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Synod on the Family

Synod on the Family –

by Tina Beattie

At the time of writing, the Catholic Church is undergoing a momentous process of upheaval and change. A great deal hinges on what happens between two Synods on the Family called by Pope Francis – a preparatory two-week event (an Extraordinary Synod) in October 2014, and the Ordinary Synod on the Family in October 2015.

The 2015 event will make decisions based at least partly on what happens during this year. It will almost certainly result in some changes in the Church’s pastoral practice, for example with regard to the treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics and those in same-sex relationships, but it remains to be seen whether this will be backed up by any substantial changes in doctrine. German Cardinal Reinhard Marx pointed out during the Synod that church doctrine can and does change,[1] but the battle lines are being drawn. Labelling these as liberal and conservative fails to represent the global diversity of Catholicism. Nevertheless, there are deep disagreements between those who uphold the vision of marriage and the family enshrined in Pope John Paul II’s ‘theology of the body’ with its promotion of natural family planning, its essentialist approach to sexual difference and rejection of homosexuality, and its deep hostility to gender theory and feminism, and those who seek a more pastorally flexible and culturally nuanced approach.

The Synod was attended by nearly two hundred bishops and cardinals, twenty five couples, and several observers from other churches. From the outset, Francis urged them to speak freely, using the Greek word parrhesia. Though the western media focused primarily on marriage and divorce and same-sex relationships, the Synod offered a window into the global diversity of Catholic culture.

Complex issues surrounding polygamous marriages and other cultural practices emerged from Africa, and issues such as inter-religious marriages and forced marriages from Asia. Poverty, migration, war and violence were common themes.  Individualism and consumerism preoccupied prelates from the western democracies, but many from the global South spoke instead of overcrowding and economic deprivation. The language of church teaching was a central concern. The majority advocated pastorally sensitive language, but a vocal minority insisted that the Church must state her teaching uncompromisingly and authoritatively.

The African bishops played a particularly significant role.[2] Archbishop Jos Kaigama of Nigeria spoke about Africa’s coming of age.[3] Rejecting the imposition by NGOs and others of western values and liberal sexual ethics, he insisted that what Africa needs is access to education and economic justice.

These multi-faceted dialogues and debates informed two documents produced during the Synod – an interim document, the Relatio Post Disceptationem,[4] published after the first week, and a final report which will serve as a working document for next year’s Synod.[5] There was some controversy around the wording of the interim report with regard to divorced and remarried Catholics and those in same-sex relationships.[6] The final report was more guarded, though the published version included three paragraphs which failed to gain the required two thirds majority, along with voting figures.


Yet for all its astonishing strengths and insights, the Synod’s credibility is seriously undermined by the lack of women participants. Other than those who formed half of the twenty five carefully selected couples, women were not represented at all.

Where were the mothers and daughters, the sisters and aunts, the members of religious orders who mother the poor and care for those who have nobody else to care for them? Where were those who would speak for some 800 of the world’s poorest women who die every day for want of obstetric care, including those dying from botched abortions? Where were those who would speak for the grandmothers of Africa, raising children orphaned by AIDS? Where were those who would speak for the mothers of the Philippines, leaving their children in the care of others so that they can go and care for the children of the wealthy in foreign lands? Where were those who would speak for girls deprived of education and freedom by religious and political regimes which have yet to recognise them as fully human? Where were those who would have turned their attention to that absurd gathering of celibate men and demanded a greater voice for women at all levels of the Church’s life? When I told one African woman theologian about Archbishop Kaigama’s intervention, she asked what right he has to speak for Africa’s women about sexual ethics.


Pope Francis has repeatedly called for greater recognition of the contribution women make to the life of the Church. If he is serious, then he will ensure that women are fully represented at the 2015 Synod and that, like the assembled prelates, they are encouraged to speak with parrhesia – with courage and candour. Only then might we see the emergence of a Catholic vision of the family that is truly rooted in the struggles and hopes, vulnerabilities and joys, of incarnational living in the grassroots Church of ordinary daily life.


Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion Society and Human Flourishing at the University of Roehampton in London. In addition to her academic research and publications, she is a frequent contributor to media debate around issues of religion, society, gender and Catholicism. She is a member of Cafod’s Theological Advisory Group and a Director and trustee of the Catholic weekly journal, The Tablet.


[1] Joshua J. McElwee, ‘Cardinal Marx: Doctrine can develop, change’, National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 2014 at, accessed November 26, 2014. There was extensive coverage of the Synod on a number of websites and blogs as well as in the printed media. I refer mainly here to Joshua McElwee’s daily reports, because they provided the most extensive and consistent coverage.

[2] Cf. John L. Allen Jr., ‘Africans are no longer junior partners in Catholicism Inc.’, Crux, October 17, 2014 at, accessed November 26, 2014.


[4] Holy See Press Office,  ‘Synod 14 – Eleventh General Assembly: ‘Relatio post disceptationem’ of the General Rapporteur, Card. Péter Erdö, 13.10.2014, at, accessed November 26, 2014.

[5] Holy See Press Office,  ‘Synod 14 – Relatio Synodi of the III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops: Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization’ (5-19 October 2014), 18.10.2014, available at, accessed November 26, 2014.

[6] See Joshua J. McElwee, ‘Bishops critique synod document, saying it may cause confusion’, National Catholic Reporter, October 14, 2014 at, accessed November 26, 2014.