The Synod of Bishops on the Family has begun.
Pope Francis convened this synod nearly a year ago in order to address “concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago,” including but not limited to phenomena like “the widespread practice of cohabitation, which does not lead to marriage…same-sex unions…marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman…an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood” and so on. Like Pope Francis, those Catholics who have spent the past year anticipating this synod have similarly focused most intently on issues of sex and sexuality. Many Catholics hope that the bishops will re-consider the sacramental status of divorced and remarried Catholics or perhaps even soften the church’s stance on the use of contraception within marriage.
I do not deny the deep relation between sexuality and family. Nor do I contest the importance of any of the issues enumerated by Pope Francis. Drawing upon the church’s own wisdom, I simply want to argue that the “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of Evangelization” extend beyond matters of sex and sexuality. Structural injustice wreaks havoc upon the family just as much as disordered expressions of sexuality do.
Catholic Social Teaching stresses the relation between the social and sexual orders. In his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation, “On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” Pope John Paul II reminds us,
“In the conviction that the good of the family is an indispensable and essential value of the civil community, the public authorities must do everything possible to ensure that families have all those aids—economic, social, educational, political, and cultural assistance—that they need in order to face their responsibilities in a human way.” (no. 45).
But poor families do not simply lack assistance; they are burdened by injustice. In its embrace of the preferential option for the poor, the church recognizes this. God is for preferentially for those whom the world is especially against. God puts first those whom the world places last. God loves us not just in history but in response to it.
More than an issue requiring pastoral care, the oppression of the poor frustrates all attempts to evangelize. After all, the gospel is not just any “good news,” it is good news for the poor. If we cannot bring “good news” to the poor, we cannot proclaim the Gospel. For this reason, the preferential option for the poor enables us to evangelize. As Gustavo Gutierrez points out, the preferential option for the poor attempts to answer the question of how to say to the poor that God loves them.
Not Just Sex, But Social Justice
For this reason, I maintain, in convening to address the challenges of the family, the bishops ought to place the needs of poor families first.
And while the synod aims to speak to and for the global church, it does not ignore the particularities of local churches. In this post, I imagine what it would look like to consider the family from the perspective of the poor in the country I inhabit, The United States.
In light of the church’s commitment to the preferential option for the poor, the bishops ought to make the struggles of US-American families afflicted by systemic injustice and structural violence their first priority. In addition to continuing to advocate for those families divided by deportation and unjust immigration laws, Catholic leaders ought to turn their attention to the way that our country’s racist regime of mass incarceration similarly tears black families apart. In prosecuting this war on drugs, our country subjects young black people to the routine indignities of stop and frisk police harassment. Considered guilty until proven innocent, this policing strategy also makes black teens all too often the victims of police brutality and summary execution.
Just as white supremacy disproportionately deprives black and brown people of life, so it infringes upon what John Paul II identifies as their right to “found a family and have adequate means to support it.” (On the Role of the Christian Family In the Modern World, no. 46.) Every time a police officer or paranoid neighborhood watchman kills a black child, he violates the rights of the family and contravenes the Gospel’s good news to the poor. The bishops cannot respond to the needs of US-American families without working to bring the war on drugs to an end.
The Church ought to apply pressure on lawmakers to repeal the laws that have turned the criminal justice system into an instrument of white supremacy, lend financial support to community-based organizations already working to make the justice system more racially just, and engage in creative and constructive strategies of civil disobedience when appropriate. Along with this, church leaders must follow the lead of bishops like Memphis’ Terry Steib and find a way to re-open Catholic schools and parishes in the predominately black urban neighborhoods the church has abandoned in recent decades.
Social Justice Makes Good Sex Possible
Bishops participating in the synod ought to consider issues of sexual morality in accordance with the preferential option for the poor. In this way, rather than blaming the decline of marriage on sexual immorality, the bishops ought to recognize the way in which, at least in the United States, marriage has increasingly become a privilege of the privileged. For example, today, the college-educated are both more likely to be married by the age of 30 and less likely to divorce than those who lack a college degree. Marriage seems the consequence not so much of moral righteousness but of socioeconomic privilege.
Bishops ought to also listen to those critics who point out that marriage also accords disproportionate benefits to the well to do. Marriage, they claim, is not just about sex and love and children and stability, it is also about acquiring and transmitting wealth. Put another way, heterosexually married white and upper-middle class Catholics who follow all facets of magisterial sexual morality perpetuate social injustice not just in the political or economic spheres but also through their sex lives.*
In addition to insisting that all sex must be good sex, may the bishops also accord more attention to the relation between social justice and sexual goodness.
At this synod, may the bishops focus not on the family but on the needs of poor families. Rather than seeking to shore up breaches in sexual morality, may they consider sex from the perspective of the insignificant ones whom God loves most.
*UPDATE: I realized that this statement might require a bit more explanation. Here I am not identifying “the conjugal act” as unjust but drawing our attention to the way that marriage acts to consolidate privilege. In so doing, I am pretty much just reiterating the social portrait painted by Jane Austen in her many novels. Still today, people tend to marry within their social class; we are all familiar with the phrase “marrying-up.” So, given the way that marriage functions to consolidate privilege, we ought to think about the way our participation in marriage can also be a participation in social and structural injustice. Rather than a call to necessarily abandon or abolish marriage, I encourage those of us “invested” (pun intended) in marriage to think about how we can make marriage more just by making society more just.