When Mercy Hurts: Cdl. Kasper and the Soft Clericalism of Low Expectations.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the need for the Church to be merciful in the application of its teachings. didnt

That’s hard to argue with.  In fact, I heartily agree that finding ways to be both positive and pastoral when articulating the teachings of the Church–especially as it relates to the difficult topics of sex, marriage and family life– is of paramount importance.  As someone who is responsible for conducting/supervising over 10,000 hours/year of pastoral counseling services for Catholic clients, who teaches graduate courses in pastoral theology,  and who has written almost 20 different books examining healthy ways to live out the Church’s teaching on sex, love and marriage, you might say I’ve made doing just that my life’s mission.

Which is why I’ve been watching the Synod discussion on divorce, remarriage and communion with real interest.  And further, why I have some real concerns about what some of the synod fathers consider to be merciful.

The More Merciful Option?

Let’s take one example that has gotten a lot of press; Cardinal Kasper;s proposal for dealing with the painful situation of couples who are not able to receive communion because they are divorced and remarried without the benefit of an annulment. Cardinal Kasper suggested, essentially, that the ban on communion for these individuals could  simply be lifted if the remarried Catholic would just confess the sin of contracting a second, illicit marriage.  This is a variation on the old “internal forum option” (internal forum refers to what happens in the confessional) which was floated and shot down in the 90’s.   I’ve already discussed the multiple problems with that idea (which was actually condemned by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict) here.  The short version is that you aren’t supposed to give absolution to someone who plans on leaving the confessional to go out and do more of the thing they confessed (i.e., continuing to have adulterous relations with the illicit second spouse).

Lay Catholics: Not Called to Be Heroes?

Many people who are in favor of this idea assert it is the more “merciful” option but I have serious issues with this view of mercy because I think it takes a rather dim view of the laity.  Several months ago, Cardinal Kasper gave an interview where he said that living the Church’s teaching as it stands calls for a heroic effort on the part of the laity, and while he respects those lay people who are trying to do what the Church teaches despite the difficulty, heroism is not for the average Christian.”

Years ago,  WaPo columnist Michael Gerson, coined the phrase, “soft bigotry of low expectations.”  An article in the Daily Kos explained the phrase well, noting that it referred to, “the preconception that disadvantaged folks won’t ever succeed, and the resulting development of policies predicated upon their inevitable failure .”


In reading Cardinal Kasper’s comments, I can’t help but wonder if what we’re seeing here isn’t the soft clericalism of low expectations.  My parents always taught me that Christianity called all of us, ordained and lay person alike, to be heroes, indeed, to be saints.  One of the major assertions of Vatican II was the “universal call to holiness” the idea that everyone was called to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” not just the ordained class, but the laity as well.    In short, Vatican II asserted that Jesus’ call to heroic virtue applied to all Christians even–contrary to Cardinal Kasper’s assertions–the “average” ones.    Cardinal Kasper has suggested that those who disagree with his (what I’m sure are well-intentioned) proposals are clericalists who are interested in controlling the lives of others.

I would respectfully suggest that the Cardinal needs to look up the word, “clericalism”  because, in my dictionary, it refers to having a double standard for the ordained versus the laity and it appears to me that this is exactly what he is proposing.

Mercy isn’t mercy if it literally damns people with low expectations.  As St. John Paul the Great asserted, there is a difference between the law of gradualism (which is good) and the gradualism of the law (not so good).  The “law of gradualism” refers to the fact that we need to be merciful and provide support for people who are earnestly trying to live out the call to heroic virtue.  By contrast, “gradualism of the law” refers to simply letting people off the hook for responding to the call to heroic virtue and instead simply affirming them in their okayness because, after all, we can’t expect those average Christians to be heroes, not like the ordained class, anyway.

Where Can We Turn for Answers?

