Perspectives on Marriage, Family, and the Synod

As we prepared this issue, the long-awaited October 4-25 Bishops’ Synod on the Family was beginning. We decided to offer a number of reflections which would be valid no matter what happened at the Synod, in order to put the proceedings in some sort of context. Therefore, we asked several thoughtful Catholic writers to help us undertand the issues.

In the pages that follow, we publish the reflections of canon lawyer Edward Peters; authors Thomas Storck and Alice von Hildebrand; Director of the apostolate Courage, Fr. Paul Check; and Catholic marriage and family counselor Dr. Gregory Popcak. All offer perspectives on some of the underlying issues affecting the “crisis of the family” — a crisis the Synod convened by Pope Francis will advise him on how to address. These reflections all bear, in various ways, on the basic, fundamental question behind all the debate: How can Catholics — the institutional Church as a whole, but also each one of us individually — best answer Christ’s call for us to convert from sin, yet also be merciful to sinners?

The Church Grapples with the “Governing Charism” of the Episcopacy

Why “an important chance for bishops to help the Pope” may be lost…

By Dr. Edward Peters

Edward Peters has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. He is a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura and was a canonical expert to the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization. 

Edward Peters has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. He is a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura and was a canonical expert to the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization.

September 2015 marks fifty years since the Synod of Bishops first shouldered its way onto the ecclesiastical stage. In the closing weeks of the Second Vatican Council, Blessed Paul VI — preempting what threatened to be a protracted debate on how papal-episcopal collegiality should be structured — established the Synod of Bishops with a strong institutional slant toward helping bishops help popes. The original synodal norms in Apostolica sollicitudo (1965) left it for popes to control, for example, the topics discussed by bishops at synods, the manner by which episcopal discussions should be pursued, and what use, if any, might be made of synodal deliberations in ecclesiastical governance. Canons 342-348 of the current Code of Canon Law preserve these papal prerogatives for synods; at times these constraints result in tedium on the synod floor.

But despite the pro-papal bias of synodal regulations, the episcopal side of the divinely-mandated, papal-episcopal co-responsibility for Church governance (as recognized in Canons 331 and 336) had lately been coming into greater relief in synodal activity (note, for example, that the only clearly synodal documents to come from the Synod of 2012 on the New Evangelization were those bearing purely episcopal authority) until this episcopal side of the Church’s governing charism erupted, most uncomfortably, during the Extraordinary Synod of 2014. While the assembled bishops’ objections to what was experienced by them as manipulation by curialistas were themselves ultimately a manifestation of episcopal solicitude for the well-being of the Church, the manner in which this collegial care came across might have startled some into attempting still tighter reins on episcopal initiatives during a synod. And that would be regrettable, as follows.

Whether he meant to or no, Pope Francis has, in regard to some fundamental questions of Church doctrine and discipline, set blocks of bishops against blocks of bishops, and that prelatial clash must now be allowed to play out. Stifle the free expression of desires for a relaxation of Church teaching against civil divorce and remarriage or for greater access to the Eucharist by those living in irregular unions, and the Pope risks, among other things, alienating most of the world’s secular media (whose speed and power in shaping global thinking is still under-appreciated in the Vatican), offending a great many Catholics who have been convinced by the secular media that change is coming, and perhaps even provoking a formal schism among Northern European Catholics.

On the other hand, run roughshod over those articulating traditional teachings about marriage, divorce, and holy Communion, and the Pope risks demoralizing great numbers of active, practicing Catholics, especially in America and Africa, two demographics without which it would be hard for any pope to govern a world Church effectively.

SACRA-ROTA-xThose holding Christ’s teachings on marriage and divorce, and the Church’s discipline on sin, repentance, and Holy Communion, to be settled matters, regret that the next synod seems destined to be a struggle for the defense of these teachings and disciplines against dilution from within. They would much prefer to see bishops grapple with, say, ‘same-sex marriage,’ the contraceptive mentality, or even the anachronistic requirement of canonical form for marriage, instead of listening to neo-pharisaical attempts to avoid the plain meaning of our Lord’s words on marriage. But Canon 342 directs a synod “to assist the Roman Pontiff with the counsel” by considering “questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world” and right now, it seems, advice about proclaiming the basic teachings of Christ on the permanence of marriage is of primary concern.

Finally, to this already volatile mix of marriage, divorce, and Communion controversies, the Pope has just added revolutionary norms on annulments in his motu proprio Mitis Iudex. Diocesan bishops, almost none of whom were consulted regarding their ability and willingness to take on direct judicial duties in annulment cases, will soon be expected to judge certain annulment cases personally. Now, hundreds of bishops will be in attendance at the next synod. If they do not ask for, at the least, a delay in the implementation of the more radical aspects of Mitis, the changes portended by these new procedures will no longer be a purely papal project and, I think, an important chance for bishops to help the Pope will be lost.

