Canadian bishops share results of synod consultation

By Deborah Gyapong

Canadian Catholic News

BEAUPRÉ, Que. (CCN) — Canada’s bishops meeting in plenary here Sept. 15 - 19 heard perspectives from four differing dioceses on the upcoming Synod on the Family working document or Instrumentum laboris (IL).

Representing a rural francophone diocese, Moncton Bishop Valéry Vienneau said when he was asked for the perspective on how the synod’s Instrumentum laboris would be read in his diocese, he thought “it would be quite easy to do because the document will not be read by the people in my diocese, or even by most of the clergy in my diocese.”

However, even among those who didn’t read the document, the upcoming synod has raised a level of interest, he said.

Most people in his diocese would like to find in the document and the synod “an openness, a change of attitude and a genuine note of hope,” he said. “Those aspirations are inspired and supported by the way of doing things by our new Pope Francis.”

Changes expected

“People expect changes in the way things are presented and will be disappointed if things don’t change,” he said, noting serious changes are expected, not the status quo.

“The document recognizes clearly the reality of the non-reception of a large number of faithful of Catholic teachings on marriage and the family,” Vienneau said. “This is unheard of in an official document of the church: a recognition of a genuine gap between teachings of the church and the reception of the faithful.”

Though the faithful know biblical teachings, they do not know Vatican documents or about natural law, he said.

Among the pending questions for his people: the role of the “genders,” the possibility of same-sex marriage, the fact of people living together outside of marriage, he said. “People have many opinions, but they are not too concerned about our positions.”

“The faithful are more and more allergic to a church that would intrude in their private lives or exclude those living in irregular situations,” he said, noting the gap between the teachings of the church and the experience in the lives of the faithful exists even among the more committed.

The document talks about “accompanying people who feel excluded, or marginalized in the church,” and echoes the call of Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium that calls for the church to be “the open home of the Father, where there is a place for everyone in his or her difficult life.”

“We don’t want to simply condemn the culture and present what we already have been presenting,” he said. “We have to find new way to present our teaching.”

Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Murray Chatlain, representing a diocese with a large Aboriginal population, said he could not speak concerning all Aboriginal people, but about the Dene and Cree of the western prairies and the north.

Family is everything

“For Aboriginal people, family is everything,” he said. “It’s not just one piece of you; it’s everything about you, way beyond the nuclear family.”

Everything is about relationships, including the way people name each other in terms of their relationship to each other, even if it is not exactly biological, he said.

Chatlain acknowledged there has been a breakdown in Aboriginal culture and family units, noting it is not uncommon to meet 27-year-old grandmothers. Fewer and fewer are coming to ask for marriage and most resist formal marriage preparation, he said.

Most couples live together and if they do marry, there can be a negative perception that “Now I own you” afterward, he said.

In some, not all, of our Aboriginal communities, “addictions are calling the shots on just about everything, wreaking havoc with other social structures,” destroying families, causing violence, poverty, lack of attention to good parenting and other problems, he said.

Aboriginal men are struggling in their roles as men. Many lack literacy, or are unable to read well, and “more and more young men are at home babysitting while their common-law woman is making the money,” he said.

Aboriginal communities are also affected by the “dramatically lopsided” ratio of 20 teenagers to every elder, he said. This strengthens the role of grandparents, who provide a sense of “stability and continuity.” The elderly are not sent off to old folks’ homes in a hurry, he said, but a grandchild might be sent to live with them. Adoption is common. A childless couple might be given a child to raise by their brother or sister, he said.

Catholic teachings can offer a sense of the man’s role and “what it means to be a good father, and husband,” he said. The church can also help young people learn to communicate with each other better.

“Our Catholic understanding of the holiness of marriage us something our people really need to hear,” he said. “Another strength is that we continue to pray with and for the Aboriginal families,” noting they receive many requests for prayer and this has a powerful effect.

Quebec Auxiliary Bishop Denis Grondin described the document as a “laborious instrument,” and noted the words “resurrection,” “salvation,” and “redemption,” never appear.

While “God” is mentioned 51 times, the “Holy Spirit” and “Jesus” eight times each, he said.

Grondin said in the past there were whole generations that “wanted to follow the Lord,” but French families no longer have this simple vision.

Many are experiencing a sense of failure and are not sure they want to continue “risking to love,” he said. “How can the French family be reached by the hope faith in Christ offers?”

Though francophones have tried to save their culture through preserving the French language, the culture that forms them is no longer Catholic but postmodern and North American, characterized by consumerism and secularism, he said.

Instead of the French language or Catholicism, social media and texting are more likely to bring people together. Aside from that, each person falls back on his or her own family.

Crisis of hope

“There’s a desire to maintain one’s pride in spite of personal failures or the precariousness of the family,” he said.

“There’s a crisis of hope and confidence in the French world, and our high suicide rates remind us of this.”

Grondin pointed to changes in vocabulary even among good Catholics who refer to their “partner” instead of their wife or husband. Though there seems to be a nostalgia for old-fashioned family life, it is no longer linked to a unanimous traditional model, he said.

Natural law is seen as a religious doctrine and “in that respect it is discredited,” he said. “Tolerance is absolutized; freedom of the subject has been absolutized.”

“Polls overtake reason, what is philosophical is quickly branded as ideological, and not scientific,” he said. There is not only a crisis of faith, but a “crisis of trust,” he said.

Hamilton Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Miehm addressed document from the perspective of a largely urban, multi-ethnic diocese.

Immigration has swelled the diocese’s Catholic population, most recently from countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Latin America, he said. These immigrants tend to be “more traditional in morality and more family-focused than Canadians of longer pedigree,” he said.

At the same time the number of Catholics has nearly doubled, the number of marriages has “dropped by half,” he said. “This is a big, big drop.”

The message has not got out on the sacredness and sacramentality of marriage, he said.

Hamilton was very committed to the consultation process and received a good response, with 35 per cent of respondents under age 45.

Different levels of acceptance

However, the language of the questionnaire was “so dense and so theological, many of our people had trouble answering the questions,” he said.

The bishop said the church has failed to communicate the rich, profound teachings on marriage and family. Even where the teachings are understood, however, there are “different levels of acceptance.”

Respondents seem to largely reject or hold a questioning or challenging stance toward the teachings around artificial birth control, divorce and remarriage and on homosexuality, he said

Among younger people there is no knowledge of the expectation they should be married in church, he said.

“You can only prepare people for marriage once they show up at our rectory door,” he said. “More and more they are showing up less and less.”

The “social tsunami” of gay marriage reveals that “one gay or lesbian friend or family member trumps everything the church has to say on this issue,” he said.

What the episcopal conference may perceive as balance is not perceived that way, he said. “They see it as a rigid, narrow-minded focus.” There is much work to be done in communicating the church’s focus, but “for a lot of those young people the ship has sailed on this particular issue.”

The divorce and remarriage question remains a “challenge we continue to struggle with,” in the diocese, “how to balance our Lord’s teaching on marriage with the sad reality of those whose marriages have failed.”

After 15 years working in the marriage tribunal, Miehm said much work needs to be done to dispel the myths of the annulment process that continue even in the Internet age. People think it takes too long for a “decree of nullity,” that it costs too much, and the church does not have the moral authority to make these judgments.

Divorced and remarried Catholics either present themselves for communion, or drift away to another denomination where they feel more welcome, or leave the church community altogether, he said.

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