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Abraham M. NussbaumFebruary 16, 2023
a hand draws female and male signs on a chalkboardPhoto via iStock.

A few years ago, my wife and I asked to speak to a priest in private. We met him in his office, coming from our home parish with our hats in hand and questions on our hearts. When we spoke questions from our mouths, the priest dismissed them quickly as wrong questions.

Everyone asks wrong questions. A good teacher helps you ask the right one. I thought his “no” would be a prelude to a discussion about how to reframe the question. Instead, he meant that it was wrong for us to ask questions. The meeting did not end right then, but it could have. Ten minutes later, my wife and I left in the darkening evening, silenced.

Because I know what it feels like to have your questions questioned, I try to bring a different approach to the sex education classes my wife and I teach at our children’s parochial school. And I’ve realized that the approach we take offers some guidelines that could be useful not just for our students, but for the church as a whole, as we seek to engage in honest conversations as part of the Synod on Synodality.

Every spring for the last decade, my wife and I have been teaching sex ed at the invitation of our parish school’s fifth-grade teachers, who have asked us to give the birds-and-bees talk.

Setting Ground Rules

Every spring for the last decade, my wife and I have been teaching sex ed at the invitation of our parish school’s fifth-grade teachers, who have asked us to give the birds-and-bees talk. Since it’s a sports-besotted Catholic school, the archdiocesan-approved slides begin with the title “Always Changing” and a basketball.

As parents (and physicians) we invoke the prerogative of Adam. We tell the children ground rule one: We call every part by its formal name. (To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a ball is just a ball.) The class is separated by gender, and we teach boys. So we start with how some boys can outleap you, outshoot you and out-rebound you in a basketball game. The boys can relate to differences in abilities and appearances, sizes and smells. They ask why some kids have hair on their arms and why the rates at which arm muscles grow under all the sprouting fur varies. I promise to answer their questions if they use formal words—testicles instead of balls. Eventually they get used to ground rule one.

Ground rule two is that everyone has to submit a written question. I pass around index cards and pencils. I get back scrawled queries.

Some are simple. What are these red bumps sprouting on my face?

Some are aesthetic. Do I have to grow an itchy beard?

Some are spiritual. Why do we change at all?

I started thinking about the Synod on Synodality and how the way in which we approach sex ed might be applied to the synod.

Before answering them, I share ground rule three: Respect your peers and their questions. I model by answering every question and promising they will have more questions. We pass out more index cards and begin in earnest.

In the crucial final minutes, I show them a doctor’s cartoon, a teaching aid version of the male anatomy, and I name its landmarks. It’s Human Anatomy instead of Church Latin, but just as spine-stiffeningly formal. Every year, someone snickers at the sight. Trying to explain it all, I sometimes feel that bodies are God’s joke on us. But if we have done our job well, the laughter dies down quickly and the students use the language. They ask questions, I answer and then ask whom they can pose further questions to after the class. The slides encourage trusted adults: fathers, mothers, uncles, grandfathers, teachers and school nurses.

I don’t say anything to the students, but I always silently reflect that “priest” is not on the archdiocese’s trusted adult list for this conversation. I know the omission is deserved, but it saddens me every time that I can’t call priests trusted for a conversation so essential to becoming an adult. This past year, that sadness went in a different direction. I started thinking about the Synod on Synodality and how the way in which we approach sex ed might be applied to the synod.

The synod sounded a lot, in their telling, like sex ed—not so much in terms of topic but in form.

Journeying Together

When Pope Francis announced the synod, he called it a “journey together, in order to experience a church that receives and lives this gift of unity, and is open to the voice of the Spirit.” He asked everyone to participate by encountering, listening and reflecting. Unlike the previous 15 synods, Francis called for this one to start at local churches, especially with laypeople. After meetings across the world, the synod culminates with assemblies at the Vatican in October 2023 and 2024, before being operationalized throughout the church in 2025.

We are now halfway through the synodal process, and in our archdiocese, we’re checking our progress. A few weeks ago, in place of the usual announcements, a kind couple took the lectern at the end of the 4:30 vigil Mass and offered an update. A year ago, they were selected to represent our parish with the archdiocese. They shared that the archdiocese received 168 reports, representing 3,700 participants in parish-based synod meetings, and invited 350 representatives to a three-day retreat where the archdiocese reformulated the questions. They reported back on their experience.