More Than One Way to Destroy a Family

There is another side to moral and legal attacks on the family — economic pressure

By Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck, an American Catholic scholar and writer, is known for his work on Catholic social teaching and how the economy affects family life

Thomas Storck, an American Catholic scholar and writer, is known for his work on Catholic social teaching and how the economy affects family life

Since the 1970s, marriage and the family in the United States have definitely been under attack. Easy divorce, the ubiquity of pornography, a media culture that does little or nothing to support marriage…these are just a few of the obvious culprits in this attack, all of which have captured the attention of Catholic activists during the last several decades. And all of them are worthy of our attention. But there is a curious silence about the fact that whatever moral or legal difficulties the family may be undergoing, there is another side to this attack which is equally deserving of our attention and action. For the family, like all humanity, depends upon a material basis without which it cannot flourish. Long ago Aristotle pointed out that for most people virtue is nearly impossible without sufficient material resources. All the good laws, all the good examples, all the moral exhortations, will hardly avail much if a family is struggling to obtain its needs of food, housing, medical care and the like. Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti Conubii is often praised for its outspoken condemnation of contraception, divorce and such evils, but it is not usually remembered that in the same encyclical the Pontiff insisted that:

…such economic and social methods should be adopted as will enable every head of a family to earn as much as…is necessary for himself, his wife, and for the rearing of his children…. To deny this, or to make light of what is equitable, is a grave injustice and is placed among the greatest sins by Holy Writ; nor is it lawful to fix such a scanty wage as will be insufficient for the upkeep of the family in the circumstances in which it is placed. (# 117)

And the Pontiff continued with the observation that because of a lack of material resources, “it is patent to all to what an extent married people may lose heart, and how home life and the observance of God’s commandments are rendered difficult” (# 120).

Human beings are creatures of body and soul, and if we wish to promote family health, we cannot ignore our bodily needs. Since about 1975, wages in the United States have largely been stagnant, and the benefits of productivity have mostly accrued to the very wealthy – the top 10% or even 1%. The economic ill effects of this for families have been masked to some degree by the entrance into the paid labor force of wives and mothers, but the social and moral effects cannot be hidden so easily. We fool ourselves if we think that we can remedy these ill effects solely by moral exhortations, or even by private charity, if we do not take steps to restructure the economy so as to “enable every head of a family to earn as much as…is necessary for himself, his wife, and for the rearing of his children.”

Pope Francis, like his predecessors, has given considerable attention in his writings, especially in Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’, to the injustices and inequalities produced by our economic system.

Thus the Fathers of the upcoming Synod on the Family, if they take a comprehensive view of the state of the family in the world today, cannot avoid paying attention to the economic basis for family life. While sufficient income or resources do not guarantee flourishing families, for most people they are essential prerequisites, and any concern for family welfare that ignores their economic needs risks being hollow and even hypocritical.

For Catholics the question can hardly be clearer. We have a rich tradition of teaching by the Church’s Magisterium which tells us how to organize a just social order.

Too few Catholics know that this teaching exists, and, what is much worse, there are some who deny that it has any authority or relevance.

If the Synod teaches with the clarity and authority of the entire line of Popes up to and including Francis, then perhaps it will help focus our attention on the necessary material basis for family welfare, a topic as important as those that have claimed our attention for the last thirty or forty years.

Economic adversity can destabilize family life: Two young girls receive food at an outdoor soup kitchen in Washington. During tough economic times, children bear some of the heaviest burdens because of increased family stress, according to an annual study of child well-being (CNS photo/Jim West). To the left, Aristotle and Pius XI (1922-1939)

Economic adversity can destabilize family life:
Two young girls receive food at an outdoor soup kitchen in Washington. During tough economic times, children bear some of the heaviest burdens because of increased family stress, according to an annual study of child well-being
(CNS photo/Jim West).

Christian Anthropology and the Church’s Sexual Ethics

Men and women who struggle heroically with same-sex attraction are “signs of contradiction” who must be heard

By Fr. Paul Check


Fr. Paul N. Check is the head of the “Courage” ministry and one of the world’s leading experts on questions relating to chasitity and same-sex attraction

Fr. Paul N. Check is the head of the “Courage” ministry and one of the world’s leading experts on questions relating to chastity and same-sex attraction

“No” is the word most often associated, in many minds, with the Catholic Church and the topic of homosexuality. As the civil authority in many countries attempts to redefine marriage, and where terms like “justice” and “discrimination” are not understood according to the natural moral law, the Church faces, at a minimum, a tremendous public relations burden. Her ministers must defend natural and sacramental marriage in the public square, but their sermons may be heard as attacks on people with homosexual tendencies. She begins most conversations about homosexuality on the defensive, facing the difficult task of proving a negative: “The teaching of the Church is not insensitive, homophobic, medieval, unfair, etc.”

