By: Sharon A Bong
The signs of the times manifest not only pastoral challenges but more critically, theological challenges to the Church’s appreciation of what constitutes a family in the 21st century. Yet the preparatory document and questionnaire (PD) that are intended to provide bases for contemplation during the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2014, deal predominantly with the former. In promulgating the ‘Gospel of the Family’, where it is timely for the church to pause to ask itself, whose gospel it is or who else’s gospel matters, it in fact, falls short of doing so as the binary of natural/’irregular’ unions and families are reinforced. In revisiting the exclusivity of the Gospel of the Family, three points will be considered: ‘’forms of feminism hostile to the church’, ‘relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage’ and ‘new interpretations of what is considered a human right’.
Firstly, there are indeed ‘forms of feminism [that are] hostile to the church’. Such hostility, in the form of rhetoric and praxis, is directed at structural and institutional violence against women and the girl-child, e.g. non-ordination of women, clergy sexual abuse, pastoral counseling to submit to domestic violence as obedient wives, etc. Such hostility is paradoxically founded on love of women as human persons who are created ‘to the image of God’ (Gaudium et spes, 12). Where the family is the foundational unit of communities, the human person is the foundation of these social units. As such, these feminisms (which are plural not singular to begin with) are necessarily ‘hostile to the church’ in upholding the inherent dignity of the human person where the church has failed to do so.
Secondly, ‘relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage’ – that in turn, begets new ways of doing family, e.g. same-sex unions with children (from adoption, previous heterosexual unions, etc.), mixed marriages, single-parent family, polygamy, migrant families – are lived realities for so many human persons, many of whom still identify as Christians. The Gospel of the Family that is reified in ‘family canons’ of the church accords legitimacy only to the natural family that comprises the union of a man and woman with procreative sex extolled within holy matrimony. Pluralisms in doing family is not inherently ‘irregular’ or worse, sinful when those concerned submit to and embody God’s divine love for us all, nurture not only families in faith but also the ‘human family’ in recognizing the holiness and connectedness of all human persons (GS, 38).
Thirdly, sexuality rights as ‘new interpretations of what is considered a human right’ are a ‘sign of God's grace and… mysterious design’ (GS, 34). At the heart of the wisdom of human rights and religions that are mutually constitutive, lies the universalising principle of ‘exalted dignity proper to the human person’ (GS, 26). This dignity is inalienable from the human person where human sexuality is its most fundamental expression and more significantly, a gift from God.
An inclusive Gospel of Families must be the sum of these parts and more, in all their glorious albeit messy plurality.
Sharon A Bong is Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University, Malaysia. She is author of The Tension Between Women’s Rights and Religions: The Case of Malaysia (2006) and former Coordinator of the Ecclesia of Women in Asia, an academic forum of Catholic women theologizing in Asia. She is also a member of the Asian Regional Committee of the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church.