The Synod on the Family, Transnational Families, and Women’s Labor – Kristin Heyer

Catholic Social Ethics

In the weeks following the close of the Synod on the Family, much media attention has focused upon doctrinal issues of communion for remarried divorcees, questions of how to welcome persons in same-sex relationships, and procedural concerns that the conversations opened there risk confusion, if not “schism.” The Synod’s closing message extends beyond these matters to raise familial challenges posed not only by persons’ “indifference to true values,” and lack of patience or sacrifice, but also the impact of social forces. In particular, it mentions the effects of (Pope Francis’ now-familiar) “dictatorship of an impersonal economy” (Evangelii gaudium 55) and forces that compel migration on families’ dignity:

 We think of so many poor families, of those who cling to boats in order to reach a shore of survival, of refugees wandering without hope in the desert, of those persecuted because of their faith and the human and spiritual values which they hold. These are stricken by the brutality of war and oppression. We remember the women who suffer violence and exploitation, victims of human trafficking, children abused by those who ought to have protected them and fostered their development, and the members of so many families who have been degraded and burdened with difficulties.

This welcome expansion of threats to “family values” invites broader discernment in the year(s) to come about the nature and scope of challenges facing families around the globe—families whose members increasingly extend across borders. This post examines these ad extra concerns raised by the Synod as well as ad intra concerns about women, largely overlooked by the Synod, but that play a significant role in how we understand impediments to transnational family flourishing.

The dominant influence of a reductive market ethos on trade and migration policies across the globe, that casts migrants as “pawns on a chessboard,” obscures such forces’ impact on parents, children, and kin as such. On the Italian island of Lampedusa last summer, Pope Francis condemned the global economic idolatry that leads to migrant deaths and repented with those whose “soap bubble” indifference anesthetizes us to such tragedies. Harmful effects on family lives have escalated with the increase in global migration, evident in familial separation due to forced displacement, outdated policies of reception and “enhanced” enforcement mechanisms, and gender-based exploitation and violence.

Scriptural and social teachings squarely challenge such patterns of commodification.Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are replete with examples of families uprooted and on the move, revealing a pattern not unlike what refugees and migrants face today. Flowing from its social anthropology, Catholic social thought integrates a family’s intimate communion with its charge to mutually engage the broader social good. If families serve as basic cells of civil society—“schools of deeper humanity”—social conditions must protect their participation in the demands and benefits of the common good. Deprivation of dignified labor opportunities and traumatic enforcement mechanisms signify hostile social forces impeding immigrant families’ access to social goods worldwide.

The Synod message echoes the recent encyclical tradition’s integral family humanism. In Familiaris consortio Pope John Paul II connects families’ call to reveal love and bring children into and up through the world to its vocation to practice hospitality, and to give witness through a preferential option for the poor (no. 44, 47). This “intimate connection between family and society” (no. 45) appears in Centesimus annus a decade later, where he characterizes the family as “a community of work and solidarity,” whose countercultural witness requires robust social supports (no. 48). Particularly in light of this social mission, policies and conditions that perpetuate family separation undermine human subjectivity and harm the common good.

Given how thoroughly the sanctity and social mission of the family in the Catholic tradition contest harmful immigration and economic practices, their attention at the Synod is welcome. Yet it is not only neoliberal capitalism or callous attitudes that harm family members in this manner. Assumptions about the nature of women and the value of caregiving labor also contribute to these patterns. For the assaulted Guatemalan migrant is victimized not only by her smuggler’s debasing actions, but also by harmful attitudes that facilitate such behavior: assumptions about the value of indigenous women or gendered expectations of sexual behavior. Here Synod participant Bishop Socrates Rene Sandigo Jiron of Juigalpa, Nicaragua helpfully identified the “chauvinistic culture” that abets harmful forces threatening families. In a similar vein, the nanny from Manila who raises the children of working parents in Manhattan is propelled not only by a global capitalist order to which “commoditized love” belongs, but also by assumptions about the nature of caregiving work.

