What Should the Church Start Saying?

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Making holy families — that's the focus of a series of events coming up in the life of the universal Church. Pope Francis has placed family matters at the center of his pontificate. He discussed the family with the Cardinals at a consistory in February, 2014, and he will do so again in October with many prelates at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops. The theme of the synod is "Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization." Then, in September 2015, the 8th World Meeting for Families will take place in Philadelphia, Pa., followed by the Ordinary Synod of bishops on the family in October 2015.

The following is one in a series of articles in which we speak with Catholic writers, teachers, evangelists, and clergy about the challenges facing families in these changing times. Here, we speak with Catholic author, speaker, and blogger Mark Shea:

Mark, here's a general question for you. What does "family" mean?

Well, first, the family reflects the Blessed Trinity: the total self-donating love of the Father to the Son and the Son giving that all back to the Father. In family, we are to understand that our earthly love is a reflection of divine love, and we really need to be committed to that in concrete ways.

That means what?
Recognizing that we are to be images of the Blessed Trinity, but at the same time, every marriage is going to be undertaken by people who are not the Blessed Trinity. They are damaged people. They are going to have to put up with each other's faults and failings.

Is there something you would like to hear the Church start saying?
As someone who has been in a marriage for 30 years, and father of four boys, having a sense of family as mission is really vital. When my wife and I got married, one of the things we did was we looked at our marriage as part of our mission as apostles and disciples. The purpose of the sacrament is to be fruitful, so from the get-go, our marriage was ordered toward our children. But secondly for the community around us, because ministering to our community is part of our mission.

So to your question, two patron saints who I think should be very much promoted by the Church are Priscilla and Aquila, a married couple who were also missionaries and apostles. What did they do? They would take people into their home. The classic example is them taking in Apollos, this young buck evangelist who doesn't really know what he's talking about. They say he preached the way of Christ accurately, though he only knew the baptism of John. So what do Priscilla and Aquila do? Well, they don't hector him while he's talking and tell him he's a heretic and how stupid he is and how wrong he is. Instead, they took him into their home, and they explained to him more accurately what's going on, and then they sent him on his way, and he then becomes one of the great evangelists in the early Church.

And that's what you have tried to do in various ways in your own life.
Yes, to welcome people into our lives and into our home and to make it a place for formation. And one of the things we've done at our parish is have married couples meet in people's homes, share a meal together, and read things like John Paul II's "Letter to Families" and have a discussion time and prayer time. That kind of small, local formation that's centered around the teachings of the Church I think is something Catholics could be doing a lot more of because, ultimately, while families need guidance from the Church, families in large part have to form themselves.

So there's only so much a priest can do from the pulpit.
Yes, but what a priest can do from the pulpit is shepherd his flock, provide opportunities for things like small-group formation. He can encourage that, or he cannot encourage it and give people no clue and no guidance — "you're on your own." Unfortunately in a lot of parishes, you're just sort of on your own.

How can that be?
Some of that is because priests are nervous about telling people what to do in their private lives. But it would not be telling people what to do. Rather, it would be making available the resources of the Church. A lot of people are hungry for this.

Resources such as what?
A lot of catechetical resources, like St. John Paul II's "Letter to Families." So the idea is that priests would encourage lay involvement in things that are properly "lay." The family is the domestic Church. There's lots of talent in the laity. Another thing that holds priests back is that "It's just another darn program I've got to run." But the people who would run a couples' program are couples, with pastoral supervision. That would be a huge gift.

So how does Pope Francis fit into this?
He recognizes that the family is the basic building block of civilization. That's something that Americans kind of understand, but we're such a libertarian culture, so we tend toward individualism. But there's also the equal-and-opposite attempt to replace the family not with the individual, but the state.

Meaning —
"The state will save us." When the state interjects itself between a kid seeking an abortion and the parent, that's usurping the role of the parent. There's a lot of that. But there's also the opposite heretical impulse to treat everybody as though they are individuals who don't require involvement in the family. You know, "I don't owe anyone anything, whatever I want to do is what I want to do." That's equally disastrous. The family is how we learn to live in society, and it is the basic building block. And Francis understands that the family is under tremendous assault. Gay marriage is just the latest manifestation of it. As a friend of mine said, no-fault divorce was the bullet to the brain of marriage. Gay marriage is just kind of kicking a corpse. The main problem with gay marriage, when you make a marriage mean anything, it means nothing. So you're not protecting marriage by "extending it to gays," what you're doing is draining the word "marriage" of all meaning. Marriage is coming to mean nothing. If you don't privilege the family, as all sane societies have done, you gravely endanger the society. Polygamous marriage, we'll be looking at that, too. It's waiting in the wings. But again, all of this began with no-fault divorce. You can just walk out on a family, and there's not going to be any consequences for that. But of course there are consequences, drastic consequences. It goes back to, "I don't have any responsibilities to anyone, including my kids, because I just have to do what I have to do, because the heart wants what it wants." We are already seeing tremendously damaging consequences of that. Francis gets that.

