SUBMISSION TO THE XIV ORDINARY GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF BISHOPS
4–25 OCTOBER 2015
WE ARE ALL CHURCH SOUTH AFRICA
This is our response to the Preliminary Question of the Relatio Synodi. We are a group of approximately 300 Catholics in South Africa. www.weareallchurch.co.za
1. SOUTH AFRICA – BACKGROUND
The Republic of South Africa is situated at the southern tip of the African continent. It has a population of 50 million people, broken down into eight main ethnic groups and, in terms of its Constitution passed in 1996, the country has nine official languages. Today English is used as a common language in all nine provinces.
The country still suffers from the effects of apartheid, with only limited integration having taken place since the advent of democracy in 1994. The majority of black citizens still reside either in the rural areas or in the ‘townships’ of the major cities and towns.
The Roman Catholic population numbers less than 10 per cent and is spread over 26 dioceses. The Church in South Africa has always been very active in the fields of education and healthcare. Indeed, after central government, the Church has the largest HIV/Aids treatment program in the country. Members of We Are All Church South Africa have been playing an active role in all these areas.
2. THE SOUTH AFRICAN FAMILY IN ITS VARIOUS FORMS
In the Western World the ideal family is defined as a married male and female, with children, living together. In South Africa this nuclear family is in the minority. The most common types of family in South Africa are:
2.1 Single-parent family
2.2 Grandparent-headed family
2.3 Child-headed family
2.4 Cohabiting male and female, with or without children
2.5 Cohabiting same-sex persons, either legally married or living together, with or without children
Another point to note is that children in South Africa are regularly brought up within the family of a female relative or a close friend, even though the biological mother is alive – often when the biological mother is not able to cope with child-rearing for one reason or another. The fostered child will often acknowledge two ‘mothers’.
The families described under items 2.4 and 2.5 are not readily understood or supported by Catholic Church authorities, either inside or outside South Africa, and deserve to be accepted, recognised and blessed by the Church.
2.1 Single-parent families
These families are mostly a single woman with a child, or children. This could be the result of a divorce, or because a person had a child out of wedlock. A single-parent family can also be created because one of the parents dies before the children are adults – as happens frequently in South Africa as a result of the HIV/Aids pandemic.
The migrant labour system, in which the male of the family leaves his home in the rural area to seek work on the mines or in industry, has historically been a contributory factor to the single parent situation, and continues to this day.
A further factor is that a large number of mothers in South Africa have never married – usually because of male attitudes or patriarchal tribal customs, or because of the high cost of lobola (‘bride price’).
For these and similar reasons, it is very common for the children of one mother to have different fathers.
These single-parent families need spiritual support. They make up a significant proportion of regular parishioners at many churches, and the Church must guard against making either the parent or the children feel excluded.
2.2 Grandparent-headed families
With the HIV/Aids catastrophe that still afflicts South Africa, there is a large number of families where both parents have died, or where the mother has died and there is no father present, leaving a grandparent (usually the grandmother), or sometimes both grandparents, to bring up the children.
2.3 Child-headed families
These families come about, in most instances, for the same reasons as grandparent-headed families do – but when there are no adults present who can foster the children. The oldest sibling of necessity becomes the head of the household.
2.4 Cohabiting male and female, with or without children
These families may have come about for many reasons and occur across all socio-economic strata. One or both parties may be divorced and see marriage as unnecessary or even undesirable – an attitude currently ‘encouraged’ by the Church’s ruling which effectively excommunicates divorced Catholics who have remarried. Others may decide not to marry for a variety of reasons.
2.5 Cohabiting same-sex couple, either legally married or living together, with or without children
Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since the Civil Union Act of 2006. Legislation had already allowed both partners to be recorded as parents of children jointly adopted or born in the relationship (conceived through artificial insemination).
The Catholic Church does not recognise these unions, nor does it permit conception by artificial insemination.
Families falling under points 2.1 to 2.5 are not uncommon in South Africa. The Catholic Church appears not to accept all of these as true family units, even though the individuals concerned may be baptised Catholics, and are sometimes even making valued contributions in their parishes. This situation needs to be addressed and the families made to feel welcome in church, and, where applicable, be shown understanding, concern and mercy rather than condemnation – as has too often been the case in the past. The Church’s teachings should not imply judgement; judgement must be left to God. Those in unusual and/or ‘irregular’ situations are perhaps more than ever in need of the strength and comfort available through the Blessed Sacrament.
3. PREPARATION FOR MARRIAGE
In South Africa, the Catholic Church requires young couples intending to marry to attend a marriage preparation course beforehand – whether or not one party is not a Catholic. These courses tend to cover the strict Church teaching on marriage, particularly its indissolubility. They unfortunately seldom cover other important areas such as conjugal love and communication, finance and financial planning, and parenthood – to name a few. These shortcomings in marriage preparation are too often in areas that may later lead to marriage breakdown and failure.
