Families Today—The Church’s Response

by Lisa Sowle Cahill


Lisa Sowle Cahill received her BA from the Santa Clara University and her MA and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. She has taught at Boston College since 1976, and has been a visiting professor at Georgetown and Yale Universities. She and her husband Larry are the parents of five children.

Everyone in some sense belongs to a family—just by virtue of the fact that two people with their own birth families in turn became our parents.  For most of us, our families--for all their problem relatives, inevitable internal frictions, and geographical separations are still networks to which we “belong” and to which we have great loyalty.  Yet it is no secret that families in the U.S. today are under many pressures, not least of which are economic.  Discrimination by race, class, gender or immigrant status challenge families, and violence within the family is a blight too frequently ignored.  Moreover, families today exist in many forms—nuclear families, extended families, interfaith families, blended families, adoptive families, single-parent families, families headed by gay and lesbian couples, and the growing number of families in which unmarried parents are raising children together.  In fact, families in this country that are untouched by any of these phenomena are few and far between. 

Official Catholic teaching holds up the nuclear family, headed by a sacramentally married mother and father, as the ideal and norm.  So what does this mean for the Church’s pastoral response to the concrete realities of family life today?  We are currently between two Synods on the Family (September 2014 and October 2015), convened in Rome by Pope Francis for the bishops of the world. They are attempting to answer this very question.


Leading up to the first Synod, Pope Francis called upon the virtue of “mercy” to characterize the Church’s stance toward families in difficulty.  In fact, mercy has been a key theme of his pontificate.  In his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium he insists, “the Church must be a place of mercy, freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, and forgiven and encouraged to live the life of the Gospel.”  In remarks to reporters the same year, he shocked some and delighted others by declaring, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” 


Naming concerns to be addressed at the 2014 Synod, Pope Francis frequently went back to the issue of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist despite longstanding Church norms forbidding their participation.  (Pope Francis’s sister is divorced.)  The month the Synod opened, he held a marriage ceremony in Rome for twenty couples, some already cohabiting or even parents.  During the Synod, a couple from Australia addressed the bishops, describing as an example of “mercy” some Catholic friends whose son wanted to bring his male partner home for Christmas dinner—summing up their response as “He’s our son.”  A Synod interim report called for a welcoming attitude toward gay people and divorced Catholics.  The final report recognized grace in the love of couples who are in civil marriages only, who are divorced and remarried, or who are “simply living together,” and called for new forms of “family ministry.”


What lies down the road? Traditionalist Catholics worry that the “Who am I to judge?” pope has thrown all the rules out the door.  Progressives may think that a more forgiving attitude is meaningless unless followed up by actual changes in teachings about premarital sex, the permissibility of divorce, and gay marriage.  So far, let it be clearly stated, Pope Francis has not made any such changes.  Does “mercy” mean merely that those who have sinned can still be welcomed back within the fold?  Does it mean that, although the standard rules still apply, some exceptions can be made if they fit the law’s spirit (the virtue of  “equity” or epikeia)?  Or could it mean that the future might actually bring some revisions of Church teaching?


For now, these remain unanswered questions.  And any changes would have to suit the diverse cultures and needs of Catholics around the world, not just the United States.  But Pope Francis’s example already sends an important message.  Families in every circumstance need encouragement and support to stay together, address problems, care for one another, fulfill their social roles, and nurture the next generation.   Families can be places of struggle, hurt and sorrow;  but they are also places of forgiveness, hope, and new life.  The role of the Church is to accompany all families, trusting that each can “live the life of the Gospel.”


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