Lending an ear, granting a voice
Excerpts from comments delivered during the launch yesterday of the book “Towards Adult Faith: Essays on Believing” by Asuncion David Maramba.
This book launch, and indeed this book, couldn’t have been better timed. It coincides with an extraordinary gathering taking place at the Vatican, with the world’s bishops meeting to talk about marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, sexual minorities and other social issues on which it was commonly believed that the Church had taken a fixed, unchanging, unyielding stance.
But as commentators and observers at the Synod of Bishops on the Family are discovering, the so-called “fixed, unchanging and unyielding” stance of the Church on these realities of life may be in for some revisions, or at least some softening and flexibility on the part of the institutional Church. As Pope Francis urged the more than 200 senior Catholic bishops in Rome, they should not “impose” what he called “intolerable moral burdens” on the faithful.
If that softening and flexibility do result from the synod, much of it could be attributed to the sharing gathered from lay people, specifically 12 Catholic married couples invited to speak before the gathering who, in the words of John Allen Jr. of the website Crux, “have stolen the show” at the synod.
To be sure, the lay couples are there simply as “auditors,” taking part in the discussions but without the right to vote. But what they had to say were enough to provoke, disturb and elicit reactions—if not yet vocally from the bishops, at least from the media and other lay observers.
An Australian couple, Ron and Mavis Pirola who have been married for 55 years with four children, extolled the gift of intimacy, describing it as the outward expression “of our longing to be intimate with each other,” and saying that marriage “is a sexual sacrament with its fullest expression in sexual intercourse.”
The Pirolas also championed if not the equal rights, then at least the right to mercy and compassion, of gay men and lesbians. They cited the example of friends whose gay son wanted to bring his partner home for Christmas. The couple’s response, they said, was simply: “He’s our son.” Bishops and priests, the Pirolas suggested, could learn from their friends “about how to strike a balance between upholding church teaching and showing mercy and compassion.”
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Another couple, the Filipinos Cynthia and George Campos, who are connected with the group “Couples for Christ,” gave a testimony on the personal tests they had undergone, as well as their struggles with Church hierarchy.
They spoke of trying to launch an outreach program for couples in “irregular situations,” such as couples who weren’t married in the Church, or living together without marriage, or whose marriages had broken down and then found themselves in other relationships even without annulment. But, said the Camposes, the idea was shot down because Church officials told them their group was meant “only for couples married in the Church.” They pleaded for “more enlightened pastoral charity” from priests and bishops, more “inclusive participation” in Church life, and, in Allen’s analysis, “a case for a more open-door policy on Catholicism, trying to gather in people who run afoul of the rules rather than turning them away.”
The interventions by lay couples led a Vatican analyst to observe that “married people need to be heard. Gay people and their struggles need to be heard. Single mothers need to be heard. It won’t do for a bunch of celibate men, so-called, to be parsimonious with God’s mercy.”
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And that, in a nutshell, is what the author of “Towards Adult Faith,” my friend and colleague Asuncion David Maramba, says in her book and in the columns she has written in the last 29 years.
It is her contention, although this has become a concentration of hers only in the past two decades or so, that the Church, the institutional Church, should listen more to the faithful, lending not just a respectful ear but also a stronger voice to lay men and women. And that, as shown by the example of the two couples who addressed the Synod of Bishops, by their testimony and lived experience, the laity have a lot to teach our teachers on matters both spiritual and practical.
For in electing for the celibate life, our church leaders—nuns, priests, bishops—have cut themselves off from a vital, life-affirming aspect of human existence. I will not go into the reasons for and against celibacy. But I will go into the need for our spiritual guides to reach out to lay people struggling with the gifts of attraction, arousal, intimacy and fulfillment and to engage in respectful dialogue with them.
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Maramba’s writing, in the last two years or so, were provoked in large part by the contentious debate over the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law, questioning the quick and harsh condemnation of its supporters by critics and clerics.
But the tone of her columns and commentaries was far from harsh and hurtful. Instead, to my mind, it was often gentle, if provocative. I got the sense that her words were coming from a believer who was pained by what she had been hearing or reading, who was earnestly pleading for a more understanding, open and generous sharing of thoughts and feelings.
I don’t think Maramba writes of the Church out of a sense of outrage or pique. Instead, I believe that it is the willingness to speak out and point out weaknesses or wrongs that distinguishes the true believer who loves the faith from one meekly accepting everything without letting it penetrate one’s heart, soul and conscience.
May more follow her brave and compassionate example!
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