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.






Sesame Street Tells Lies that Hurt Kids (OR, Why “Any Group of People / Living Together And Loving Each Other” ISN’T “Doing the Family Thing”)

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 last decade, especially, in a well-intentioned effort to be inclusive, educators and broadcasters have been redefining what it means to be a family.  The simplest and most concise example might be this music video from the popular children’s television program, Sesame Street, which states, “Any group of people / Living together / and loving each other / is doing the Family Thing!”

I would argue that this definition of family life has become the prevailing and conventional definition of what it means to be a family.  I also think most people would suggest that it would take a special kind of killjoy–a real grouch, in fact–to argue with that definition. “What’s that?  Did someone say, <<cough>>’The Church?’  <<cough>> Exactly.”

Why You Gotta Be So Mean?

Catholics define family as the one man and one woman, united in marriage, together with the children they produce (CCC#2201-2206).  Catholics recognize that there are other, important,  family-like groups, and we recognize that all of these groups are doing their best to care and provide for each other.  Further, we applaud these efforts as noble and admirable.  That said, these other groups can only be effective in their efforts to the degree that they can approximate what a family actually is, “a marriage of one man and one woman together with the children they produce.

I was discussing the definition of family on Kresta in the Afternoon recently.  Al Kresta noted that the word, “family” was being stretched to its breaking point.  Besides the issue of so-called gay marriage, Al noted that even corporations have co-opted the term “family” to refer to their employees, i.e., “The McDonalds’ Family”  “The GM Family.”    Likewise, I pointed to the Sesame Street song above, noting that, in point of fact, it is not true to say that “Any group of people living together and loving each other is doing the family thing.”  I asserted that family is a unique social institution made up of one man and one woman united in marriage together with the children they produce.

In response, a caller to the program thoughtfully raised the objection, “Why do you have to be so strict in your definition of family life?  For instance, what about adopted kids?  How do they fit into your definition?”

Why The Strict Definition of Family is Also the Most Inclusive

This is a terrific question and it’s especially meaningful to me as a man who both has an adopted sister and is also the father of an adopted child.  I explained that it is the strict definition of family that clarifies what every child needs in order to function at his or her best.  There are decades and reams of social science data to back up the claim that children are healthiest when raised in an intact household by their own married mother and father.  This statement is as close to a fact as one can get in the social sciences.

That said, it is exactly because we have a strict definition of family that we have adoption at all!  Children in the adoption system have, for many different reasons, been deprived of a mother and father.  Because we have traditionally had a strict definition of family that recognizes that kids need moms and dads to function at their best, we work hard as a society to hook these children up with moms and dads through adoption.

Are There No Prisons?  Are There No Workhouses?

But if its really true that, “any group of people living together and loving each other is doing the family thing,” why not just leave kids in the orphanage?    For instance, I have photographs of my daughter in her orphanage in China.  In the photos, she is playing with her little friends. She and her friends have toys.  They are smiling.  They seem to love each other.  Various caregivers are holding the kids and smiling.  For all the world, it looks like this is a group of people living together and loving each other.  Ergo, they are a family, right?   By Sesame Street’s definition of family we could argue that the kids are alright.  In fact, we could even argue that, since they already are a family by Oscar the Grouch’s definition, it would be doing a violence to them to break up their little institutional communist family and place them in homes with moms and dads, right?

Well…um, no.

And the Lightbulb Clicks On

The caller got my point,  “So you’re saying that defining the family in that strict way helps us do a better job of providing for all kids because it lets us know what every child needs to do best in life?”


If a family is “any group of people living together and loving each other,” then family means nothing at all.  If that’s really all that family is, kids should do just as well in virtually any environment as they would in a home with a married mother and father.  We know that isn’t true.  Science all but proves it.  So we also know that dumbing down the definition of family by changing it from one married man and woman living together with their children and turning it into “any group of people living together and loving each other” is a lie.  Furthermore, it is a lie that hurts children.

