T THE UPCOMING Synod of Bishops on the Family (to be held in Rome October 5-19), participants will include Vatican officials, bishops representing each episcopal conference, special appointees of the Holy Father, and approximately 40 observers. Notably, more than half of the observers will be married couples.
I think it’s great that married couples will be involved in the Synod. There is no question that they are able to bring perspective and experience that the clergy participants are not able to contribute. But it is also true that the clergy members of the Synod are able to bring perspective and experience that the married couples are not able to contribute.
Catholics of recent generations have lived through strange times, in which some roles proper to the clergy have been unduly usurped by the laity (see THIS). This commonplace clericalization of the laity is not a good thing. Yet, as regards the membership of the Synod, I would be the first to agree that the time has certainly come for this type of lay participation. This type of participation is authentic and valuable. Some people, though, would still take it too far.
Consider, for example, the remarks of Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland:
The very idea of a hundred and fifty people who have decided they are not going to have any children, not going to have families, not going to be fathers, and not going to be spouses—so they have no experience of family life as the rest of us know it—but they are going to advise the pope on family life, it is completely bonkers.
Holding a Synod on the Family with no lay members would, indeed, be dubious, but the claim that celibate clergymen have nothing to offer on the topic of family life is equally ludicrous to the opposite extreme. By the brashness of her remarks, I believe Mrs. McAleese discredits herself.
Ironically, those who decry the thoughts of celibate men concerning marriage are often the first ones to leap at the chance to offer commentary upon celibacy. It is a false assertion that one must have personal experience of a thing in order to evaluate, critique, or make a judgment about it. Think of the seven deadly sins. Must one commit each of them in order to make a judgment that they are unhealthy & sinful, or is it possible to know that a priori? Because God has created a world that is intelligible, we are able to make some judgments even apart from personal experience.
Celibates have something to offer married couples, just as married couples have lessons to teach celibates. One should not forget that, with I suspect few exceptions, members of the clergy all grew up in families and remain part of their families even today. Thus, the claim that they have “no experience” of family life is erroneous.
Moreover, the average priest has spent hours upon hours listening to the struggles of married men and (especially) women. This pastoral experience gives seasoned priests a great deal of insight into the vocation of marriage—probably significantly more insight than a young married couple would have.
So what? My point is this. I am happy to celebrate the inclusion of married couples in next month’s Synod. I think it’s a terrific idea. But I also totally reject the attitude being expressed by some people that commenting on family life should be reserved exclusively to those in the married state.
Those who are married have gifts to share, and so do those who have embraced celibacy. The Lord did, after all, design the Church to be so—a family.