Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Pope, the Questionnaire, Biased Language, and the Liturgy

There has been a lot posted on various sites about the questionnaire Pope Francis had sent out in regards to soliciting information from the rank-and-file Catholic for the upcoming Synod on the Family.  It certainly was a remarkable gesture—to consult the laity on their experience as well as to consult the Bishops on what they think “oughta be.”  A friend of mine (white, male 60+years of age) sent me the following email with his observations and it gave an interesting take:

Father Jerry put up the Pope’s/Bishops’  questionnaire on the Our Lady of Grace web site and asked for comment, which I provided.  Bishop Jones had asked pastors to consolidate lay input on the questionnaire.  Father Tom made it clear that no comment was going to change church doctrine, but he not only urged us to comment, but also he had a meeting to discuss the questionnaire.  I had already commented on the questionnaire, so I did not attend the meeting.  Second hand reports indicate that the 15-20 attendees were all of my age.  Not what I take to be a good sign, but about what I would expect.
My first problem with the questionnaire was one of translation.  The official church (and the questionnaire) communicates in a language that I do not understand.  I have lost my decoder ring for official church documents.  
I read the original Vatican II documents and fail to ‘get it’.  I had to look up ‘natural law’ in the catechism to remind myself what the bishops’ questionnaire was talking about; Catholics younger than I probably were not exposed to the concept of natural law and they may not have had the time or the inclination to look in up in their catechism, if they had one.  I mention this, because, before reaching any serious content, the official church has a communications problem; it simply does not speak the language of the (unwashed, lay) church.  Where I had comments to make I could not reliably tell whether my comments were germane to the question under which I put my reply, but I’m confident Father Jerry sorted that out.  He has a decoder ring.
Viewed from the level of the parish, the church is absolutely dependent on women.  Our Lady of Grace would collapse were it not for the women who staff it and those who do almost all the volunteer work.  Luke makes women witness to every important Gospel event.  The questionnaire does not mention them.  What’s wrong with this picture?  After all we are talking about family and sex.
The questionnaire never addresses family issues from the perspective of a woman, not that I’m an expert on a woman’s perspective.  Implicit in the questionnaire is the assumption of the two-parent, wage-earning male, stay-at-home female family core.  That is not a model I recognize.  I have four children, all married; all of the four women in these marriages work full time; three are the primary breadwinners of the family.  The issues of sex, birth control, contraception, numbers of children, etc. are entirely different for these women than they were for their mothers, and the questionnaire simply does not adequately address them.
The questionnaire talks about marriage and marriage preparation.  I have four children, all married.  Three took their pre-Cana preparation in the Catholic Church; the fourth in the Episcopalian Church.  There was no essential difference in their preparation, and in three of the four cases the preparation shows no sign of having had any impact.  What formation in the church occurs in three of these families is 100% the result of the woman involved.  In three cases the man almost never attends Mass (unless Ann and I are in town); the children attend Mass and go to religious education because of the woman.  So much for the efficacy of pre-marriage training. 
I think the Pope’s and the bishops’ hearts are in the right place, but this process all but guarantees the Pope is going to get none of flavor of frustration that pervades the pews of my parish.  The frustration arises because the church is not talking to the laity in a language that resonates.
I give Bishop Jones credit for giving the laity a chance to speak its mind, but my background with large, bureaucratic organizations, such as the Navy, the IAEA, the Energy Department, the CIA, and the State Department, suggests that this effort will end up being a bureaucratic drill with no discernible impact on what I see from the pew.  Father Jerry’s input may reflect some of the unvarnished comments I’ve made, but they will be edited and ground up by the chancery and emerge unrecognizable church pap, unless I miss my guess.
I think this is a very interesting insight—how the questionnaire was skewed right from the beginning by language and by gender-bias.  This is not that the Pope or even those who prepared the questionnaire did anything malicious, or even wrong.  To be honest I (degree in theology, male) had not picked up the compositional bias—the questionnaire reflects my world.   (I had notice the natural law thing, but only because I am sensitive to the fact that not everyone agrees to the position that there is such a thing as “natural law,” or at least not as it is defined in Catholic moral teaching.  I have been through that argument enough not to take it for granted.)
The questionnaire is certainly a step in the right direction—a huge step in the right direction—but it serves to illustrate the importance of language and the importance of language being precise so as not to bias outcomes. In the same way, how does the language of the liturgy distort the faith to preserve certain biases. 
When I was in Grad School I did a paper in a course on Tudor-Stuart England on how the language of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer was used to reinforce certain political ideas regarding the Crown.  I have been aware ever since how our “god-language” is not always about God but about how we can keep a social hierarchy in place and in power.  Now that we have had the “new translation” of the Roman Missal for two years I am sensitive to problem after problem—not that the previous translation was better—in reinforcing certain biases.  Such problems are inevitable—we all unconsciously use language to favor our own positions. The problem is when language in consciously designed to favor the interests of one group over another.  

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