I, for one, think children deserve better than to be forced to live a lie that hurts them.  Don’t you?

(Who’s the grouch now?)

And that’s why Catholics–while still recognizing and applauding the sincere efforts of other quasi-family groups–support the “strict” definition of family as a married man and woman living together with the children they produce.  Because it really is what’s best for all kids.

Why Is the Family So Important Anyway?– The Catholic Channel Symposium on the Extraordinary Synod for the Family.

In light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family and the recent release of the working document on the Synod, the Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a special symposium on the Catholic vision of marriage and family life and the specific challenges to both living out and promoting that vision.   In light of this effort, I wanted to kick off my contribution by looking briefly at why the family matters at all.

More Than “‘Cause God Said So”

Many people know that the Church teaches that family (defined as one man married to one woman and the children produced by their exclusive union) is the basic unit of society.  But even if you know this factoid, not a lot of people have necessarily stopped to consider why this is the case.

While some might, correctly, say, “Because that’s the way God intended it to be”  that answer doesn’t cut a lot of ice with those who would dispute the idea that family should occupy the spot as the bedrock of society.  Because of this, I actually spend a fair amount of time on this question with my students in my Christianity and Society course at Franciscan University.  Because it is a sociology course, I challenge my students to defend various Church teachings using only logic and social science research rather than Scripture and revelation.    Putting these limits on my students creates fertile ground for some interesting discussions.  Seen from this perspective, the idea that the family is the basic unit of civilization is rooted in what it takes to create a just society.

What Makes Society Just?

In order for a society to be just, it has to be able to easily balance the rights of the individual with the greater good of the social group–the common good.   A society that over-emphasizes the needs of the group often overlooks or crushes the rights of individuals.  Obviously, that’s not healthy.  Alternatively, societies that over-emphasize the rights of the individual tend to do a poor job both of attending to the needs of those on the margins of society and creating social structures that lead to the progress of a society as a whole.   Also, not good.

A Just Society:  Family Vs. Other Social Structures.

In a sense, the family is the smallest social unit that is capable of balancing the needs of both the individual and the social group.  In families, individuals learn ways of asserting their rights in a manner that is consistent with the well-being of every other individual member and of the family group as a whole.   Because of the size, the closeness, and the inherent interdependence that is part of family life, family is the ideal laboratory–much more than any other social unit–to learn the strengths and virtues that are essential for living a full, rich, and pro-social life.  There simply isn’t any other social structure that’s equipped to do this as efficiently.  This isn’t a theoretical discussion.  There is plenty of historical data to support this idea.  In fact, let’s look at how family stacks up in comparison to other social structures various civilizations have tried to place at the center of their life.   Namely, the state, corporation, religions, and individuals.

The State

Civilizations that build society around the state instead of the family, such as fascist and communist countries, have shown that they simply are unable to attend to the rights of individuals, in general,  or marginalized individuals, in particular.  Communist and fascist regimes of the 20th century have shown themselves to be soul-crushing societies that eliminate any individual aims that do not serve the goals of the larger society.

The Corporation

History has also shown that societies that place the corporation at their center of society also tend to crush the needs of the individual and the family.  When corporations are seen as the building block of society, the fruit of such civilizations tend to be company stores, low wages, and the sacrificing of family life, personal health and the well-being of anyone who can’t contribute to the bottom line.


You might think that, as religious people, Catholics would want religion to be the building block of society, but we recognize that when religions  serve as the focal point of a civilization, the rights of the individual also suffer as religious freedoms (especially of those who are not co-religionists) and other personal freedoms are trampled.  Such societies, as well meaning as they may be, tend to impose on people more than proposing to people.

