Synod on the Family, Part I

by Michael Sean Winters

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Next month Pope Francis will convoke the Synod on the Family, the first of two synods that will discuss this topic. This autumn’s synod will focus on the state of the question and next year’s will make proposals for improving the Church’s pastoral care of families. This week, I will use my morning posts to do a “curtain raiser” on the first Synod.

While the hot button issues of divorced and remarried Catholics and gay and lesbian Catholics have garnered most of the attention – and will be the focus of subsequent posts this week – it is important to start with the more foundational and comprehensive challenges facing families today.

The Instrumentum laboris makes reference a few times to the challenge of polygamy. This is a reminder to us in the West that the Church is universal and faces varied difficulties in different parts of the world. I have no expertise on the issue of polygamy, but the fact that it is mentioned does point us to a critical fact: Family life is inculturated. So, too, is the Gospel – more on that later. The Synod Fathers must attend to the different cultural manifestations of both the strengths and weaknesses of family life today, not as sociologists, but as pastors, cultivating good ground upon which the seed of the Word of God might fall and take root, and warning against thin soil or briar patches. I will confine my reflections to the situation of the family in the West.

A series of cultural changes have had profound effects on family life. Let us start with one development that is undeniably positive: Women are now included in all avenues of life. There are women doctors, women soldiers, women judges, there may even be soon a woman president of the United States. All of us, men and women, benefit from the contributions women are now making in the life of our societies. Withered be the hand raised against this development. But, all choices and changes involve gain and loss. The gains of female involvement in all walks of life are obvious and to be applauded, but we have been slower, as a culture and as a Church, to recognize that the default role of women as the wellspring of family life has not really been filled. Daycare is a necessity but it is not a family. And a television is not a babysitter.

This change in the role of women occurred more or less simultaneously with the increase in suburbanization and related decrease in the role of the extended family in serving as a nurturing sub-culture in which children can be raised and families grow healthy. It is a remarkable fact that the extended family survived urbanization, and migration from one country to another: Anecdotally, my grandparents came from Poland in the second decade of the last century, left hearth and home, came to a foreign land and, soon enough, a new extended family grew up in eastern Connecticut. Most of their nine children settled within a short drive of the old homestead. But, the extended family – and the larger neighborhood – did not survive suburbanization. My uncle Albert’s routine for most of his life began with a walk up the street to Sacred Heart parish for morning Mass, then across the street to the elementary school where he was a principal. At the end of the day, he walked back down Providence Avenue to his home. Such rhythms are hard to find anymore and rarely are they characterized by a walk. I came to Washington in 1980 to attend college, and I have never left. Thank God that when my parents had their car accident, I was no longer running a restaurant but writing my first book, and could stay in Connecticut for eight months to care for them. But, what if I worked a regular job? Who would have filled in? The loss of the extended family is as critical a difficulty as the problems that are unique to the nuclear family, and the pressure on the nuclear family as a result of the decline of the extended family is significant.

The greater threat to the family, however, is rooted elsewhere. In his speech to the cardinals at the consistory in February, Cardinal Walter Kasper began with a quote from Evangelii Gaudium: “The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the foundational cell of society.” (EG, 66) The key word there is “bond.” Families are about bonds – so is religion, indeed, that is the root of the word religion, to bind. But, modern Western culture has been about the antithesis of bonds in the past sixty years (or more). Earlier, I linked to a review I wrote of George Marsden’s new book, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. He surveys intellectuals who worried about the emergence of mass culture. They could not agree about much in the way of national purpose but one thing the culture, at both the level of high culture and mass culture, could agree upon was that autonomy was a good thing. Freedom was a goal that did not need to be defended or even explained. Some cultural critics worried that the emergent mass culture was fake, manufactured, driven by consumerism. (In his talk, Kasper refers to the “anthropological crisis” brought on by individualism and consumerism.) Others took note that, whatever the dangers, the increasing availability of modern consumer goods was liberating millions from the need to engage in hard labor to earn their daily bread; they failed to note that work, all work, even hard manual labor brings dignity. Religion, instead of confronting this new autonomy – which Pope Paul VI would label “erroneous autonomy” – was often co-opted by it, using mercantile metaphors for the operation of divine grace, as if God’s blessings were like candies collected at Halloween. The affluence of the culture masked the danger, or at least dulled us to the cancer, because the affluence was itself the cancer.

