Call, the Journey and the Mission — in response to the Lineamenta, asking Catholics in England and Wales to reflect on family life on the basis of the Gospel.

synod genThe responses to the Lineamenta will form the basis of the Instrumentum Laboris, the document which will set the agenda for October’s Synod, at the end of which the synod fathers will vote on what will be the Church’s pastoral strategy for marriage and family in the future.

In this series of posts, I will look at the Lineamenta in its four sections: the Introduction; part I, “Listening”; part II, “Looking at Christ”; and part III, “Confronting the Situation”.

(Incidentally, the English translation of the Lineamenta on the Vatican website has been wrongly numbered, with number 1 appearing twice, with the result that the paragraphs do not correspond to the paragraphs of the original Relatio. I will follow the latter for ease of reference.)

PART ONE: ‘Introduction’

The document opens (paragraph 1) by thanking God for the “generosity and faithfulness of so many Christian families” who fulfil their mission with “joy and faith” notwithstanding the “obstacles, misunderstanding and suffering” they face. Pope Francis’s lyrical evocation of the centrality of family life at the prayer vigil for the Synod is then recalled: his beautiful vignette refers both to the joy and comfort of family life, as well as the suffering which some have to endure: “the bitter twilight of shattered dreams and broken plans”.

synod day 2 eFamily life can, the Synod notes, be wounded (2), and there are “many signs of crisis”, but people still wish to marry and form a family; the Church is an “expert in humanity” and has much to offer to people, first because of the revelation of God’s love and also because of the wisdom of the teaching of the Church Fathers. The Church also recognises the importance of the family, indeed sees it as “uniquely important to the Church” and an “essential agent in the work of evangelization”.

The Synod was convened by the Pope and gathered around him in order to reflect on the “critical and invaluable reality of the family” (3); this reflection is to continue in the period between the two synods. This process is itself an occasion of grace, where the bishops come together in an expression of collegiality, to follow a “path of spiritual and pastoral discernment”. The task is to “read the signs of God and of human history”.

supreme_court_protest_2The introduction ends (4) by outlining what will follow: “listening”, to reflect the reality of family life today; “looking”, focusing on Christ to see what revelation tells us about the “beauty, the role and the dignity of the family”; and “confronting the situation”. Here, crucially, the document reaffirms in a simple formula the Church’s commitment to the traditional definition of a family. The Synod wishes to discern how both Church and society can “renew their commitment to the family founded on the marriage between a man and a woman”.

There are only two questions for reflection relating to this section; indeed they apply to all sections of the Relatio Synodi:

Does the description of the various familial situations in the Relatio Synodi correspond to what exists in the Church and society today? What missing aspects should be included?

In the opening paragraphs of the question section, the Bishops’ Conferences are urged to continue their reflections in the spirit of the Synod, and “avoid, in their responses, a formulation of pastoral care based simply on an application of doctrine, which would not respect the conclusions of the Extraordinary Synodal Assembly”.

The Relatio Synodi reflects many of the different “familial situations” which exist in the Church and the world today, but there are several gaps.

Manif-pour-tousThe Church’s teaching about openness to life is mentioned several times in the document, but the practical challenge of living the Church’s teaching is given less attention. More could be said about the nitty-gritty of the various methods of fertility awareness, as well as the challenge of explaining the reason for the Church’s teaching given that so many Catholics seem to be unaware of it. Large families are not always made to feel welcome, even at Mass, and that an anti-children mentality which exists in some parts of British society can also be evident within the Church community itself.

As a donor-conceived adult, I would have liked to have seen some mention made of donor conception and the different manifestations of families that this technique has brought into being. The Church’s teaching on donor conception is clear but donor-conceived children exist and continue to be brought into being so some mention of the reality and consequences of their situation would be welcome. It is, of course, through donor conception that same-sex couples have children, as well as infertile heterosexual couples, so there is much that could be said about these situations.

Again, the Church’s teaching on respect for life at all its stages is clear and unequivocal, but it would be helpful to hear more about how the Church can support families with a disabled child or children, as well as those facing long-term or terminal illness in their children.

The issue of education is not mentioned, although this is often a major worry for Catholic parents trying to raise their children in the faith. The role and availability of Catholic schools in supporting parents merits further discussion. As a home-educating parent, I would be interested to hear more from the Synod about how the Church can support this demanding but very rewarding way of educating children, especially since the number of children being home educated around the world continues to grow.

Although the Relatio does mention work, and specifically unemployment, I would welcome more discussion about the pressure of work and family life which many people face. This is something which the Pope has mentioned in his weekly audiences, specifically addressing fathers, but more on these increasing modern pressures would be very useful.

papafranccarroaltaFinally, Pope Francis’s beautiful closing address to the Synod Fathers gives much cause for hope, as well as further insight into the process of discernment which the year between the Synods represents. He spoke of the Synod as a journey and mentioned the temptations along the way. Indeed, he sees these temptations as part of the movement of the spirits, the process of discernment. But he reassures the Church that the Holy Spirit is with her and she cannot err. She also, crucially, cares for all, saints and sinners alike:

And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

[Elizabeth Howard is a Catholic Voices speaker]

Posted in Synod2014, Synod2015