Should the Church Be a Mother or Father to Families? What's the Difference?

Below is the next installment of Bondings 2.0’s reports from the Synod on Marriage and Family in Rome. New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo will continue to send news and commentary from this meeting. Previous posts can be reached by clicking here.

A blog is a part of social media.  That means it’s not just channel to channel communication between writer and readers, but collaborative, interactive, and interdependent between these two agents.

I learned that lesson on Tuesday as I waited for the midday press briefing to occur at the Vatican’s synod on the family here in Rome.  A few minutes before the briefing began, I received a comment to Monday’s blog post from Annette Magjuka, a regular reader and commenter to Bondings 2.0.  Annette’s comment, which described her experience of motherhood and trying to pass on values that were not always accepted, ended with this reflection about children who don’t always follow the rules:

“[T]hey need a hug, soup, and HOME. They need to feel there is a place for them to BE.

“I think this is what the Pope means by the church being the mother. The rules can be the rules, but moms are different in their parenting approaches. . . . The church is suffering the loss of many who yearn to be able to come home. The question is, can you come home even if you do not do everything your mother asks? Does the love go away? Moms can make their point. But I think it is is tragic for families to give up years of meals, sharing, and communion over a rule. Jesus showed us what to do. Break bread. Stop scolding. Try not to sin and examine what that really means. Be serious about your soul. But walk with and support one another.”

Therese Nyirabukeye, Moira McQueen, Abbot Jeremias Schroder, and Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesperson.

That made me think.  One of the phrases that we have been hearing here at the synod is that the Church should accompany people like a mother.” When I read Annette’s interpretation, I wondered if the folks in the synod felt the same way.  So I decided to ask them.  As it happens, two of the three guests at Wednesday’s press briefing were women: Moira McQueen, director of the Canadian Catholic Institute of Bioethics; and Therese Nyirabukeye, advisor and formator for the African Federation of Family Action, Rwanda.  They were joined by Abbot Jeremias Schroder, arch-abbot of the Benedictine Congregation of St. Odile, Germany.

My question to them:

“We’ve heard other speakers say that it’s been proposed several times that the Church should be “an accompanying mother” to families.  I’d like to ask two parts:  1) Does the mother have a different role in the family than the father? 2) Since this is a proposal for something new, does that mean the Church has been too fatherly in the past, and not motherly enough?”

Moira McQueen was the first to answer, saying;

“We have always used language to refer to the Church as Mother, so I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to refer to the Church as accompanying mother. And so I think it is a very good designation. It shows both sides of the coin, if you like. We talk about the Synodal Fathers because they are all male, but I find it interesting that that can then be included in their own talking of the Church as the accompanying Mother.

“Again, I think the language is very interesting, and I think resonates these days then just [using] one or the other. Has the Church been seen as too fatherly? I’m not sure if what you mean by that is ‘paternalistic’ which is a little bit different and maybe it means all sorts of other things. There is no doubt that in days gone by that would have been the perception and may in fact in many places have been the reality.  But as Therese [Nyirabukeye, another press briefing guest] has also been pointing out that the inclusion of women in many different commissions in the Church at the highest levels again shows an awareness and a willingness on the part of the church to recognize maybe they have appeared to fatherly in the sense that they were all male before, and again this inclusion of women respects both sides of the coin.

I think McQueen misunderstood the question.  I was trying to ask what it synod participants mean by talking about the need for the Church to be seen as a “mother” and not as a “father.”  Her answer tried to show that women have a role in the Church, which is not what I was asking.  Her misinterpretation is understandable, given the fact that the press briefings are a highly stressful environment.

Abbot Schroeder also offered an answer about the use of the the term “mother”:

While it is very poetic language, very beautiful of course,  before we get smothered by it, we must remember that we are talking about Christians who are children, but also mature adults. I think the language of fatherhood and motherhood referring to the Church only goes so far.  Essentially, we are also communio–community–and we should bear that in mind as well.”

Schroeder’s answer was more on point.  And I agree with him that we should not get too caught up in the metaphors being used by Church leaders.  However, the persistence of such metaphors of parenthood, and particularly of gendered parenthood (mother or father) means that these ideas must have some significance to those using them.  I don’t think that they were using “motherhood” in any sort of gender-neutral way.

