Church needs less teaching and more listening

Upcoming family synod has much to think about.

 Posted on July 24, 2014, 10:31 AM
By Fr Myron Pereria.  Mumbai: Last October, the Vatican disseminated a survey on family life in the Catholic Church, as a prelude to the forthcoming Synod on the Family, scheduled for October this year.

Every diocese was sent a copy of the questionnaire, with a request to circulate it as widely as possible, and to send in their results by December 2013.

Many bishops’ conferences did this, even though it was found that many questions posed were clumsy and sometimes unintelligible. Broadly speaking, the enquiries related to four main areas.

The first concerned relationships and modern pressures on the family, divorce and remarriage, premarital sex and sacramental life in families.

The second addressed birth control and contraception, and issues related to responsible parenthood.

Third were gender issues as well as sexuality between men and women and same-sex relationships.

Abuse and violence in the family also fell into this bracket. The last area was how the Church teaches and how it listens to the laity.

When the results came in, many in the hierarchy were astounded at the gulf that exists between Church theory and practice.

In many areas, especially in Europe and the United States, most Church teaching on premarital sex, contraception, divorce and remarriage, as well as same-sex relationships are simply ignored and flouted.

The crying need in the West is the admission of the divorced and remarried to the sacraments (which they are presently denied).

It’s not that the reactions to the survey were uniform everywhere. They varied dramatically with geography and culture, according to a poll by

For instance, 75 percent of Catholics in Europe disagreed with the current teaching on divorce, remarriage and Communion, and 19 percent agreed.

In Africa the statistics were exactly the opposite. Family life in India is not as fractured as it is in the West, or so we like to think.

So why the reluctance of bishops in India to publicize the Vatican survey on the family and its results? As far as this writer is aware, this has been done guardedly, almost secretively, and only by a few dioceses.

In fact, there has been no public discussion of this survey with the laity at all. Is the “Indian reality” so very different? Does the Vatican survey “make sense” in Indian society? Yes, these questions do make sense, even though they are not spoken of loudly.

One reason is probably hypocritical – Indians like to pretend that “these things don’t happen here”.

Another being that weddings are still a “religious showpiece” (no matter which religious community), and for the sake of family it must be ‘gone through,’ no matter what the man and woman involved actually think.

It’s also true that there is much more cohabitation between young people today than in an earlier generation.

Urban youth have access to sexual information through the media, and there’s the urge to “try everything at least once”.

But the real revolution is taking place not so much in metropolitan cities, as in ‘small town’ India, where ‘sexual wellness’ is big business and online marketing ensures both speed, privacy and wide access to appliances and medication meant to enhance sexual pleasure.

Only the na�ve would still hold that such technology has no impact on lifestyle and family values, whether on Christians or on those of other faiths.

In this respect, there is one problem that is particularly affecting Christians: interfaith marriages.

With access to better education and rising incomes, more and more Christian girls are seeking partners from other churches or of other faiths.

In North India, for instance, half of all Catholic marriages involve either a Protestant or someone from the Orthodox Church, or Christian rite; or of another faith. This is an area of discomfort and denial for many in the Church hierarchy.

The traditional attitude of the Church to interfaith marriage is still a quiet attempt at the conversion of the non-Catholic partner, and a refusal to respect the faith experience of the other.

This is part of an institutional mentality of “always being right”, and it will continue until the Church – clergy and laity – sees itself (in the words of Pope Francis) as a “field hospital”, whose primary mission is to heal those wounded by the vicissitudes of life.

The upcoming synod also highlights a need for change in the Church of today: the need to become ‘a listening Church’.

For centuries, the hierarchical Church has been a teacher, not a listener. Its teachings have not just been authoritative, but frequently authoritarian.

Today we realize that this just won’t work anymore, especially in an area where the laity has far more experience than the clergy – the family.

Today’s family is under pressure everywhere. It is the wisdom of our present pope to have realized this, and to have called for feedback from Catholic families across the globe.