Pope St John Paul the Great, as the first Pope to reign entirely in the post Vatican II Church, dedicated his life to exploring what living out the universal call to holiness meant for the average lay Catholic. That’s why he wrote almost 2/3’s of everything the Church ever produced on marriage and family life.  I would respectfully suggest that rather than re-inventing the wheel, the synod fathers might do well to dive more deeply into his profound work and mine it for ideas on how to promote the Church’s vision of sex and love in more positive and pastoral ways.  Too long, progressives have dismissed Pope St John Paul the Great’s work as being unnecessarily obsessed with sex (when, in fact, a holy sexuality is at the heart of the spiritual life of the lay person) and conservatives have been confused by it (and similarly ignore it) because it isn’t legalistic enough.  It is time for our leaders to get past their political preferences and truly understand the significance of Pope St John Paul II’s work in this regard.

I fully agree that the Church needs to find more positive and pastoral ways to explain her teachings and to help the faithful live those teachings out. But whatever solutions the Synod eventually proposes, the one thing I am confident about is that the answer can’t possibly involve telling some Christians that they are  not expected to be as holy as the other, more special Christians with the Roman collars and pointy hats are called to be.

If you’d like to learn more about positive ways to explain the Church’s teachings on love, sex, marriage, and family life, I hope you will find some of the following resources helpful.

Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind Blowing, Infallible Loving      ~ For Better…FOREVER!  The Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage.

Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.     ~  Just Married:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Five Years of Marriage


Annulment Q & A: 6 Common Questions About Annulments.–UPDATED

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.

As a pastoral counselor, I often work with people who are either going through divorce or who have been recently divorced.  Often these individuals have very important questions about the annulment process: What is it?  Should they seek one? What difference does it make?  The following are some of the common questions I encounter about annulments.  I hope the simple answers I provide can offer you some food for thought.

1.  What is an annulment?

An annulment–or “declaration of nullity”– states that, on the very day of the wedding, something was missing that prevented an actual marriage from taking place.  For instance, perhaps the wedding was not conducted by the proper kind of minister (e.g., a priest or deacon–unless permission to do otherwise is granted by the bishop) or in the proper setting (i.e., a Catholic church–unless permission to do otherwise is granted by the bishop), or the couple was either incapable (because of a physical, mental, or emotional barriers) or unwilling for some reason to fulfill all the responsibilities required of him or her by a Catholic marriage (e.g., to stay married for life, to be open to life, to be faithful to one’s vows).  In order to enter into a valid marriage, a couple has to know what they are doing, be able to do it, and commit to doing it freely and without reservation.  If something got in the way of any of these dynamics on the day of the wedding, then there may be reason to question the validity of the marriage.

2.  Isn’t an annulment just a “Catholic divorce?”

No.  A divorce claims to dissolve a valid marriage.  This is impossible.  Man cannot divide what God has joined.  In contrast to a divorce, an annulment says that a marriage never occurred in the first place.  Despite what some people may think, this isn’t a small or legalistic difference.  Analogously speaking, it is the difference between saying, “We’re taking away your license to practice medicine.” (Divorce) and “We just realized you never went to medical school and you shouldn’t have been given a license to practice in the first place.”  (Annulment).

Divorce claims to undo what was validly done by God–which impossible for any human.  Annulment, on the other hand,  acknowledges that a very serious condition, present on the day of the wedding, prevented the marriage from occurring in the first place.

3.  After an annulment, are children considered illegitimate?

Absolutely not.  Illegitimacy is a term used in civil law–NOT church law.  It has to do with whether you can naturally inherit or not.  The Church has nothing to do with this.  All children are welcome and “legitimate”–so to speak– in the eyes of the Church. 

4.  Why does the Church make me get an annulment after I am divorced?*

Because  civil divorce is, basically, just a tax document.  It doesn’t actually change your marital status in the eyes of God and therefore, you are still married as far as God is concerned.  The state cannot speak for God , or claim to undo what God has done.  Unless something, on the day of the wedding (as explained above under questions 1&2 above), prevented God from creating  a valid marriage at your ceremony, then you are still married in the eyes of God even after a divorce.  That is also why dating or attempting to get married after a divorce without the benefit of an annulment is considered the sin of adultery.  Despite what the state may claim, you are still married in the eyes of God.