Therese Nyirabukeye also offered her comments:

“In this Synod there has been discussion of situations that are very special, very delicate, that require a greater tenderness. I think that in the family, the mother’s way of accompanying is marked by more tenderness, by more attention and in this context of accompaniment it was necessary to speak of the Church as mother. She must show her tenderness in family situations where people are wounded or are going through very special situations. I regretted that in the Instrumentum Laboris [the synod’s working document] not enough space was devoted to the accompaniment of normal families, those who are not in a special situation, to show clearly how the Church takes on this motherly role with respect to the development of each couple that goes from life’s beginnings to its end. It should be shown how she takes care of the development of the couple in the normal situation and how she takes care of families that are in a situation of fragility. I think it’s important to emphasize both aspects.”

[Nyirabukeye spoke in French. The translation of her answer was provided by Michael Clifton of David and Jonathan, France’s national LGBT Christian group.   Merci, Michael!]

Therese was the only one who indicated that there seems to be a distinction between why the Church is referred to as a “mother,” and not a “father.”   What I get from her answer is that mothers are the ones who provide tender loving care.

Which brings me to my second question which was has the Church been too “fatherly” in the past.   Despite McQueen’s assumption that I meant “paternalistic,” that was not what was on my mind.  Instead, I was wondering if the difference between motherly and fatherly approaches is the same as the difference between pastoral and legalistic approaches.  As a Church, we are emerging from a long period of strict legalisms, and that Pope Francis’ strategy is  to move the Church to a more pastoral approach.

But do these two poles have to be gendered?  I agree with Abbot Schroder that the metaphors should not be taken seriously.  But so much of Church teaching does take the gender images seriously.  So many of the restrictions on ordination come from the fact that the Church is viewed as female, not male.  I think that one of the gifts that the LGBT community offers to the Church is a new way to think about gender by helping to challenge some of the stultifying gender roles that have plagued our thinking and culture.

At Wednesday’s press briefing, we were presented with the reports of the 13 small groups in which the bishops have been having discussions, broken down according to language. The following section from one of the English-speaking groups touched on the need for both pastoral and legal approaches to be utilized, though emphasizing the pastoral one over the other:

“The group felt a strong need for a deeper reflection on the relationship between mercy and justice. . . . [W]e should always remember that God never gives up on his mercy. It is mercy which reveals God’s true face. God’s mercy reaches out to all of us, especially to those who suffer, those who are weak, and those who fail.”

So much better to talk about mercy and justice than mother and father.  [For an excellent summary of the reports from the English-speaking groups, read The National Catholic Reporter’s article by clicking here.]

And I thank Annette Magjuka,  a faithful Bondings 2.0 reader and commenter, for planting the seed of this idea in my mind.

What are your thoughts on the Church as “mother” or “father,” as pastoral or legalistic?  What are your thoughts about this synod in general.   Offer your ideas in the “Comments” section of this post.  Social media should be social !

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

10 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    Like Abbot Schroeder, I am wary of using either image. The problem is more than it being “paternalistic”. Certainly, the idea of “the Church” being seen as parental, creates a binary distinction: “Church” on the one hand, and its “children” on the other. What this image overlooks, is that in any family, children grow up – and the parents grow old. There often comes a point where the parents become dependent on their children, for care and for advice. If we must have a parental / child metaphor for the Church, that is the one I prefer to use myself; the “Church” ( as represented by the bishops) has in too many respects become senile, lacking in energy, and stuck in the past, It’s up to the rest of us, as the now adult “children” of the Church, to lead and guide – and to take loving care of the Church as a whole.

  2. lynne miller
    lynne miller says:

    I was very much attracted to the statement made by Annette Magjuka. As a convert at the age of 20, I think I was very much looking for a family, not only the love and compassion of the mother, but the stability and boundaries set by the father. Just like any child, we transgress those boundaries from time to time, but our sense of security comes from the stability of the father, who will tell us our fault, as well as from the mother, who will comfort us and heal our wounds. This is why I object so strenuously to not allowing divorced Catholics to receive the Eucharist. Would a father and mother, seeing their child who has been hurt in some fight, either physically or emotionally, tell them to go away because they didn’t follow the rules of the game that was being played? (t]This is stretching the metaphor a bit, but I think you get the idea.) They wouldn’t. They would correct the child, showing it the way it should go, and they would comfort and nourish it, so that it would have the strength of body and spirit to go back to the game.
    This is such a wonderful series of columns, letting us know what is going on in this synod, which will affect all of our lives.

