Talking About Problems Versus Orbiting Problems

While I still maintain that we should Trust the Process and embrace the point of view of Nick Saban, I must say this Synod on the Family has proven more chaotic than even I had anticipated.  The various reports from the working groups after the first week are all over the map, making it difficult to see how consensus can be found.  Conservative provocateur Sandro Magister reported that a group of Cardinals have been complaining about The Process, a claim that a number of the alleged signatories have backed away from.  One can discern all sorts of fault lines of various kinds among the participants (along those lines, I should note that Michael Sean Winters, who I am often critical of, had a good piece on this topic today).

In looking at all of this, it seemed like there was something weird about the way the Synod was talking about and thinking about the family and family issues, but I couldn't put my finger on it.  Rereading Thomas Bushnell's essay on marriage (which I previously talked about here) brought it into focus--the problem with the Synod is that the participants are talking about topics under the heading of "problems with the family" that are not actually problems with the family, but are, at best, "causes of problems with families."

Here's what I mean--take the idea, expressed by Cardinal Erdo of Hungary, that "moral relativism" is a problem with the family.  Now, I think "moral relativism" is basically an unhelpful concept, but let us (as we lawyers say) make all inferences in favor of those that assert this view.  Even if we do that, "moral relativism" is not itself a "problem with the family."  For the argument to be remotely coherent, it must be in the form of "the existence of people who believe that truth is relative (or whatever "moral relativism" is supposed to mean) causes some circumstance X to exist within families."  Same with "same sex marriage"--it must mean "the existence of legal recognized same sex couples causes some circumstance X to exist in families," or even "the fact that the adult pairing in a family consists of a same-sex couple causes circumstance X to occur in that family."  And this scheme equally works for so-called "liberal" arguments about what is going on in families--"lack of economic opportunities," a favorite of the Pope, is not itself a problem in the family, but a cause of problems for families.

The reason why this is a problem, and not simply me being pedantic, is that "circumstance X" in all of these scenarios is almost entirely undefined.  For the "moral relativism is harming families" argument to have any purchase, they must be able to point to some concrete change in the relationships between the members of families, one that they will then attempt to trace back to the emergence of moral relativism.  But they can't even begin to make the causal link because they are not clear about the concrete change in family dynamics that they are talking about.


If you are not clear about what is different now with families in a day-to-day, concrete way, any talk of these various causes is bound to be incoherent.  You cannot meaningfully debate whether "the Change" is caused by gay marriage or by economic problems if you can't agree on what "the Change" is.  You can't fix a crisis until you can articulate what the crisis actually is.  Thus far, I see almost no discussion in the Synod of what has changed for the worse for families.  It's like the Synod is a set of space ships orbiting a black hole--all of that movement ultimately goes no where because they cannot penetrate the heart of the thing that is generating the movement in the first place.

And the reason for that, I think, is because the Catholic Church, and Christianity as a whole, has an underdeveloped theology of human relationships.  If you think about it, every "problem in a family" is ultimately a relational problem--some way in which the people involved in the family are interacting with each other (or not interacting with each other) that is destructive to their common life.

We might imagine that some sub-set of parents view their children entirely in instrumental terms, as "things" that are there to advance their social standing or economic opportunities or other personal goals.  That's a relational problem.  That's also a concrete problem with family life, one that we can show directly leads to a reduction in human flourishing for all involved.  Once we identify the problem, we can then talk about whether it is getting better or worse (I would argue better, at least on the whole), and what broader sociological causes might be responsible for any changes (such as, say, lack of economic opportunities, or even moral relativism).  But the key starting point is always some concrete intrafamily, and ultimately interpersonal, relationship quality.

To really be useful, instead of talking about divorce or same sex marriage or even gender issues in the first instance, the Synod should discuss a Catholic vision of how a family should function, expressed in terms of how the various members of the family interact with each other.  For example, Archbishop Durocher wants the Church to say emphatically that a Catholic vision of family life categorically excludes domination by men over women, because such domination is improper altogether.  I suspect that some of his fellow Synod participants would disagree with this formulation.  But that is a key relational question, one that is central to the operation of families.  A clear statement by the Synod fathers on that question would do far more to move the ball forward than some necessarily amorphous statements on "moral relativism."  And Archbishop Durocher's question has the additional advantage of being applicable to all sorts of human interactions, which helps to build a more coherent theology of relationships (as opposed to insisting that marriage be treated as a sui generis institution, which creates problems that Bushnell's piece identifies).

No doubt, there will be substantial disagreement among the participants over what a Catholic vision of family, and thus a Catholic vision of interpersonal relationships, should be.  In fact, there may be even more disagreement if the Synod were to take a focused look at these questions.  But at least we would be having a coherent discussion, one that would be actually useful to people in families, and people in general.  Right now, the Synod appears to be simply parked in orbit around the the real conversation, unwilling to go to the surface.

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