That’s why the annulment process investigates whether something was going on at the time of the wedding that would have prevented God from joining this man and this woman together in Holy Matrimony.  There are many reasons why this could have happened.  A tribunal looks at all the possibilities so that the couple can understand what may have gone  wrong and–assuming an annulment is granted–gives the man and woman a chance to correct those problems so that any future marriage (between them or with other potential spouses) would be valid in God’s eyes.

5.  If the Church doesn’t grant an annulment, does that mean I’m stuck with my spouse for life?

A valid marriage is for life.  If the Church does not find grounds for an annulment, you are still married in the eyes of God to your spouse regardless of the possible changes in your tax status or place of residence brought on by a civil divorce. 

Christians believe that marriage is holy because Jesus says it is a sign of the way God loves us (Ephesians 5:32).  The fact is, sometimes we don’t make it easy for God to love us.  We reject him.  We are unfaithful to him. We betray him and act out against him.  And yet he still loves us.   If the Church cannot find valid grounds for an annulment despite your civil divorce, then that means that God is calling you to be a visible sign of his constant love despite our best efforts to reject him.  Obviously this is not an easy call, but just as obviously, it is an important call that is close to God’s heart.  If this is God’s call in your life, not only will he give you the grace to fulfill it, he will greatly honor you for both your fidelity through trial and for the sacrifices you make in service to this very important call. 

6. Should I seek an annulment even if I’m not planning to get married again after my divorce?

Strictly speaking, whether or not to seek an annulment is entirely a decision you must make for yourself in prayer.  That said, I would encourage every divorced person to go through the annulment process.  Why?  Because it is never good to discern serious questions–like the nature of your vocation–on your own.  It is always best to enlist the Church’s help in discerning God’s answer to the big questions in your life.  Seeking an annulment doesn’t mean that you are giving up, or failing, or any of  the other negative things people think.  It means you are actively trying to hear and respond to God’s unique call in your life and you are inviting the Church to be your partner in figuring it all out.  That is as truly humble and grace-filled a response as you could possibly make to a terrible situation.   The truth is, as painful as this time in your life can be, God wants to use all of it for your good and his glory.  The more you allow him and the Church to be part of your decision, the sooner he will help you make peace with whatever his call is in your life.

Let God and his Church be a help to you in this time of pain and confusion.  He will give you the clarity and peace you seek.

If you are struggling to understand God’s plan for you after a divorce, check out a copy of The Life God Wants You to Have:  Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail  or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about our Catholic tele-counseling practice.


*Divorce prior to annulment is not a requirement of canon law.  It is diocesan policy in the US and a few other countries as well.  Couples have a right to petition for an annulment without a divorce, but despite knowing many who have tried, I don’t personally know of anyone who succeeded at this.

For my thoughts on reforming the annulment process, see…

Reforming the Annulment Process–Brainstorming Solutions  and  Reforming the Annulment Process–A Continuing Conversation. (Or Why “Alienation of Affection” is a stupid reason to require divorce before annulment).

Holy Sex! What Catholics Can Teach the World About Infallible Loving.

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.  

Most people believe that Catholics take a rather dim and ignorant view of sex.  I used to be one of them.  Growing up, it seemed to me that there were two prevailing schools of thought among Catholics.  The first I call the “Keep God Out of My Bedroom” School.   This is the more Mediterranean, must-leave-morning-Mass-early-so-I-can-have-breakfast-with-my-mistress, laissez-faire relationship between faith and fornication.