  3. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    As a feminist, I hesitate to go too far with the “father” and “mother” metaphor. I much prefer the “mercy” and “justice” terms. Yet there is something primal and universal about family. People have strong associations with the archetypes of “father,” “mother,” and “family.” Many have asked me why I stick with the church despite being a feminist, a progressive, and an outspoken critic of some aspects of church dogma. My Mom was devout. She followed every church rule, and forced us to go to mass (even on Holy Days!), CCD classes, etc, etc. Every time we complained about a certain priest, she insisted that “It is not about the individual priest. Individuals are human beings, just as imperfect as any human being. It is about the enduring truths, the liturgy. It is a cop out (and lazy) to leave the faith based on one priest or one perceived slight.” With every complaint about Catholicism, she would say, “I suggest you examine your own conscience and take care of your own soul.” This is much different than “Just follow the rules.” She took the approach that she knew in her own heart what was right, and felt no need to change the entire church.

    I think the Pope invokes the image of mother as the one who, in a day-to-day way takes care of the physical and emotional needs of her children. She nourishes, checks up on, nurses, and if necessary, “sits with” her children through their trials and tribulations. She sometimes holds secrets and talks things through. The archetype of “mother” is the one that validates the core goodness and value of her child. The main association with the word “mother” has to do with enduring love. A mother loves her child no matter what. And she loves with an intensity that is like none other. You cannot divorce your mother. She is always there, she gave you life. In America, we have decided that men and women can and should go out into the world and share their talents. But the “traditional homemaker role” contains much that people need to feel loved, supported and connected. Many men nurture, too. This is a good thing, and we need to grow so all people can explore their individual talents in the workplace, but can also create “home” for one another. Since there are no women priests (yet), I think Pope Francis is calling the clergy to be “motherly,” and “pastoral,” and for the church to feel more like “home” for the faithful. And when someone feels broken, the church should be a “field hospital.” In other words, the church dogma has enduring truth. Changes come very, very slowly. But the liturgy is our celebration and should be inclusive–we eat and worship as one family. But priests, bishops, and the faithful must be in the practice of reaching out and supporting one another through all we experience. We must accompany one another.

  4. Anne Underwood
    Anne Underwood says:

    Historically most Christian denominations have adopted the language of The Church as The Bride of Christ. The Protestant hymn, “the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. She is the new creation…” rings illustriously in this convert’s ears. In the hierarchy’s limited view, “Brides become mothers” so the church “behaves motherly.” An issue is the Church’s “correct mothering” is defined, determined and disciplined by mortal men who believe they alone are Christ’s Cosmic Consciousness! Bottom line: churches are structured as commercial corporations, not communial families. Time for congregants to grow up and take full, responsible, non- gendered (!) share-holder control.

  5. Deb Whalen Word
    Deb Whalen Word says:

    Our culture blurs the roles of mother and father so much these days, in a good way! There are certainly those who lean one way or the other. Rules vs Nurture. Our church leadership=men. Men who for the most part have never changed diapers or dealt with sick babies at 2 am. Men who haven’t learned that at some point, keeping the child breathing is more important than the ‘rules’. I think when our church is best…it nurtures. It hugs, it feeds, it brings us all together, it leads by example. Yes, in many families that is mother. And in many families that is daddy. And in lucky families both. Our church leadership could learn from the families it holds as models. And from those who survive despite struggles, and from those family members who survive in spite of family tragedy.

  6. rachelfs
    rachelfs says:

    When I thought about your invitation to respond I realized that my study of indigenous groups immediately suggested the traditional value given to initiation into a community. Such initiations usually involve sacrifice and bravery in the face of the demands made by tribal survival–demands which include discernment and wisdom and sacrifice in relation to everyday life. When the rule’s authority eclipses discernment–even passes by any discernment process– the voice of wisdom has no chance and the rule as such replaces the reflective process.Wisdom as such includes both clarity and patience. Tribal law and tribal histories include both female and male imaging and detailed attention to the gradual passages into adult responsibility. Indigenous ruling councils often include both women and men although they may be structured separately in the discernment process.