It’s also time for the ‘listening Church’ to tell the ‘teaching Church’ many truths it probably doesn’t want to hear.

Jesuit Fr Myron Pereira is a media consultant based in Mumbai.




  1. Isaac Gomes said,

    July 30, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    Regarding Joseph Dias’s statement that Catholic Church has a Canon Law, which is followed all over the world and regulates family issues like, divorce, marriage and inheritance, implemented by Ecclesiastical Courts, it is the civil law and not the Canon Law which prevails in UK, USA, France, Germany which has a high Christian population.

    According to Dias the government’s move “would be ultra vires of the Constitutional right to freedom of religion and gives the impression that the BJP government would like to control especially the minorities and its property or institutions by weakening the authority of religious leadership,” Dias said.

    Passport Seva portal stipulates that for applicants born on or after 26.01.89, only Birth Certificate issued by the Municipal Authority or any office authorized to issue Birth and Death Certificate by the Registrar of Births and Deaths is acceptable. On whether for Christians, Muslims and Parsis, marriage certificate issued by Qazi/Church will be accepted as a valid proof of marriage, the answer is only an attested copy of marriage certificate issued by Registrar of Marriage would be accepted. If one has marriage certificate issued by Qazi/Church, then one has to meet Assistant Passport Officer (APO) at the nearest Passport Seva Kendra (PSK). So how can Dias say that Canon Law is followed all over the world and regulates family issues through Ecclesiastical courts which cannot override civil law?

    Thanks to the Godwin D Souza issue, which has snowballed into a major controversy, the issue of the conflict between the canon law and the Civil law of the land has come into the forefront.

    Godwin was married to Shanthi D Souza in 1999 at Cordel Church. The marriage was dissolved by the Ecclesiastical Court (canon law) in 2002 which held that the existing marriage (Godwin with Shanti) is no longer an impediment for either of them to remarry. Based on this annulment of the church Godwin got remarried in the same church in 2003 by the same priest. Godwin has two children from his second marriage.

    Godwin and his family was flummoxed when they came to know after 9 years of annulment, that Godwin’s first wife Shanti has filed a private complaint with the Chief Judicial Magistrate under Section 200 of the Criminal Procedure Code for various offences punishable under law including section 494 of IPC which deals with bigamy. Section 494 reads as “marrying again during lifetime of husband or wife- whoever, having husband or wife living, marries in any case in which such marriage is void by reason of its taking place during the life of such husband or wife, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend up to 7 years and shall also liable to tine”.

    This means that Godwin has been sued for bigamy by his first wife because in the eyes of the Indian law Godwin has married again even when he was married to his first wife (canon law annulment of marriage not recognized by the court). However, the second marriage permitted by Canon Law, has now become a crime under sec 494 of IPC. The other impact of this complaint by Shanthi is that under the same law the priest who had blessed the second nuptials of Godwin has the risk of being prosecuted for abetting the crime of bigamy. The final fallout of this is that a number of cases pending before the Ecclesiastical courts are sure to come to a standstill knowing fully well that the Canon Law decree has no value in the court of law.

    Many of my friends before taking their wives abroad were asked to produce Civil Marriage Certificates – the Church Marriage Certificate was not accepted. They had to go to Marriage Registrars for Civil Marriage. Even for Divorces (Decree of Nullity), the pronouncement by the Judicial Vicar of Ecclesiastical Court has no value in a court of law. That is why he writes on the judgement copy that the concerned couples should get his judgement RATIFIED in a civil court. Let it be known to all Christians that the canon decree issued by the church with regard to marriage annulment is null and void in the court of law.

    In all modern countries there is only one common law for everybody. Nowhere in advanced Muslim countries (Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia) has the personal law of each minority been recognized to prevent enactment of a civil code. In European countries and the USA which have a civil code, everyone and every minority have to abide by the Uniform Civil Code. If Joseph Dias visits these countries would he dare to say there that Uniform Civil Code “would be ultra vires of the Constitutional right to freedom of religion?”


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