Teenage mothers and polygamy: The global challenges the Pope faces

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More than half (106 bishops) of the almost two hundred individuals participating in the Extraordinary Synod on the Family which opened on Sunday, October 5, in the Vatican hail from Asia, Latin America, Africa and Oceania. It would be very short-sighted of us to therefore focus our attention exclusively on hot issues affecting European societies and Churches which are facing the challenge of secularism, to the detriment of the challenges and problems faced in other parts of the world. Aware of the complexity of said challenges and problems, the Synod’s Secretariat carried out a comprehensive consultation of the world’s Catholic communities in order to put together the document that is to form the basis of its work on the family. The document describes the real situation, that is, how men and women really experience family life and not how the Church would like them to live it.

The Synod will need to address the issues affecting real families, rather than “the family” in general. There are parts of Africa where arranged marriages take place between 10-year-old girls and 60-year-old men. In countries like Niger and Chad, 70% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before their 15th birthday.

It is not easy for the Church to speak about a “natural law” – as bishops of Africa, Asia and Oceania pointed out – in places where polygamy is considered natural, as is disowning a wife for not being able to bear male sons. In Melanesia, meanwhile, our idea of a “traditional” family, is seen as a Western model that is hard to get one’s head around. This is because of the existence of matriarchal societies in which it is the responsibility of the mother’s brothers to educate a child rather than the biological father.

Turning our focus back to the West, not only has the family landscape changed a great deal over the past 30 years – with fewer marriages being registered and an increase in the number of couples opting for civil partnerships and new legislation that recognizes same-sex unions – many people now work Sundays too, complicating family relations. Then there are the financial problems families face and the lack of policies to support them.

To think that the Synod focuses entirely on the clash between those who suggest opening up the sacraments to remarried divorcees and those who have stated that this is not in any way open for discussion would be an oversimplification of the real situation.

Pope Francis wants there to be a real and free debate. He does not want to impose set frameworks and has never strategically tried to sway the discussions. The fact that he chose some cardinals who are notoriously against a softer approach to this issue, is proof of this. But a Synod is different to a party conference or a shareholders’ meeting: for faithful, the Synod is a meeting in which participants seek to “walk together”, guiding each other and listening to a God who is greater than we are capable of imagining Him. It would therefore be wrong to try to fit Him neatly into neat boxes as some do, portraying those in favour of a more open attitude as swashbucklers who are prepared to chase after worldly tendencies, and those who are against, as staunch defenders of the doctrine. It would also be wrong to imagine Him like a boxing ring, where people try to claim back rights they believe are theirs, taking the end result for granted.

What is certain, is that the Pope, Gospel in hand, continues to urge people to leave behind legalist mindsets: “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open,” the house of the father, where there is room for everyone. As of tomorrow, the Synod is called to discuss, not the geometrical details of doctrinal formulae, but the problems, wounds and real experiences of people, as well as the urgent need for the Gospel to be proclaimed to these people, by welcoming and being close to them. Many hope that bishops will not only speak out against the customs of a “liquid” society and “attacks” on the family, but that they will also reflect on the causes of the gap that exists between the Church’s teaching and the daily lives of many Christians.

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By Andrea Tornielli