The Individual

Finally, history shows that societies that place the individual at the center–despite pretentions to radical democracy–tend to, in reality, be anarchies or oligarchies that favor the “haves” over the “have-nots”  and/or struggle to create infrastructures that enable them to grow beyond small tribal groups.    In a society where individual needs are the greatest good, who settles disputes when individual needs conflict?  Usually, the strongest and wealthiest prevail forcing the weak and poor to the margins.

Family and Social Welfare

You see a similar dynamic when it comes to meeting social needs.  Of all the possible social structures, there is no organization like the family that is both as invested enough and flexible enough to meet the needs of suffering members.  When families fail, it is tremendously expensive for any other social structure to even attempt to do half as good a job as a family can do meeting the needs of sick, poor, elderly, or otherwise struggling members.

The Supremacy of the Family

In short, there are very good reasons beyond Scripture and revelation why the family should be protected and promoted as the basic unit of civilization.  It isn’t just a social construct.  It is the bio-psycho-social basis for civilization.   Family creates bonds that see to the health and well-being of both the individual members and the family group.  It provides an environment that makes it possible to learn the lessons that are important to leading a meaningful life and interacting well with others.  Even considering the very real problems that families face, there is simply no other social institution that is as flexible, resourceful, or as efficient at meeting the needs of individuals while simultaneously promoting the common good.  For these and many other reasons, family deserves the title the Church has given it; “the building block of civilization” and it deserves to be protected by lawmakers and society as a whole.

Reforming the Annulment Process–Brainstorming Solutions.

Deacon Greg Kandra links an article that encourages overhauling the annulment process.   I think most people would agree that the annulment process is in need of serious improvement.  In fact, one of the factors influencing Pope Francis’ call for an Extraordinary Synod on the Family next November was his concern about the way the Church handles divorce and annulment.  Many of the questions in the survey the Vatican sent to the world’s bishops had to do with seeking input on how to improve the handling of annulments.


But while most people agree that the current way of doing things isn’t working, there is little agreement on what to do about it.  Unfortunately, many people are proposing ideas that have already been determined by the Church as unworkable.  For instance, in the article linked by Deacon Greg, the author, Fr. Peter Daly, suggests two ideas that the Vatican has already overruled.  The first is letting the local pastor handle the annulment.   He argues…

If I were pope, I would leave the decision about annulments and reception of the sacraments entirely up to the parish priest. It should be resolved in the internal forum of the confessional. The emphasis should be on mercy, not law. End of story. Move on.

The Problem with the Internal Forum

The problem is that this option, the so-called “pastoral provision” was already outlawed by the Vatican.  The original idea behind the pastoral provision was to allow people to confess the second marriage and allow the pastor to absolve the penitent of the sin of adultery in the second marriage.  But that really doesn’t make any sense at all.  To receive absolution for something, one has to resolve to try to not do it again.  How do I  confess a second marriage and receive absolution for it if I fully intend to continue sleeping with my second partner when I go home?  It appears to me that the internal forum option not only destroys the integrity of the annulment process, but the integrity of confession as well.  There are additional problems with using an internal forum solution–whether confession or some other process overseen by the pastor–to resolve marriage issues.  For example; marriage isn’t a private institution.  Its a social one.  You can’t deal with a public issue in a secret, private forum without causing more problems.   Another reason I think the internal forum option would cause annulment to lose any integrity at all is that pastors would be under tremendous pressure to grant every petition that came across their desk.  There needs to be some kind of oversight to protect both the pastor from undue pressure and the integrity of the sacrament.

The Problem with the  “Eastern Option”

The second option Fr. Daly proposes is following the Orthodox tradition of simply giving people a pass on the first divorce.  Orthodox Christians essentially get one “get out of marriage free card.”  2nd or 3rd marri

ages require permission from the bishop, but first divorces are merely accepted.  I have read the Orthodox justifications for this position, but honestly, they strike me as lacking coherence.  Regardless, the Vatican has also ruled, several times now, that this option is not consistent with the Catholic understanding of marriage.  For the indissolubility of marriage to mean anything, it needs to be indissoluble.  There can be certain conditions where the person does not intend to enter into marriage as the Church defines it or is incapable of entering into marriage as the Church defines it, but those are exceptions.  They can’t be the rule.  Making them the rule undermines the integrity of the entire Catholic theology of marriage.  Clearly this is non-starter.