The most difficult cultural challenge facing the family is the fact that we in the West have dropped our identities as members of a family, or a community, or even a profession, as primary, and are mostly identified in the culture by our consumer habits. We are what we buy. That is how we self-identify. And, so we raise our children accordingly. Christmas is no longer a holiday to celebrate God’s unmerited grace made manifest, it is about acquisitiveness, to cite one of a million examples. In the 1950s, we in the West were manufacturing everything, so why not our own identities? Of course, there is no slavery so complete as that which attaches itself to a consumer identity, not least because it appears to be empowering and liberating: You get to choose what to buy. Or do you? Marketing agencies are quite sophisticated at manufacturing desire too. We have replaced a society that focused on the good, however ineptly we tried to achieve that good, into “the goods society,” to borrow a phrase from Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. The materialism of Western culture may not be doctrinaire in the way the materialism of Marxism was, but it is far more successful and just as lethal to any notions of human transcendence without which, religion is impossible and family life is impossible.

Transferred to the realm of interpersonal relations, this consumer mentality is deadly. Marketing research indicates that the best way to sell a product is not to claim it is the “best” product, but to portray it as “new,” a habit of thought which is obviously not conducive to educating children in the value, or even the possibility, of permanence. But, the problem is deeper: Taught to idolize a certain lifestyle, we become very unrealistic in our expectations. Cardinal Kasper states, “The Bible demythologizes the ancient Oriental banalization of sexuality in temple prostitution and condemns debauchery as idolatry. If a partner idolizes the other and expects that the other will prepare heaven on earth for him or her, then the other is necessarily overwhelmed and can only disappoint. Many marriages fail because of this excessive expectation.” 

The great conductor of materialism today is the television. I sympathize completely with those harried parents who, pulled in a million directions, find a moment to attend to other issues by placing their kids in front of the tube. And, children’s television certainly has come a long way since the days when I was a child, watching – and even appearing in one episode of – “Bozo the Clown.” But, because of television, a child’s first experience of sadness is not a moment in their life that calls forth this emotional response: His or her first experience of sadness is watching television characters play act sadness. The lesson may be thoughtfully done but it is vicarious. Just as problematic is the clicker that allows a person to switch channels without getting up from the chair. The clicker makes a person simultaneously sovereign and passive, a strange combination. In my own attempts at relationships, I have had the experience, and recognized I was having the experience, of my intended looking for an on/off switch, but humans do not come with on/off switches. The issue is not the content of television, the violence or sex, almost all of it gratuitous, but the habits that television-watching form.

I come now, as promised, to a final point: The Gospel is inculturated. It is good to remember that the Synod this autumn is not an exercise in sociology. The full title is “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” It has been dawning on the Church, dimly at Vatican II, concretely in Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii nuntiandi and in the writings of subsequent popes, that evangelization is what the Church does, indeed what the Church is. The good news of Jesus Christ is, first and foremost, a gift: We did not create it or manufacture it, indeed, we could not even imagine a story such at that we now confess in the Creed. That Gospel announces a bond we could not fashion on our own, a bond freely given to us in Jesus Christ, binding us to the divine communion of the Trinity. If that does not produce shock and awe, what does? But, today, does our faith even generate culture? Where do we see cultural expressions of awe before the majesty of God and His condescension to take on human flesh and redeem us?

Here is the most primordial link between the Church and the family. Human life, too, is a gift, and we should be deeply suspicious of efforts to manipulate it, which was the central point of both Pope Pius XI’s Casti conubii and Pope Paul VI’s Humanae vitae, although the latter, regrettably was simply dismissed because of its opposition to artificial birth control. Nor, is this concern about how we treat human life unique to 20th century popes: Michael Sandel’s important essay “The Case Against Perfection” warns us against the anthropological dangers of genetic enhancement just as Pope Pius XI warned us against the anthropological dangers of eugenics. Pius’ warning was not heeded; will Sandel’s? As I have written before, whatever you think of the proscription on artificial birth control, Humanae Vitae reads better, more presciently, every year. 

These dangers are obvious and cannot be ignored, but it is one of Pope Francis’ many insights that he urges us always to avoid a dour judgmentalism in proclaiming the Gospel. And, regarding the family, the “method” of pastoral care must be the same as true evangelization, a method of accompaniment, especially for those families that are broken and in need of the urgent love of Christ entrusted to the Church. I hope the Synod Fathers contemplate what is called “the Francis effect.” It is not just that this remarkable man is our pope. The Francis effect is only possible because people are truly hungry for the Gospel and a more humane civilization. No civilization can long remain healthy if its families are not healthy, and the remedy must be found, first and foremost, by placing the bonds of family and society – and the bond of faith, that binds us to Jesus Christ – in their true, liberating promise and pointing out that the autonomy the modern world promises is actually a grim form of self-chosen slavery. The family is not only in need of this Christ-centered proclamation, the family is the principal, earthly and even ecclesial means of strengthening those bonds, and of nurturing the supernatural bonds, that truly liberate. Jesus came into the world and into a family. The Synod Fathers must ask themselves how to bring Him anew into the families of our own day.

Tomorrow, I will start on the hot button issues.


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