The second is the “Aunt McGillicuddy’s Antique Urn” school.  This group grudgingly admits that sex is beautiful (in a somewhat grotesque, gothic sort of way) but more importantly, sex is HOLY, and therefore must be handled DELICATELY, CAUTIOUSLY ,and ideally, INFREQUENTLY;  like Aunt McGillicuddy’s antique urn.  “Don’ ye be fussin’ with THAT now Missy!  We only touch it if we have to dust it, and then only once a month er soo!”
The Truth is Out There

But both of these misconceptions melted away as I learned what the Church actually teaches about sex.  The truth is, Catholics do not fear sex, we esteem it.  Sex is holy, but not in  the “Aunt McGillicuddy” keep-it-at-arms-length sense.  It is holy in the context of the Incarnation.  The Eastern Fathers spoke of the Incarnation as having “Divinized our Nature.”  Sex is holy because it is the most profound way of communicating that divinized Nature.  Sex is holy in that it has the power to unite two souls and co-create life. Sex is holy because it is one of the most apt metaphors for understanding what it is like to be in the presence of God.  Christian spiritual masters have often alluded to the orgasmic nature of intimate contact with God. The Imitation of Christ refers to God as a “Divine Lover,” and saints who have experienced theophanies didn’t call it “being in ecstasy” for nothing.

Finally, for the Catholic, sex is holy because when shared between a husband and wife, it plays a role in our sanctification. “How’s that?” you ask.  The Church teaches that when a married couple makes love, they are celebrating the Sacrament of Matrimony.  But sacraments are chiefly concerned with salvation.  What could sex possibly have to do with getting ready for Eternal Life?  Well, besides participating in the mysteries I have already described, when I die, I am going to stand before the Almighty and all His Glory–in all my glory (so to speak.)  Every blemish, wrinkle, crease and bump of my physical and spiritual being will be–for all eternity–exposed to His penetrating gaze, vulnerable to His pervasive touch.  Under such circumstances, for me to experience anything other than the sheer terror of Hell, I must be able to stand confidently in the presence of that gaze, like Adam and Eve while they still enjoyed their Original Innocence.  What better way to prepare myself for this awesome responsibility than to challenge whatever  vulnerability or shame I may feel when my wife gazes upon me in my nakedness and makes love with me?  It is this unique power of sexuality to challenge shame and expand vulnerability at the deepest level that, in addition to its power to unite two people and create new life, makes lovemaking a spiritual exercise, first and foremost.  Here are four ways you and your spouse can foster a truly fulfilling and sacred sexual relationship


1.  Approach Lovemaking Joyfully.

Catholics are encouraged to celebrate the sacraments frequently and joyfully.  Marriage is one sacrament I hope you will not give me too much trouble about celebrating in such a way.  Sex is not a duty, a chore, an extra, or even a “nice thing” to do when you have the energy.  If you are married, then lovemaking is the foundation of your vocation.  It is God’s first commandment to all of humanity.  (When God said, “Go forth and multiply,” He wasn’t giving math homework.)

Too many Christian husbands and wives think that they must be ashamed of their sexuality.  Shame, causes us to hold back just where we are called to be generous.  It prevents sex from being the “self-gift” the Pope John Paul II said that it ought to be.  Our sexual and bodily shame is a direct descendent of the shame Adam and Eve encountered after the Fall, standing before God in their nakedness.  If we are ashamed of being exposed and vulnerable before a mate, how will we ever tolerate standing exposed and vulnerable before our Divine Lover?  Challenge your fears of vulnerability, of “losing control,” and you will find amazing joy in the arms of both your earthly beloved and your Heavenly one.


2.  Maintain a Responsible Openness to Life.

For sexuality to be truly spiritual, we must learn to balance the virtues expressed by a responsible openness to life.  On the one hand, openness to life helps us develop trust, generosity, vulnerability, selflessness and identify with the Fatherhood of God, among other things.  On the other hand, practicing this openness responsibly (as the Church’s teaching encourages us to do), gives us an opportunity to develop a different set of virtues; chastity, self-discipline, honesty, temperance, etc.  Both sets of virtues are equally  important to our Christian identity, but they can be hard to balance. The best way to strike this balance in marriage is to practice Natural Family Planning (NFP) a deeply spiritual, profoundly rewarding, and imminently practical form of family planning.  If you don’t use it, I encourage you to at least learn more about it by contacting your Diocesan Family Life  Office. Experience for yourself the richness it will afford your spiritual and sexual life.