Many people have, predictably, and regrettably, stopped listening.

Human nature does not change, as St. John Paul II made plain in Veritatis Splendor (no. 53). Therefore, authentic pastoral charity begins with intellectual charity, a proper and precise understanding of the human condition: man is wounded by Original Sin, but redeemed by Jesus Christ. The most quoted line from Gaudium et Spes (no. 22) lays the best foundation for pastoral charity in all its forms: “Christ the New Adam fully reveals man to himself and his most high calling.” We can only live well if we first know who we are, and only Christ and his Church can fully instruct us in our identity.

The Cross and the very real challenges of life notwithstanding, peace and fulfillment—not merely satisfaction or contentment—will never be found apart from Christian anthropology and the Gospel. “I have told you these things that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete,” Jesus said. (Jn 15:11) What are “these things”? Prohibitions and commands are not the heart of the Church’s moral theology. Love is…love of God and love of neighbor, which the virtues and grace make possible for our fallen human nature. (cf. Jn 15:10) And, as Gaudium et Spes reminds us, love and fulfillment are found in self-gift and sacrifice. (no. 24)

The grammar of today, however, is not the natural law or Christian anthropology. Nor is the Church’s moral theology, especially in sexual ethics, always welcome. So another approach is needed to begin the conversation on homosexuality. But let’s consider two other things before I offer a suggestion about such conversations.

The fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary and the first of Our Lady’s Seven Sorrows are the same moment: the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, where Simeon describes Jesus as both a “sign of contradiction” and “a light to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:34, 32), and he prophesies that a sword will pierce Our Lady’s heart, even as the Nunc dimittis, a hymn of peace, is said for the first time in the Church’s history. In fidelity to the Master, Christians cannot escape being signs of contradiction, but the Master has also promised us the peace Simeon experienced: the peace the world cannot give or take. (Jn 14:27)

Susanna and the Two Elders, by Paolo Veronese, in the Louvre in Paris

Susanna and the Two Elders, by Paolo Veronese, in the Louvre in Paris

Secondly, when he introduced Veritatis Splendor in 1993, then Cardinal Ratzinger praised chapter three of the encyclical, entitled, Lest the Cross of Christ Be Emptied of Its Power (I Cor 1:17), as among “the great texts of the Magisterium.” Chapter three is the encyclical’s pastoral and practical application of its scriptural and doctrinal core. The pastoral wisdom and encouragement that chapter offers might be summed up this way: in a fallen world, to testify to the truth in word and deed, out of love for Jesus Christ and for souls, will necessarily bring suffering…but only in the fidelity of the Crucified and Risen Savior can man find freedom and fulfillment. St. John Paul cites two of Sacred Scripture’s heroes who enfleshed trust and a willingness to sacrifice themselves out of love for God: Susanna from the Old Testament and St. John the Baptist from the New Testament. Both were courageous in their commitment to chastity, and they drew others to the truth by their testimony. Thus would I suggest conversations addressing the Church’s teaching on homosexuality might usefully begin with the testimony of men and women who are signs of contradiction and who have trusted in the power of the Cross. These men and women have learned, often through pain and suffering, that Christian anthropology and the Church’s sexual ethics mark the narrow path away from harm and toward fulfillment… not in a nice neat way, but in the way of the Crucified and Risen Savior. Life is by no means easy for them, but there is much joy to complement the sorrow.

They would not think of themselves like this, but they are among today’s heroes of the Gospel story, generally living hidden and quiet lives, in service and in fellowship with other like-minded people. Especially edifying is their belief that they are not members of the “Church of the saved,” but members of the “Church of the striving,” as Msgr. Ronald Knox said. They understand that the “no” of the Church’s teaching falls within a much larger “yes” that is the invitation of Jesus to all of us in our human weakness, an invitation to which we must daily respond.

Along with Blessed Pope Paul VI, they believe that the Church is “an expert in humanity.” They do not measure the teachings of the Church according to their personal experience. They measure their personal experience according to the teachings of the Church, and per Christ’s promise, they find this liberating. (cf. Jn 8:32) Even though such understanding does not vanquish their struggle, it gives that struggle meaning and purpose…and hope.

John the Baptist in the Desert by the Master of Bern, c. 1495, now in the Kunsthaus in Zurich

John the Baptist in the Desert by
the Master of Bern, c. 1495, now in the Kunsthaus in Zurich

They are compelling witnesses to the truth because they have a credibility the world recognizes: they have been in the often hard and sometimes punishing school of experience. Grace has brought them to the field hospital of the Mystical Body, where they have encountered the Crucified and Risen Lord. They have much to teach us.