Hence in undertaking the discernment invited for the coming year, local churches will need to examine not only personal failures and external societal forces that challenge family flourishing, but also the church’s own ideals if we are to effectively respond to the range of impediments that “surround and suffocate families.” Assumptions about the complementarity of the sexes that often lurk below Catholic family ethics bolster unequal burdens for the work of social reproduction with ontological status and religious sanction. Pope Francis continues recent papal emphasis on women’s “feminine genius,” which he notes “finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood.” The language he uses suggests a “deeper theology of women” need not meaningfully contest the “equal but different” status” (“valued not clericalized” status) that hinders women’s flourishing in “public” and “private” venues alike. Unquestioned conceptions of the nature of women and caregiving work have conspired to make aspects of women’s labor invisible, legitimize a “second shift”—felt most poignantly by women at the bottom economic rungs struggling for their own and their families’ survival—and increasingly pit women against one another in shouldering the work of social production.

For example a lack of shared responsibility for the daunting demands facing mothers in the low-wage workforce is frequently camouflaged by lip service given to a narrow construal of family values. As upper- and middle-class women have been liberated from some domestic tasks, in many cases this is accomplished by relying upon low-wage workers, thereby duplicating gendered labor or reinforcing traditional divisions of labor. Whereas one class of women may gain liberation from such tasks in the service of external workplace participation (or leisure), this dynamic ensures that the work remains women’s work. Anthropologist Jennifer Hirsch describes this “outsourcing of caring” in the developed world in vivid, racialized terms: “now the changing of diapers of both the very young and the very old—as well as the cleaning of the toilets of those who are, however temporarily, between Huggies and Depends—is done largely by darker-skinned hands.”

Just as a narrow focus on marital and sexual norms obscures social factors harming families, ahistorical portrayals of marriage and family can issue inadequate ideals. An emphasis upon the spousal meaning of body in terms of utter self-gift yields a marital sexual ethic that risks overlooking social forces that can abet sexual exploitation and violence. Or as Cathleen Kaveny has noted, the iconic Christian symbol of motherhood of “the Virgin Mary peacefully cradling a newborn baby” does not fully speak to the experiences of many mothers who “must tirelessly labor to feed and protect their children.” Likewise, disproportionate emphasis on Our Lady of Guadalupe’s innocent purity and compliant motherhood at quinceañera celebrations or liturgies celebrating her feast day can fail to connect with women’s felt concerns in harmful ways.

Attending to the concrete pressures facing transnational families may help the church better appreciate the violence, fragility, and cultural forces—beyond relativism or sexual libertarianism—that directly impact families’ lives. Perhaps, for instance, their experiences invite us to extend beyond refining pastoral outreach or efforts to convert familial behaviors toward the recognition that building up families demands social supports that concretely value caregiving work; authentically conveyed witness to the equal dignity of women and women’s bodies; and economic and migration policies that unite rather than divide families.

Pope Francis has been prophetic in word, deed and ritual underscoring complex threats facing migrants and sinful indifference to their plight. Moreover the Synod process has modeled vigorous dialogue. Considering how the church can not only respond to but learn from the experiences of transnational families will be a key component of the coming year’s task. Inclusive listening at local levels—including creative efforts to reach families in transit or “in the shadows”—may build upon existing commitments to families’ inherently sacred and social dimensions toward more inclusive and reality-based norms for Catholic families and communities. Such wide consultation and humble self-examination “ad intra” could renew a path of mutual encounter in the spirit of Vatican II, rather than advance in mode of a church that is chiefly beacon for the lost in the storm. Let us light the way for one another in courageous and charitable exchanges across borders about how best to foster equal dignity, mutual love and familial flourishing.

Kristin Heyer is Bernard J. Hanley Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University where she teaches courses in Christian social ethics. Her books include Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration (2012); Prophetic and Public: the Social Witness of U.S. Catholicism (2006); and the edited volume Catholics and Politics: Dynamic Tensions between Faith and Power (2008), all with Georgetown University Press. Her articles have appeared in Theological Studies, The Journal of Catholic Social Thought, The Journal of Peace and Justice Studies, Political Theology and America. She serves on the boards of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church and the Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education, and she is an editor for Georgetown University Press’ Moral Traditions series.

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