3.  Approach Each Other in Prayer.

Some people sniff at the notion of joining prayer and lovemaking as if it serves the same function as reciting baseball statistics.  But prayer is absolutely essential to a spiritual sexuality.  Mine goes something like this, “Lord, let me kiss her with your lips, love her with your gentle hands, consume her with your undying passion that I may show her how precious and beautiful she is to us.”  Develop your own “lover’s prayer” and see if the Lord doesn’t help you become a more generous, loving, and attentive partner.


4.  Guard Each Other’s Dignity.

The virtues I have mentioned, especially vulnerability, cannot flourish except in a marriage where the couple are fierce guardians of each other’s dignity.  Spiritual sexuality cannot exist in the face of cruel humor, blunt criticism, name-calling, neglect, abuse, or other affronts to one’s personal dignity.  The most definitive research on marriage tells us that for a couple to be happy there must be five times more affection, generosity, and kindness, than criticism, nagging, arguing, or  expressions of contempt.  Moreover, it has been my experience that this 5:1 ratio is only the beginning point of spiritual sexuality.  If a couple exhibits a solid, sacred sexuality, then it is more likely that their positivity to negativity ratio is 7:1, or even 10:1.

If you want to achieve a spiritual sexuality then the only answer is to love. Love more,  love better, love every day.  Not necessarily because your spouse deserves it, but because your Christian dignity demands it.


The secret is out. God gave sex to the Godly, and it’s time for us to take it back.  Part of living the Catholic vision of marriage, of evangelizing the culture with the Catholic vision of love–especially in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family–is being clear about what it means to approach sex from a healthy, authentically Catholic view.  But to do that, we need to practice it first.  We need Catholic couples to be the most loving, passionate, devoted, romantic couples on the block–because that is how God loves us, and we are to be a visible sign of his passion in the world.  

Well, what are you waiting for?

To learn more about how you can live an authentic Catholic vision of love and sex, check out Holy Sex!  A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.  and  Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Whole and Holy Kids

Is the Catholic Family Different? 5 Marks of the Catholic Family–A Proposal.

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod. 

In the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on The Family, the Church will consider the mission of the Catholic family.  One of the big questions we need to look at in wrestling with this larger issue is, “Should Catholic families be different in some way from other families (other than in the ways we pray and the rules we follow) and, if so, what does that look like?”

Most Catholics, I think would answer “yes, we should be different.”  But at the same time, most Catholics, I think, would be hard-pressed to say whether or not the particular secular or Protestant experts they were relying on for advice on how to build their marriage or raise their kids were actually articulating ideas that were consistent with a Catholic view of marriage and family life.   In my experience, most Catholics think that as long as they say Catholic prayers in their home and go to Church on Sunday, they can rely on whatever sources they choose to tell them how to treat each other.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

The Church cares deeply how we treat one another especially in our marriages and families.  The problem is that it can be difficult to translate theory into practice.  You shouldn’t have to have a degree in theology to know how to be a Catholic couple or family.  There needs to be some kind of articulation of the Catholic vision of marriage and family life that even the simplest, poorest-formed Catholic (or non-Catholic for that matter) can point to as the ideal Catholic couples and parents should be striving for.

In my response to the survey for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, I suggest 5 Marks of a Catholic Family.  I don’t suggest that this is a complete list.  There may be some glaring omissions.  The point is to get a conversation going about what a practical guide to Catholic family life (as articulated by the relevant post-conciliar documents on family life) should look like.    Here are my modest suggestions.


The Five “Marks” of a Catholic Family

1.  Catholic Families Worship Together–The Eucharist is the source of our love and the sign of the intimacy to which we are called.  Therefore, as a family, we attend Sunday mass weekly (and Holy Days and at other times as we are able) and we actively participate in parish life–our spiritual home away from home.   We also recognize that as fallen persons, we struggle to be the loving community we are called to be.  Therefore, as a family, we regularly go to confession (recommended: monthly) to seek God’s healing and grace so we might better live his vision of love in our lives and homes.