The voice of men and women with same-sex attractions who trust that what the Church teaches is true and leads to fulfillment has not been widely heard. They are signs of contradiction, even to some in the fold, because their feelings or inclinations, strong though they may be, do not convince them of the road to happiness. They may comprise a minority, but so did the Twelve Apostles. They “put a face” on what the Catechism says about homosexuality, and for that reason, they are our best ambassadors. They guide us away from sentimentality and to authentic Christ-like compassion, which flows from the truth of the human person and opens the soul to the efficacy of grace.

A final point. The connection between contraception and homosexual acts deserves consideration here: the approval and spread of deliberately sterile sex in marriage will logically lead to the approval and spread of deliberately sterile sex elsewhere. But for now, we refer to other wisdom from Humanae Vitae, also recalled by St. John Paul in Veritatis Splendor: “While it is an outstanding manifestation of charity towards souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ, this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ himself showed by his conversations and dealings with men. Having come not to judge the world but to save it, he was uncompromisingly stern towards sin, but patient and rich in mercy towards sinners.” (HV 29)

Humble souls who know they are the beneficiaries of the Lord’s mercy are compelling witnesses to the goodness of God. They testify to Christian anthropology in a way that will never seem sterile, but will strike many as an authentic and beautiful light to the world. Their voice will provoke reflection and lead others to a change of heart. Their journey to and with the Lord is not complete, and they look to the Church for Jesus’ love and strength. Shall we accompany them, and encourage them to persevere, even as they inspire us?

Synod Innovators: Reformers — or Agents of De-formation?

“The holiness of the reformer is crucial in order to ‘reform’….”

By Alice von Hildebrand

Fresco by Giotto depicts Pope Innocent III giving approval to the first Franciscan rule and blessing St. Francis and his followers during their visit to Rome in 1209-1210.

Fresco by Giotto depicts Pope Innocent III giving approval to the first Franciscan rule and blessing St. Francis and his followers during their visit to Rome in 1209-1210.

Alice von Hildebrand is a Catholic philosopher renowned for her brilliant mind and her profound Catholic faith. She is the widow of the late Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand

Alice von Hildebrand is a Catholic philosopher renowned for her brilliant mind and her profound Catholic faith. She is the widow of the late
Dr. Dietrich von Hildebrand

That we live in an imperfect world is something that I experienced at age five, when I was punished for something I had not done. Even though I had never “meditated” on the essence of justice, I knew with luminous clarity that it was “unjust”: it should not be.

The longer we live, the more we have the depressing experience that many things that “should not be,” are. Change is called for; that is, many things should be “re-formed” because they are “de-formed,” i.e., have betrayed their original “form.”

This word refers clearly to the way that things were ‘intended” to be. When, alas, they betray their “form,” reform is called for. This is obvious. Even great religious orders, victims of the “spiritual law of gravity” which we tend to forget, have needed to be “reformed”. The one exception, I was told, is the Charterhouse – the most severe of all religious orders. Is this “severity” a precious medicine?

However, we now have to face the very serious question: how is one to “re-form” a particular situation?

To perceive that reform is called for is easy; quite another thing is how to proceed to reform it. In this respect, the sad history of the world offers us a cautionary picture: for, more than once, so called “re-formers” –inebriated by their consciousness that they would be “agents of progress” — turn out to be our greatest enemies. Let us only mention the “philosophers” who inspired the French revolution. This was the beginning of the end of a great country; I do not think she has ever recovered. The Soviet revolution aiming at the creation of a “paradise of the workers” led to the Gulag Archipelago.

This challenges us to question the quality of the philosophy animating certain contemporary “reformers,” who perceive that, as always, some changes are desirable. The word “change” is today a superb political slogan — one which guaranteed Obama’s victory in 2008. Are the views of these charismatic ‘reformers” likely to lead to a “reform”— or be agents of further “de-formation?”

The answer can be found in the lives of those who truly deserve to be called “reformers.”

One who deserves mentioning is St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in a very difficult time for the Church. Historians agree that thanks to the Poor Man of Assisi, a new spring blossomed in Holy Church. His one aim and concern — to love God with his whole mind, his whole heart and his whole spirit — won over innumerable people to follow his lead, and brought about an admirable harvest of “holiness-hungry’” people.

Similarly, St. Teresa of Avila who truly “reformed” the Carmelite order, knew that humility, love, sacrifice, and penance are the holy tools indispensable to achieving this noble aim. Needless to say, she succeeded. The holiness of the reformer is crucial in order to ‘reform’ any noble cause which has fallen into decadence.

