Are Catholic Families Really Any Different? Should We Be? (Some Points from My Response to the 2014 Extraordinary Synod– Part I)

Recently, I was asked by my bishop to provide a response to the survey in preparation for the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  Many of the questions in that document have to do with the faithful’s awareness of the practical significance of the Church’s unique vision of marriage and family life as articulated in various post-Vatican II documents (e.g., Gaudium et Spes, Familiaris Consortio, etc). Pope Francis appears to be concerned  both with how well the Church is communicating its unique vision of marriage and family life to the world and the ways Catholic couples and families are or are not either serving or benefiting from efforts associated with the New Evangelization.

In my response, I argue that there is virtually no practical awareness–among either the laity or the clergy–of what is supposed to make Catholic family life different from Protestant or secular family life except for the prayers we say and the way we worship.   I develop my case for this over about 60 pages, but here’s the short version.

Catholics Have a Syncretistic View of Family Life

Catholics, even devout Catholics, tend not to think twice about building their marriages and families around the ideals and techniques promoted by both secular and Protestant “experts.”  This isn’t to say that Catholics have nothing to learn about marriage and family life from our secular and Protestant brothers, but the vast majority of Catholics don’t even stop to consider what their Catholic faith might have to say about the way husbands and wives, parents and children should treat each other in the home.  They tend to think that as long as they say Catholic prayers, go to Church on Sunday, and turn to marriage and parenting resources that either mention Jesus and/or confirm their unexamined personal biases about relationships, they are de facto living out the Church’s vision of marriage and family life as articulated in the documents mentioned in the survey.

Given a field of popular Protestant or secular experts on marriage and family life such as Gary Ezzo, John Rosemond, James Dobson, T. Barry Brazelton, Bill Sears, Michael Pearl, Gary Chapman, Will Harley, Harville Hendrix, John Gray, Laura Schlesinger, etc., the vast majority of Catholics wouldn’t be able to determine, in even the most basic, gut-level way, who does a better or worse job of articulating ideas that are more consistent with Church’s vision of how husbands and wives, parents and children should relate to each other.  Each of these experts spells out very different ideas about how couples and families should look and interact, and yet there are thousands if not millions of well-meaning Catholic families who take these experts words as gospel and build their family lives around their teachings.

Culture Lost Sense of Family Life

The problem goes even deeper.  It isn’t just that Catholic families aren’t definitively Catholic.  It’s that many Catholic families–even devout Catholic families–aren’t even families any more.  Like their secular counterparts, many Catholic families have allowed themselves to become collections of individuals living under the same roof.  The wider culture has lost a sense of what it means to be a family and to live the mechanics of family life.  It used to be that families would join around regular meal times, game nights, family days, household projects, prayer, and of course Sunday worship.

Now, “family life” is the 3 secs we see our kids on the way to busing them to their various lessons, activities, and hobbies and running to our own meetings and commitments.  In this, the Third Generation of the Culture of Divorce, many people feel like family rituals (meals, prayertime, family day, game nights, family projects) are things Ozzie and Harriet did in the 1950’s.   They seem like a fairy tale.   Too many Catholic families are caught up in this tide, following it rather than fighting it.

Lack of Clear Family Catechesis

In light of all this, even Catholic clergy and catechists struggle to communicate what is unique about Catholic marriage and family life.  Even these Catholic leaders regularly recommend the kinds of resources listed above without any regard for whether or not the ideals and techniques promoted by these experts adequately represent a unique Catholic vision of the way husbands and wives, parents and children should treat each other as articulated in the documents cited by the survey.   Most pastors and DRE’s would appear to buy into the same logic that says that as long as the faithful say Catholic prayers and come to Church on Sunday, it really doesn’t matter that much if they interact (as husband and wife, parents and children) the same ways their secular or Protestant counterparts do.

By way of illustration, a listener to our radio program called to share that her parish Director of Religious Education was promoting a “Marriage and Family Day” at her parish.  The talks for the event were to be given by a local, prominent, Protestant minister.  Our caller was supportive of the day and had a favorable impression of the minister, but she asked the DRE if the parish wouldn’t be better served by seeking a Catholic expert to speak at the event.   The DRE responded, “He’s just talking about marriage, for Heaven’s sake! It isn’t as if he is going to be presenting theology or anything!”

We Can Do Better

I genuinely believe that Catholic laity and clergy mean well and are doing their best, but I would argue that being able to articulate a clearer practical vision of what it means to live a uniquely Catholic marriage and family life has to be heart of the New Evangelization.  Families are the basic unit of civilization and the chief vehicle for transmitting the faith both to the world and the next generation.  The way we live is the most important witness.  Our lives are the most important evangelization tool.

Too many of our kids are being raised in homes that don’t look any different than the homes of their secular or Protestant friends except for the prayers we say and, maybe, the rules we have.  How can we change the world if we look and act exactly the same as everyone else?    In order for our faith to seem relevant to our children and the world at large, Catholic couples and families must present a vision of love that both shows our children the ability of our Catholic faith to satisfy the longings of their heart and makes the world stand up and take notice.

Tertullian once said, “The world says, ‘Look at those Christians!   See how they love one another!'”  Catholic marriages and families are the primary means of communicating this unique vision of love to the world and the next generation.  By and large,  I just don’t think we, as a body, are communicating a vision of love in our homes that looks that different from anyone else.  It isn’t enough to have different rules and prayers.  Our homes have to be qualitatively different.  We are called to be qualitatively different.  I believe the success of the New Evangelization depends on our homes being qualitatively different.

In Part II of this reflection, I’ll post what I think represent the “5 Marks of Catholic Families”; that is, 5 principles that I think should distinguish  the way Catholic husbands and wives, and  parents and children interact with each other and the world.  In the meantime, what do you think makes Catholic couples and families different?   Beyond the prayers we say and the way we worship, are there ways that Catholic families distinguish themselves from their Protestant or secular counterparts?  How would you articulate the “Catholic difference” of marriage and family life?

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