Listening to the laity: toward Synod 2015

/ 06:37 AM December 13, 2014

What is the Filipino family today?

The family is in crisis, asserts the 2014 Vatican Synod on the Family. Its report highlights, as subjects for Church concern, broken marriages; divorced, nullified and separated families; children out of wedlock; violence in the home; same-sex marriage; and more. Nonetheless, it advocates a balanced perspective. “Faithful to Christ’s teaching, we look to the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with both its lights and shadows.”


How do Filipino social scientists view these lights and shadows? Our studies show that families in all their variety are both victims and strivers, assailed by problems while simultaneously taking action—in our language, exercising agency. Trying now this, now that, they enlist wider family networks to help out. The traditional nuclear family of father, mother, children today represents only one of many other forms. In urban informal settlements, household profiles reveal common-law, live-in parents with children possibly from different fathers or mothers; women-headed households with children but no male in evidence; gay or lesbian couples raising biological or adopted children; among others—expanded by the presence of an uncle, a cousin, or a transient hometown neighbor. Rural communities feature mixed households with assorted kin caring for left-behind children, older and disabled persons in the absence of one or both parents working abroad. Rather than call these “broken families,” UP anthropologist and Inquirer columnist Michael Tan prefers “reconfigured families.”

Listening Church


With the 2014 Synod now over, our bishops are expected to adopt pastoral approaches that recognize the situations, actions and aspirations of families in their own countries. What lies ahead for Filipino Catholics? Social science laity hope for a Church willing to inform natural law with evidence-based understandings of today’s realities. Sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists welcome the prospect of contributing to Pope Francis’ “listening Church” by discussing with theologians and bishops research results and social analyses on Filipino marriages and families.

Consider, for example, Cardinal Luis Tagle’s reactions to the results of the worldwide family survey initiated by the Vatican for the 2014 Synod: “Shocking because in almost all parts of the world, the questionnaires indicated that the teaching of the Church regarding family life is not clearly understood by people, and the language by which the Church proposes the teaching seems to be a language not accessible to people.”

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin reacted more bluntly: “The teaching appears as not practical in relation to people’s day-to-day struggles, being at best an unrealistic ideal disconnected from real-life experience of families. There appears to be a ‘theory-practice’ gap.”

As our bishops prepare for the 2015 Synod on the Family, narrowing the “theory-practice” gap can happen if moral theologians discuss with social scientists, reform-oriented laity, and those persons affected, the varied ways in which Filipinos are reconfiguring their families. One subject of mutual concern is the transnational family—overseas
Filipino workers and their left-behind members. Here the feminization of labor looms large. As of 2013, women comprised about half of the 2.3 million OFWs, with their numbers and ratios growing.

For both male and female OFWs, motivations to leave are clear: Working abroad and sending remittances home can help their families emerge from poverty. Children who would never have completed college or even high school are now enrolled, armed with the latest cell phone, laptop or tablet and signature shoes and clothing. Other OFWs build new houses or start small businesses. Spanning countries and continents, Filipino families reinforce their ties by Skype-ing, texting, e-mailing, or doing Facebook and Twitter.

Deep sense of loss

Yet, reaping material benefits at the expense of a parent’s or spouse’s absence for years can generate excruciating tensions. On the home front there is gratitude for an easier life but also guilt and a deep sense of loss, possibly even resentment, at the absent parent. “My mother missed my last two birthdays, my graduation, and when I received a medal in school.” “She wasnít even here to accompany me in buying my first bra” or “to protect me from my father’s blows when he caught me out with my boyfriend.”


Migrants suffer as well, hiding from family members the abuse and humiliation wrought upon them by oppressive employers, or the loneliness and homesickness that permeate their lives. At the same time, some women OFWs experience a new and liberating independence, auguring future problems with husbands bent on maintaining traditional

It is family members who backstop these beleaguered kin. Tatay, Lola/Lolo, Tita/Tito, Ate and Kuya take care of left-behind children, and disabled and elderly members. Tatay occasionally balks, however. Charged to be both father and mother, he may resist or be incapable of taking over his missing wife’s family roles. Comments the 2014 Synod Report: “Fathers who are often absent from their families, not simply for economic reasons, need to assume more clearly their responsibility for children and the family.”

What kinds of pastoral approaches and moral guidance will our Philippine Church offer these products of diaspora?

Even for families who remain in the Philippines, a husband whose wife earns consistently more than he does threatens his traditional position as household head. The National Demographic and Health Survey reports that one in five Filipino women, aged 15-49, has experienced physical violence—for married women, primarily from their husbands. Why, women wonder, have bishops and priests so relentlessly focused their ire on women seeking access to reproductive health while letting violent and immoral husbands and fathers get away with impunity?

As the family reconfigures itself, a moral theology anchored in sociocultural evidence and open dialogue can foster a theology and pastoral care genuinely responsive to 21st-century realities. Reform-oriented Filipino Catholics are eager to close the theory-practice gap. We are, after all, the men and women who get married and bear children, who confront the daily struggles and joys of protecting and nurturing our most treasured gifts—our families.

Mary Racelis teaches social anthropology at Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines.

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TAGS: Cardinal Luis Tagle, Overseas Filipino Workers, Pope Francis, synod of bishops, transnational family
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