Let us compare St. Theresa to a tragic figure, not much older than she was: Martin Luther. He had convinced himself that he was called upon to proclaim, clearly and loudly, how decadent the Church was. He was convinced that his mission was to bring her back on track, totally forgetting that the holiness of the reformer is the key to a reform worthy to be called such.

That he clearly perceived that abuses and aberrations were calling for “re-form” was undeniable. But, being burdened by arrogance, self assurance, and a certain dose of fanaticism, not only did he succeed in creating a very grave split in the Christian world, but inevitably, having opened the “Pandora’s Box,” witnessed in his own lifetime that error breeds error. The tragedy of Protestantism is that, having nothing in common but the name, an incredible number of Protestant sects have multiplied within it; some of them were short lived, some of them still survive, though having undergone serious modifications.

Moreover, Luther failed to distinguish between the sinfulness of members of the Church, and the Holy Bride of Christ herself, and he succeeded – if this is to be called success — in sapping the very foundation of the latter. He is a “tragic” reformer, animated by pride, and history teaches us that the intended “reformation” turned out to lead to a tragic “deformation.” Reformation should begin with “self reformation.” Luther escaped from this necessity by declaring that “faith” — and faith alone — is the key to salvation.

These are reflections that should cross our minds when thinking about the upcoming Synod. That men – including those in position of authority – are sinners should be kept in mind, but we should also beware those who, intending to correct mistakes and imperfections of others, in fact only “succeed” in sapping the very foundation of the treasure of Catholic teaching.

For example, to claim, in the name of compassion, that people living in sin could, after doing certain penance, be admitted to Holy Communion is to purposely close one’s eyes to the dignity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation which alone can cleanse a person from his sins, provided he has the serious intention of abstaining from sin in the future.

Luther at the Diet of Worms, painted by Anton von Werner, 1877

Luther at the Diet of Worms, painted by Anton von Werner, 1877

To assume that certain forms of penance can, for the tragic sinner who is offending a basic teaching on marriage, “absolve” him, and allow him to receive Holy Communion, even though he remains chained to an illegitimate relationship, is in fact a subtle attack on that sacrament – that blessed means of purification which “makes us whiter than snow.” The sacrament is a means instituted by Christ, not by men. Is it not metaphysically arrogant to assume or to claim it was clearly in need of a post scriptum? Does not this claim confuse “development of doctrine” with change, pure and simple? If this suggestion is valid, the Synod would in fact be telling the faithful that the sacrament of Penance is no longer necessary.

Do we ever love sinners enough? Do we seek with loving ardor to help them, to encourage them, to support them in their efforts to cut their chains? Alas, the answer is no. But to extend beautiful Christian “compassion” to their sickness, is a typical example of a grave disease called “confusion” – and it is spreading like wild fire, not only in the world, but also among members of the Holy Church.

The Gospels of both St. Matthew and St. Luke, speaking about the end of the world, warn us that there will be a terrible confusion, and that, unless protected by grace, even the elect will be tempted. Alas, the world we live in at present is marked by confusion; confusion between the development of doctrine and “intellectual tumors” which are deadly; confusion between shedding an additional light on “old” truths and making innovations which are inspired by the Zeitgeist and “new” prophets who, because of their eloquence, claim that they properly interpret our present situation, but in fact misrepresent and pervert the holy teaching of the Church. We are all tempted to forget that just as there is a physical law of gravity (our very many “falls” make it difficult for us to ignore) there is a spiritual law of gravity (is it ever mentioned in homilies?) that drags us downward to follow the inclinations of our fallen nature.

The devil, who, as Sancho Panza likes to remind us, “never sleeps,” has now invented another means of confusion, namely, to generously extend the beautiful word “compassion” to sin itself. We should be willing to see how cleverly the Evil One has hijacked certain words to trick somnolent brains into devilish traps.

A colleague of mine, John Som­erville — a Communist — once wrote a letter to the New York Times informing the public that even though born and raised a Catholic, he left the Church upon discovering that “She was not a Church of love.” Apparently, the Gulag was. When a Belgian citizen of the name of Leon Degrelle, who, wearing the Nazi uniform, managed by his high connection to escape to the Scandinavian countries at the moment of the collapse of Germany, writes in his Memoirs that Hitler was the kindest man he had met in his life, one starts wondering how many of our contemporaries are sane.

Why these detours? They are meant as a warning: for equivocations, when delivered with eloquence, will tempt many of us to endorse the “enlarged’ meaning of compassion, and identify with a “deeper understanding” of this typically Christian word.

Equivocation also leads many to seek to “redefine marriage”; it is as meaningless as to redefine a triangle – or to push the nonsense further, to challenge, like the Zen sage Suzuki, that two plus two equal four. (Father van Straalen, Le Zen Demystifie, p. 94) For some, it can be three, or even five!!!