I wasn’t with them at the retreat, but listening to them from the pews, I thought about our evening sessions with the students. Like the students, the couple used specific terms. Accompaniment, blessing, vocation. They even used a few squirm-inducing words: supernatural unity. But I remembered ground rule one: Any real talk begins with naming things rightly.

I also got the sense that the participants followed ground rule two and gave everyone the chance to ask questions. It even seemed that ground rule three was in place and everyone respected one another’s questions. The synod sounded a lot, in their telling, like sex ed—not so much in terms of topic but in form.

When we teach sex ed, we begin every response that follows the first rule by saying, “That’s a good question.” I hope the diocesan synod meetings did the same.

I hope it did, because I think we can take these rules further. There are so many uncomfortable conversations to be had in our church and our world, and these ground rules allow us to frame those conversations in a way that is calm, respectful and holy. We need to name what’s going on in Catholicism today, give everyone a chance to ask questions, and respect the questions posed by the laity and clergy alike. We have models for doing so in our parishes. When we teach sex ed, we begin every response that follows the first rule by saying, “That’s a good question.” I hope the diocesan synod meetings did the same.

After our fellow parishioners presented their synodal experience, I went home and read the most recent progress report, the “Working Document for the Continental Stage.” The first page had a colorful logo of people of all ages and abilities. Beneath the cartoon was a quote from Isaiah 54: “Enlarge the space of your tent.” The 56-page English-language version of the document says, “This tent is a space of communion, a place of participation, and a foundation for mission.” The image of an enlarged tent, the text goes on, is the interpretive key to the document’s vision of expanding vocation for the people of God. I read the pages, marking phrases like “a profound re-appropriation of the common dignity of all the baptized” and “a desire to be less a Church of maintenance and conservation and more a Church that goes out in mission.” At the heart of the process of synod, the text says, is an account of “a Church capable of radical inclusion, shared belonging, and deep hospitality according to the teachings of Jesus.”

To support their claims, the authors offer quotes from around the world. Zimbabwe calls up “that dream of a Church of credible witnesses, a Church that is [an] inclusive, open and welcoming Family of God.” Poland registers concerns that “Without listening, answers to the faithfuls’ difficulties are taken out of context and do not address the essence of the problems they are experiencing, becoming empty moralism. The laity feel that the flight from sincere listening stems from the fear of having to engage pastorally.”

Reading both comments, I felt a sense of joy and relief. I share the dream voiced from Zimbabwe and the fear surfaced from Poland. For most of my adult life, being Catholic has been privately associated with a feeling of connection across time and space to a cloud of witnesses, but publicly associated with hiding the sexual abuse by clergy instead of answering the questions of the faithful.

After establishing the right ground rules, you can, as Pope Francis has written, “work for the culture of encounter, in a simple way, as Jesus did.”

And this nexus where the public and private meet is also where I have to admit that I skipped most local synod activities. I filled out an online survey but missed the parish listening session and only skimmed the archdiocese’s progress messages.

Why? I could say that I am what Walker Percy once called a Bad Catholic, someone whose faith does not fully inform his actions. I could say that being a physician married to a physician keeps me busy. I could say that I was afraid to participate. Maybe I take after our middle child. When it was time for us to have “the talk” with her and her classmates, my daughter hid in her school locker.

In the years since that unfortunate conversation with the priest, my wife and I have stayed active in the church and our parish. She serves as a lector. I coach basketball. We attend Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation and send our children to the parish school. We help out where we can, but we could do more. We do not because a nun told me long ago that the secret to staying Catholic is to get as close as you can to the saints but at the right distance to the institutional church. We keep our questions to ourselves. We know many people in a similar silence. Catholics practically invented “quiet quitting.”

We are willing to submit to the authority. We want to. It’s essential to being Catholic, believing that others know more than you. We are not asking for debates on the nature of the Trinity or another aspect of Catholic dogma, but the chance to ask difficult questions about the role of the church in our always-changing world. After establishing the right ground rules, you can, as Pope Francis has written, “work for the culture of encounter, in a simple way, as Jesus did.”

And so we remain committed to giving those sex-ed lectures. Every year, for one night, we get to ask and answer questions. We use the archdiocese’s presentation. We share the three ground rules. We take questions, we answer them together. We don’t debate about whether or not hormones exist; we explain how we currently understand them to work. What we’re asking for is a similar kind of dialogue that welcomes earnest questions about what being a people called Catholic means for our bodies and all the bodies that make up the body of Christ.

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