That people keep returning to these two failed options strikes me as a stunning lack of creativity.  So what can we do?  I don’t have any comprehensive answers to the question, but in my response to the Vatican survey, I did make some suggestions.

Possible Improvements

1.  Stop Requiring Divorce First.

Currently, people who seek annulments are required to have a civil divorce first.  This is not a matter of canon law, btw. It’s just a policy.   I have asked several canonists why this stipulation exists.  They have told me that, in the first place, it is a way to certify that there is no chance of reconciliation.  Of course this is silly.  I have helped plenty of couples reconcile after civil divorce.  It’s more common than you might think.  Second, I have been told that requiring divorce first prevents the Church from being sued for “alienation of affection or loss of consort”  (i.e, one spouse filing a legal suit alleging that the Church forced the other spouse to stop having sex with him or her).  Really?  Does anyone sue for that?   What court would touch loss of consort for religious reasons with a 10 foot pole?  There are so many constitutional issues wrapped up in that  I can hardly think it would be worth it.

In my opinion, requiring married couples to divorce before seeking an annulment sends the message that the civil authority is the one that counts, not the Church.  That’s a terrible message to send.  Second, it puts Catholics in a terrible bind.  The Church forces the couple to get a divorce before it will rule on the validity of the marriage.  What if the church then finds the marriage valid despite the divorce?  How cruel is that?  This policy puts the Church in the position of finding a reason, any reason, to grant the declaration of nullity so the couple can be spared living in limbo, and it puts other couples who honestly don’t have legitimate grounds for an annulment in the position of being civilly estranged but morally bound to their spouse.  How does this not make the Church complicit in leading people into temptation of contracting an invalid second marriage?

Instead, I propose that the Church require couples to seek a declaration of nullity before seeking a civil divorce–except in cases of physical abuse.  That would allow the Church to adopt a pastoral position.  The Church could counsel the couple on the reasons that it appears that the marriage is valid and make recommendations for healing it.  Or it could state that yes, this is a marriage that is definitely invalid and the couple could proceed to divorce. It would make the annulment process a process of discernment which could be more pastoral than juridical but still have integrity and weight.

2.  Allow Lack of Informed Consent/Formation as a Criteria for Annulment.

Pope Benedict actually floated this idea himself.  The Church currently states that one needs to have free will and be able to give full consent to contract a valid marriage.  The problem is, you can’t freely give full consent if you don’t fully understand what you are choosing or believe in the Catholic vision of marriage. How many people get married in the Church with the express intent to live the Church’s vision of marriage and family life and to be their spouse’s best hope–second only to the saving work of Jesus Christ–of getting each other to heaven?  That, in a nutshell, is what the Church is asking couples who get married in the Church to do.  How many couples either understand that or have been formed to the degree that they are capable of living that out?

If the Church doesn’t do a good job of forming the couples it marries in the first place, it is unjust to hold those couples responsible for the Church’s (or the couple’s parents’) failure.  This option would both challenge the Church (and Catholic parents) to do a better job forming couples on the front end, but it would also recognize the fact that ignorance or incapability are legitimate impediments to free will and full consent.


No doubt there are many other ideas that could work, but I think these two options would do a great deal to make annulments more pastoral and logical while still respecting the integrity of the sacrament and the Catholic theology of marriage.
What do you think?  How could the Church do a better job to make the annulment process more pastoral while still respecting out theology of marriage?  Post your ideas as a comment.  I look forward to your feedback.

For help living the Catholic vision of marriage, check out For Better…FOREVER!  A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage,   Just Married:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First 5 Years of Marriage, and Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-blowing, Infallible Loving.