That some people should have an unfortunate sexual attraction to someone of the same sex, is a trial indeed. But are we not all in various ways, facing trials?

Let us think of the millions of widows, of the millions of unmarried women who were hoping to become wives and mothers, of millions of people who suffer from physical disabilities. To all of them, Christ says; “Come to me, all of you that are burdened…and I shall come to your aid.”

This earth is indeed a vale of tears, but not only are we offered divine help through divine teaching, but we should never forget that we are loved.

God always has the last word, but this glorious certitude does not free us from a full realization how grave the hour is. More than ever, we must adhere to the Holy Teaching of the Church on marriage, and not allow a single iota to be changed in this sacred message. May God have mercy on His people.

Fiddling While the Family Burns?

Getting the conversation right at the 2015 Synod on the Family

By Gregory Popcak

Dr Gregory Popcak is a counselor, professor, broadcaster and author of almost 20 books on Catholic marriage and family life. He and his wife, Lisa, addressed the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadephia. Please visit him at

Dr Gregory Popcak is a counselor, professor, broadcaster and author of almost 20 books on Catholic marriage and family life. He and his wife, Lisa, addressed the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadephia. Please visit him at

During last year’s Extraordinary Synod, there was much public discussion about how the Church might respond to the needs of “irregular families”; that is, families impacted by divorce, cohabitation, etc. While this conversation is absolutely necessary, it is also 40 years too little and too late. Now we face a more serious crisis; namely, the world has forgotten what constitutes the basic structures of healthy family life to the point that virtually every family is now”irregular” in one way or another. That includes the intact, erstwhile “ideal” families that regularly attend church—87% of which never pray together even to say Grace Before Meals. (CARA/HCFM, 2015). These changes necessitate that the Church find radical new ways to form and support all families, not just those facing special challenges.

Family Life: Then and Now

To understand why the need of all families is so great, let’s take a brief tour of family life then and now.

Throughout the 1950’s-60’s, Catholic families, like nearly 80% of all American families, had a predominantly traditional structure. The father served as the primary breadwinner and the mother stayed at home. Family life may not have always been as blissful as nostalgia suggests, but it was considerably more stable. Up through the early 1970’s, most couples stayed married; the divorce rate was lower than 25%. Cohabitation rates were as low as 1%. On average, parents had about 4 children and fewer than 5% were born out of wedlock. About 62% of Catholics attended Mass weekly.

Today’s picture is remarkably different: about 48% of women have cohabited before marriage, and the divorce rate for Catholics, similar to the general population’s, hovers between 40-50%. In this 3rd generation of the culture of divorce, it is not unusual for a young adult to have both divorced parents and divorced grandparents, with little to no personal experence of long-term, intact family life. If there is any good news, it is that Mass-going Catholic couples exhibit much greater marital stability (with a divorce rate in the 5-15% range); unfortunately, only 20% of Catholics do so.

If overall family stability has changed, so has its make-up. The size of today’s average family has shrunk 50% to about 2 children. Roughly 41% of all children are now born to unmarried women and about half of children (44%) have a step-sibling. Women regularly delay childbearing until their 30’s, and (sometimes of economic necessity) 70% of mothers now work outside the home.

“Regular” and “Irregular” Families: Working Without A Net

Famiglia-preghieraThe statistics may not be surprising, but their significance for evangelization is lost on many. Even intact, faithful families are negatively impacted by this cultural milieu.

In our post-modern world, family life has been effectively redefined as a collection of individuals living under the same roof and sharing a data plan. Even so-called “normal” families are struggling under the weight of the divorce-culture’s expectation that extra-curricular activities should now provide the socialization and sense of meaning that family life used to impart. We are tempted to pursue activities like work, sports, and technology over emotional and spiritual intimacy through family dinners, family time, and family prayer and worship.

Formation, Not Information

In past generations, it was possible to adopt a more catechetical approach to marriage and family education. The prevailing family-friendly culture did the hard work of defining the nature and mores of family life. With some exceptions, the Church could simply encourage families to become better at what they were already doing. Today’s families, however, must function without either a clearly defined blueprint or a cultural safety net to catch them if they fall. Without social support and reliable parental modeling, simple catechetical/informational approaches are doomed to fail. Information is not enough. Actual formation, mentoring, and discipleship are needed to teach people even the basic steps of healthy family life.

Moreover, the majority of modern families don’t have a clue as to what it means to allow their faith to impact and inform their family life. Using a merely catechetical approach to convey the ins and outs of faithful family life is like asking people to learn juggling from a textbook.

These facts necessitate a new approach to evangelizing the family that shows rather than tells the world that the Church’s vision of family life is a vital, workable, desirable, positive option to the world’s alternative of personal fulfillment though radical cultural isolation.