With marriage, we're being called to do something that absolutely requires grace to do.
Yes, and grace is necessary when you're being asked to do something that is beyond yourself. But the good news is that the grace is there, and you can call upon it. Chesterston had said "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." Marriage is in that straights, too. We have a 50 percent divorce rate in our country. But the good news is that means that 50 percent of our marriages are surviving.

Would you agree that Pope Francis sees the challenges confronting the family as the biggest crisis facing the world today?
Yes. One of the things that Francis said last year that shocked a lot of people was that, he basically said that [the Church's teachings on] abortion and gay marriage are important issues, but they're not the Gospel. They are aspects of the Gospel, but the Gospel is Jesus. The Gospel is "God became Man, was crucified for our sins, and He was raised from the dead." All the moral teachings of the Church only matter insofar as they orbit around the hub that is Jesus, and if you don't understand the core of the Gospel, then you are reducing the faith to a kind of idol. You're turning it into, "I'm pro-life." Well that's good, but that's not the Gospel. "I am opposed to gay marriage." OK, fine, but that's not the Gospel, either. The Gospel is Jesus, so our faith has an order and a set of priorities to it. Part of the priority is that there's no point in being pro-life if you're not supporting the family.

Meaning, for example, supporting someone who might be facing a crisis pregnancy?
Yes. People don't just get up in the morning and say, "I just feel like killing a child today." That's not where abortion comes from. Abortion is generally an act of desperation.

So, for example, what sort of support are you advocating?
A crisis pregnancy center, one in which women don't have to meet some sort of litmus test to determine if they're worthy of getting help. If you're pregnant, they will help you. That's Christian charity. And that's exactly what a family needs that is in a crisis pregnancy. A woman needs to be told that she is not in a position in which it is either her or the baby — that it's possible to affirm both. But the moment the discussion turns to "state help for low-income women in crisis pregnancies," all of a sudden, as I see in the comments on my blog, it's astounding the amount of contempt that's heaped on pregnant women. "They are threatening to kill their babies so they can get state money." "They need to be punished with caps to their benefits." "We need to make sure they learn a lesson." And it's like, wait — as Catholics we constantly tell people that they need to be open to life. We tell poor families, married women, that they need to be open to life, that contraception is a sin, and so when they obey the Church and wind up having large families, we tell them they have too many kids, we're not going to help you. That's a huge disconnect, and what Pope Francis gets is that you cannot be pro-life and at the same time tell the family we are not interested in helping you financially.

And it's certainly worth noting that a lot of these poor families are working two or more jobs to survive.
Yes, and Pope Francis gets all that, and he's got a rightly ordered sense of priorities.

Really, he's evangelizing the Church first.
Yes. As a priest friends says, "A lot of Catholics are sacramentalized, but they are not evangelized." They go and punch their sacramental timecard, but why are you receiving these sacraments? To what end? Because you're supposed to? No, because you become a disciple of Jesus first and an apostle of Jesus. That's what that grace is given for — to make you into a saint and to make you into an apostle. So what's the very first thing Francis does when he becomes Pope? He writes Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which is all about evangelization. That tells you everything you need to know about that guy. Francis is interested in having us step outside the fortress and engage the world. He's an incredibly missionary pope, and one of the great missionary fields he sees is the evangelization of the family — getting families to see themselves as disciples and apostles, other than primarily as wage earners, cogs in an economic system, victims, all of those things. Yeah, I love that guy.

Check out Mark Shea's blog at patheos.com.

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Annmarie B - May 10, 2014

As a devout and practicing Catholic, married for 38 years to a person who practices no religion, it seems to me that everything I read about families is addressed to CAtholic couples. I am the only practicing Christian in my whole family, and I feel very isolated from mainstream discussions in the Catholic church on family.