It is also unacceptable that some pre-marriage courses still stress that sex within marriage is purely for the purpose of procreation. Such an attitude can place extra stress on a marriage. It may even result in couples leaving the Catholic Church and marrying within a different Christian denomination.
Hand in hand with the existing preparation, there should be courses (or parts of courses) run by mature and experienced lay married couples, who can give guidance and encouragement to those preparing for marriage.
4. MARRIAGE ANNULMENT
Although annulments sometimes seem to be granted quite rapidly, currently most Catholic couples seeking the annulment of their marriage must undergo a lengthy and costly process – it can take three to four years – before a final decision is reached.
Surely the time has come, as has been stated by Pope Francis, for this process to be speeded up and for the costs to be reduced. Very clear and unambiguous rules/guidelines should be set by the Vatican, with the actual decisions being made by a diocesan panel. Members of the panel should be both men and women, drawn from the clergy and the laity.
5. DIVORCE AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
Sadly today too many marriages fail, Catholic marriages among them.
There are many instances where divorce is unavoidable, or is deemed likely to be better for all concerned. Examples of these are:
• There is serious sustained mental and/or physical abuse, either of a partner, or of the children, or both.
• One party decides to leave the other and reconciliation proves impossible, for example when one partner refuses to end an extramarital sexual liaison or indulges in a series of such liaisons.
• The breakdown of the marriage, for whatever reason, is making the lives of all, especially the children, untenable. In such circumstances, if the marriage is not dissolved, the children could suffer lifelong mental scars.
The Church must accept that such circumstances exist and cannot expect the innocent party to put his or her life on hold forever, or be banned from the Sacraments if he or she remarries. This sometimes leads to divorced people living together (see 2.4 above) rather than marrying, because it appears to be more acceptable to the Church.
In these circumstances, the Church must find ways of showing compassion, understanding and mercy for the good of all concerned. While it must of course guard against the easy acceptance of divorce, it must also approach these matters with greater realism and sympathy. This must include acceptance of remarriage, where divorce was not undertaken lightly, and allow such persons to receive the Sacraments.
6. CONTRACEPTION AND FAMILY PLANNING
In 1968, Pope Paul VI, issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), which restated the Catholic Church’s ban on any form of contraception. This decision was taken despite a Papal Commission which had recommended, by an overwhelming majority, that the Church rescind this teaching. This encyclical has been a major factor in many Catholics, both young and old, leaving the Church.
Further, many married Catholics have ignored this ban and followed their consciences.
This teaching needs to be reviewed and modified. Indeed, a growing number of clergy across the world agree that this doctrine must change. Changing this teaching does not imply permitting abortion, which is clearly wrong.
7. HOMOSEXUALITY AND SEXUAL MINORITY GROUPS
Every human being is born, we are taught, in the image and likeness of God. Further, we are taught and believe that God loves every human being. No two human beings are the same. Indeed, some are born different from the majority in that they are attracted to persons of the same sex. There are others too whose sexuality is unusual – some medically clear and definable.
Perhaps because of a historical lack of understanding, these people are grouped together in what is called the ‘LGBTI community’ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex. Historically, the Catholic Church has not been kind to such people. This unacceptable attitude has to change, and soon.
In the past thirty years, science has made great strides in understanding the human being and has found that some people are born with a homosexual orientation. This cannot be changed in any meaningful way by medication, or by other means. Whilst the present interpretation of Scripture is that marriage should be between a male and female, and thus open to procreation, we must nevertheless accept that people of the same sex can be attracted to each other in the same way as a man and woman can be. Such attraction can lead to love and to a desire to spend their lives together in a faithful union. Although such a union is not the same as the union of a man and a woman, we believe that Mother Church, in the twenty-first century, with all the scientific facts now available, must surely recognise and bless such unions.
8. UNDUE EMPHASIS ON SINS OF A SEXUAL NATURE
It often seems that the Church is unduly concerned with the condemnation of sex outside marriage, and has focused far too heavily on this aspect. The result is that people leading good Christian lives, but not fitting the Church’s strict rules regarding sexual matters, are very often regarded as worse sinners than those who regularly commit other types of sin. Priests and religious are also sometimes sexually active, yet it is only the laity’s sexual sins that are publicly condemned.
9. CONCLUDING REMARKS
Whilst the nuclear family remains the model most readily acknowledged as ‘normal’, all the family models described above should be accepted, and encouraged and supported through their difficulties. As mentioned above, there are many factors that can lead to the irrevocable breakdown of a marriage and family. These cannot be ignored or wished away by the Catholic Church. The time has come for the Church to accept today’s realities and not place extra stress on married couples with its unrealistic approach to matters such as contraception and the purpose of sexual intercourse.
Finally, we repeat that access to the Blessed Sacrament should not be denied to any Catholic who is striving to lead a good Christian life, but whose conscience will not allow them to accept the current teaching of the Church on the above matters. Jesus calls us to give particular care to his lost sheep.
23 March 2015