Three Critical Tasks

In the upcoming Synod, it is my deepest hope that, rather than merely trying to put out fires, the Synod Fathers will address three critical tasks.

First, the Church needs to definitively say, “this is what constitutes family life.” Is family life, as one popular children’s program puts it, “any group of people, living together and loving each other?” and, if so, how is a family different than the Chinese orphanage my youngest daughter lived in for her first 14 months, where children and caregivers lived together and loved each other as well as they could? If living together and loving each other is enough, what were they all pining for?

Just as the Church defines the word “church” (a religious body with apostolic succession), distinguishing it from an “ecclesial communion” (a religious body without succession), we need to define what distinguishes a “family” from other groups of people who live and love together. And we need to speak to what the pastoral care of both of these social realities should entail without confusing the two.

Second, the Church needs to describe the uniquely Catholic vision of family life. Specifically, in what ways is a Catholic family called to be a witness and sign to other families? If we can’t explain the unique gifts our faith brings to family life, we have no business sitting down to have this conversation at all.

And if we were to search for a “Catholic family mission statement,” we need look no further than Evangelium Vitae, which tells us that families are called to ground their lives in the pursuit of “authentic freedom, actualized in the sincere gift of self” and to cultivate, in all their interactions, “respect for others, a sense of justice, cordial openness, dialogue, generous service, solidarity and all the other values which help people to live life as a gift” (#92)

True, only Christ can accomplish this vision in our lives, but isn’t that the point?

To encounter Christians who believe in this vision of love enough to allow it to form the way they live as husband, wife, parents, and children, through good times and bad, sickness and health, wealth and poverty, would be a transformational experience for families themselves and for the communities in which they lived.

Finally, the Church needs to produce guidelines that help families rediscover that family life is its own activity and not an accessory: we can’t simply “have” a family but work on everything else in our lives.

Instead, we need to prioritize regular times to work, play, talk, and pray together as a family, and schedule every other outside commitment around these rituals that represent the sacred rites of the domestic church. The family that does this is a revolutionary family that God can use to change the world.

Family Life Is the “Culture of Encounter”

If we are to be successful in our mission to claim the post-modern world for Christ, we must, as Pope Francis puts it, allow it to encounter Christ as He lives in Catholic family life.

To that end, we need to stop acting as if the real crisis is our response to irregular families. Having this conversation now is like trying to go find the cows 40 years after they have left the barn—and the barn itself is now on fire. The real crisis is that family life, itself, has become an endangered species; many of the faithful don’t really know what it means to be a family, much less live family life as a prophetic witness in the world.

As far as family life is concerned, Rome is on fire. Will the Synod Fathers fiddle while the family burns? Or will they respond to the alarm?

Let us pray that they will hear the klaxons wailing loud and clear for those with ears to hear.

“In Order to Receive Mercy, One Has to Break with Sin”

Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea in Africa, Synod Father and author of a book on the faith that has become a bestseller in Europe, God or Nothing

By Diane Montagna


Cardinal Sarah during the Bishops’ Synod of 2014 (photo Galazka), and the cover of Cardinal Sarah’s book, published by Fayard in France

Appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2014, Cardinal Robert Sarah was one of the first priests to be ordained in the West African nation of Guinea, and attributes his own faith to the generosity of the Spiritan missionaries, who came to his village in 1912. In this interview, he discusses his new book, God or Nothing, his keynote remarks at the recent World Meeting of Families, papal authority, and why authentic mercy depends on repentance.  

Your Eminence, your new book is entitled God or Nothing. Why did you choose this title, and what is the heart of the message of your book?

Cardinal Robert Sarah: As you know, from the time just before the Second Vatican Council until now, God has been disappearing more and more; [for many] He no longer exists. No one is interested in Him, especially in the West. Already at the Council, they wanted to help the world to rediscover God.

The economy is important, politics are important, many things are important, but if we lose God we are like a tree without roots: it dies. And therefore, the heart of the book is to put God first in my mind, in my daily actions, and in my being. In this way, man will not lose his roots.

Already in the Western culture, they say: “We don’t have Christian roots.” This is illogical. The culture, the architecture, the art: It’s all Christian. To deny what is clearly obvious is suicide.

I came to know God through the missionaries. Many of them died after one year on mission, or two, or three. They never survived longer than three years. They died of malaria, or some other illness. They sacrificed so much to proclaim God. And so I thought: If so many of them died, and if still today there are so many martyrs, it means that God is important in life.

Therefore, the heart of my book is this: How do we find God in what we are, in what we do, and in what we think?

But I also touch upon many issues and problems in the world today: issues and problems in the Church, issues in marriage, in the priesthood. All current issues that affect the life of the Church: mission, the Pope …

The Pope? In what sense?