  7. Clyde Christofferson
    Clyde Christofferson says:

    Frank, I have been following a variety of reports from the Synod, and your reports have been especially clear and insightful. This difference between mothering and fathering is intriguing: mother giving tender loving care (pastoral) and father giving discipline according to the law (legalistic).

    Where is Jesus in all this? Jesus preached the reign of God, which goes beyond the law. As the rest of this overly long comment concludes, there are many people in the church, and many bishops at the Synod (e.g. Chaput) who see the law as the last defense against the secularism and relativism which — as they see it — is overcoming society. They are giving the church bad advice. The church would better serve us all if it followed Jesus and preached the reign of God. Francis is trying to move the church in that direction by pointing out that doctrine is in service to the pastoral, not the other way around.

    Cardinal Pell yesterday commented that Jesus said some hard things, which is true. But church teachings that are hard because of the discipline of the law are, as you point out, “legalistic”. Jesus preached the reign of God, which is more difficult because it is a discipline of a different kind.

    Jesus, of course, was a master. He was able to teach without explicit words. According to the law, the adulteress should have been stoned. No one stoned her after Jesus posed the question, “let the one without sin cast the first stone.” We do not know what happened to this woman after this exchange with Jesus, but one might see reason in the mercy shown for the woman to seek a closer connection to the Spirit within her. This “pastoral” approach may or may not have succeeded in the end, but it pointed the woman toward the voice that needed cultivation within her.

    It is far more challenging to submit to the self-discipline of conscience than to pay lip service to the external discipline of the law. There is a certain objectivity in compliance with the law. Conscience is always a struggle to discern the gentle wind of the Spirit from the sometimes passionate calls of more primitive inclinations.

    It is ironic, it seems to me, that some bishops cite the words of Jesus in support of a “legalistic” approach that Jesus preached beyond. Church teaching still struggles — and perhaps bishops need “accompaniment” on this account — with how best to view the objectivity of the law. I am a lawyer. The law judges from the outside. The journey toward the reign of God is measured from the inside. This is why the reign of God goes beyond the law, and why the primacy of conscience prevails (at least in principle).

    LGBT members suffer while church teaching struggles at this boundary, the same boundary that Jesus spoke about in Mark 1:15. “Where is the unity?”, asks the bishops. There is some appearance of unity in adherence to the law, with its objectivities. There are greater prospects for unity in the same Spirit that speaks to every heart, but only if the church cultivates attention to this Spirit. Sadly, church teaching often opts for the law, failing to invest its talents in the greater — but less objective — challenges of the reign of God.

    This timidity — indeed, this failure to follow Christ — is particularly grievous for “law” about sexuality and gender clarity carried over from the Torah. Attention to God’s book of nature, as St. Augustine counseled, would debunk these laws, if friendship with LGBT relatives and friends were not already enough. Vatican II tried to overcome an overemphasis upon law by emphasizing that church teachings were arranged in a hierarchy, with love of God and neighbor at the top. But the objectivities of the law are a great comfort to many, who see no alternative understanding that would maintain unity and coherence. Like the Pharisees, they abide by the whole law and fear change in any of it. Regrettably, timidity in preaching the reign of God persists.

  8. Paula Mattras
    Paula Mattras says:

    In today’s world where families are structured in so many ways: two mommies plus children; two daddies plus children; one mother and one father plus children; one mother or one father and children – there is much nurturing going on, depending upon the parents themselves. “Normally” most believe that a mother is the “softer” of the two, the one who smooths and soothes. But there are fathers who are likewise suited for the same type of parenting. What is key is that they are physically present within the family as the children grow and mature. I would think that without a great deal of parental involvement in the decisions of the Church on this issue it would be difficult for many prelates who have never married or had children to minister to LGBT families in particular from the point of “Mother Church.” They have not had the day-to-day heartbreaking experience of trying to assure these beloved children that they are as God made them and that He loves them just as much as anyone else. The rate of suicides in the GLBT population is astonishing. There are so many facets to the question: like a mother or like a father? I do not know the statistics on how many we have lost to the Church. It appears that whatever message they have heard from the Church was not welcoming. “Intrinsically disordered, love the sinner but not the sin” are not words that will be found on any welcome mat. The message they have received has come mostly (but not all) from male priests. Can we assume they can absorb the “Mother Church” role? I am keeping faith with our Pope Francis who asked, “Who am I to judge?” And I continue to pray for enlightenment for all.


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