2. Catholic Families Pray Together–As “domestic church” we recognize that we cannot love one another as God loves us unless we ask him, together, to teach us what this means.  Therefore, in addition to our individual prayer life, we gather together as husband and wife and also as a family for prayer each day.  In that time, we praise and thank God for his blessings, we ask him for the grace to love each other and the world better, we seek his will for our lives, and we pray for both our needs and the needs of the Family of God. We recognize in the words of Servant of God, Fr. Patrick Peyton, “the family that prays together, stays together.”

3. Catholic Families are Called to Intimacy–Tertullian once proclaimed, “The world says, ‘Look at those Christians, see how they love one another!’”  The Christian life is first and foremost a call to intimate communion. We recognize that families are “Schools of Love.”  Therefore, as a family, we constantly challenge ourselves to seek to discover new ways to be even more open with and loving to each other as husband and wife, parents and children.  We recognize that children are to be a visible sign of the loving union between husband and wife and we work to make this a reality in our homes both in the quality of our relationships and in our openness to life.  Further, we cultivate marriage and parenting practices that make each member of the family–husband and wife, parents and children– willingly open up to one another and seek to freely give themselves to create a deeper “community of love” and practice all the virtues that help us live life as a gift.

4.  Catholic Families Put Family First–We recognize that– because our family relationships are the primary vehicle God uses to perfect us and challenge us to become everything we were created to be–family life, itself,  is the most important activity.  To protect the intimacy we are called to cultivate as the domestic church, we recognize the importance of regular family rituals  and we are intentional about creating and protecting those activities such as family dinner, family prayer and worship, a game night and/or “family day”, and regular time for one-on-one communication and relationship-building.  We hold these activities as sacred rituals of the domestic church and value them over all other activities that would seek to compete with them.

 5.  The Catholic Family is a Witness and Sign–God wants to change the world through our families.  We allow ourselves to be part of his plan for changing the world in two ways.  First, by striving to exhibit– in every way possible in our daily interactions as husband and wife, parents and children– the love and intimacy that every human heart longs for. We must show the world that this love is a possible dream worth striving for.   Second, we will carry this love outside the home by serving the world-at-large in a manner that is responsible and respectful of the integrity of the family unit. We do this by committing ourselves and our families to the intentional practice of all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy within the home and outside of it.  To this end, the ways we, as a family, are trying to fulfill this responsibility will be a regular topic of conversation in our homes.


As I said above, I have no doubt that this may be an incomplete list.  Nevertheless, I believe it represents the kind of effort that must be undertaken by the Church to evangelize families.  People do not know how to be a family anymore much less what it means to be a “Catholic family.”   I think the faithful deserve concrete, practical recommendations  (drawn from the relevant documents)  that can serve as an effective launching point for delving more deeply into the Catholic vision of marriage and family life.

My hope is that this post can start the discussion of what this may look like.

To learn more about how you can live an authentic Catholic vision of marriage and family life, check out the following resources….


Parenting with Grace:  A Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids

Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Whole and Holy Kids

Then Comes Baby:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First 3 Years of Parenthood.


For Better…FOREVER!  A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage

Holy Sex!  A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.

Just Married:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First 5 Years of Marriage.

Mission Possible: Rediscovering Catholic Family Identity

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working 

document for the Synod. The following is part of that ongoing series.

In November 2013, 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 argued 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 developed 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 first 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.

Some Popular Marriage/Family Experts  Are More Catholic (in thought) Than Others.

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.

“Family Life” Happens in between the “Genuinely Important Stuff”

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.

Marriage and Family Life IS a Theology

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.  To learn more about how you can live an authentically Catholic vision of marriage and family life, check out the following resources…


Parenting with Grace:  A Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids

Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Whole and Holy Kids

Then Comes Baby:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First 3 Years of Parenthood.


For Better…FOREVER!  A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage

Holy Sex!  A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.

Just Married:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First 5 Years of Marriage.