I examine the role of the Pope. There is a chapter in which I talk about Pope Pius XII until Francis. The Pope’s role is to be the one to whom the Lord has entrusted the keys and the Church. “You are rock, Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.”

Therefore, the Pope must be “Christ on earth” and protect the faith of Christians. He must help to preserve the faith, to safeguard and preserve what the Church has always lived from the beginning until now. He is the rock. If the rock isn’t solid, it can be difficult for Christians because they don’t have any protection. Until now, all of the popes have sought to secure and safeguard the faith of Christians.

Zaccheus climbing into a tree to see Jesus, in a painting by Giotto.

Zaccheus climbing into a tree to see Jesus, in a painting by Giotto.

Pope Francis often speaks about the economy, the environment, immigration, etc. How should the faithful rightly understand a pope’s statements on these matters?

If he speaks about the environment, the climate, the economy, immigrants, etc., he is working from information that may be correct, or mistaken, but [in these cases] he is speaking as Obama speaks, or another president. It doesn’t mean that what he says on the economy is dogma, something we need to follow. It’s an opinion.

But, if what he says is illustrated and illumined by the Gospel, then we ought to regard it seriously. “God wills this; this is what the Bible says”. Or “God wills that; this is what the Gospel says”. Thus politics is illumined, the economy is illumined by the Gospel. That, too, has some surety because it is not his own thought. It is the thinking of the Bible, the mind of God.

For me, it’s clear that the Pope cannot not speak about these issues. But when he does, he is saying what any Head of State can say without it being the Word of God. We need to distinguish.

You spoke at the World Meeting of Families about the threats the family faces, from both outside and within the Church. Regarding the latter, you said: “Even members of the Church can be tempted to soften Christ’s teaching on marriage and the family… which could involve, according to circumstances, fashions and impulses in a form of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology.” Can you clarify what you mean?

For example, some bishops say that — regarding marriage — when two people have separated, we need to see if we can give them Holy Communion even if, for example, they have entered into a second marriage. This isn’t possible, because God has said there can be only one marriage. If they are separated, they can’t enter into another marriage. If they do so, they cannot receive Communion.

But now, some are saying, that this may be done in order “to care for them pastorally, to heal them …,” but we can’t heal someone without truly curing him, without reconciling him with God.

If someone has already entered into a second marriage, it’s difficult to cure him. We cannot abandon him; certainly we can accompany him, saying: you should continue to pray and go to Mass; you must form your children in the Christian faith; you can participate in parish activities and charitable service. But you can’t receive Communion.

That is why I say we mustn’t separate doctrine from pastoral practice, thereby claiming to bring healing, because one can’t bring healing in this way.

Why, in your view, would allowing those who are divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion not be, as some prelates claim, an act of mercy?

Because mercy requires repentance. If I’ve done something wrong, I repent… I have to break with the evil I’ve done. This is mercy.

Take the prodigal son, for example. He left home in order to say, “I’m independent, I’m autonomous from my father”. The father wants to forgive him, but if the prodigal son doesn’t return home, he can’t be forgiven…Therefore, in order to receive mercy, one has to break with sin.

And why can’t the father go out and live with the son where he is?

Because the house is here; not somewhere out there. The son has to return home. If he returns home, he has left his independence, his sin. In the Gospel, the son returns home, saying: “I am your son, I am not worthy, but take me as a servant.” This is repentance. If there’s no repentance, there’s no mercy.

The same is true when Jesus went to the house of Zaccheus. He was a tax collector for the Romans. Jesus goes to his house, because he was there and wanted to see Jesus, and he humbled himself, climbing a tree..And Jesus says to him: “Come down, for today I want to come and stay in your home”.

The people say: “What? he’s going to stay in the house of a sinner,” but Zaccheus responds: “Yes, I stole lots of money, but today what I stole I’ll give back three and fourfold.” He repented…

If we wish to analyze this more deeply, he climbed the tree of the Cross; that is, the tree that destroys sin.

Zaccheus ascended the tree of the Cross?

Yes, he ascended the Cross, because he was seeking a Savior…symbolically, this point is very significant. He climbed the tree of salvation, and Jesus went to his house in order to confirm this.

May we also say then, in a similar way, that before receiving Holy Communion, we have to repent, and then the Lord enters into us?

Yes. If we don’t leave behind our sin, how can we receive Communion? God and sin cannot abide together. It’s not harsh. It’s for the sake of bringing true healing…

And if someone does receive Holy Communion in a state of grave sin?

If he does so knowingly, and does it of his own will, he eats unto his own condemnation.

We are all sinners, but we go to Confession and we don’t want to remain in sin. A marriage is something firmly established. If I have entered into a second marriage, and I’m there for life, it’s a firmly established sin. I can’t then claim to be able to receive Holy Communion.

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