CTSA: A new generation looks at John Paul's theology of the body and the family


“Generations” is the Catholic Theological Society of America's theme for its annual convention this year, motivated by a hunch that today’s younger generation of theologians brings a different sensibility to the guild.

Here’s one possible sign of the times: At the halfway point of the conference, so far only one speaker during a plenary session has referred in any extended way to John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or official church teaching. Not coincidentally, it was a younger scholar who observed that Catholics who grew up without a strong ecclesiastical subculture to rebel against are often “more inclined to question a troubled culture than an imperfect church.”

Julie Hanlon Rubio of St. Louis University spoke this morning to the CTSA convention on the subject of family and marriage.

Hanlon Rubio humorously described her own upbringing in a decidedly liberal, post-Vatican II Catholic family – in her home, she said, the books were by Hans Küng, the dog was named Berrigan, and Hell was mentioned only in jest. She was taught, she said, “to love God and be skeptical of the church” – in part because her dad was suing a bishop at the time.

Hanlon Rubio said she's held onto much of that heritage, and she’s definitely not one of the “neo-orthodox” young Catholics often described in press accounts these days. Nonetheless, she said, she’s attracted to much of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the family. To some extent, she implied, that’s because like so many Catholics of her generation or younger, the primary point of reference, and hence the reality against which one is inclined to rebel, is not the church but secular middle class culture.

John Paul II, Hanlon Rubio said, described the family in 1981’s Familiaris consortio and elsewhere as “a community of love, called to be church together,” and “to soften the hard edges of society through works of charity, mercy and hospitality.” She called that “the most integrating, challenging vision of marriage and family I know.”

In that regard, Hanlon Rubio criticized modern Catholic parishes for failing to nurture such a vision of the family – especially large and affluent suburban parishes, which too often, she said, sponsor events such as auctions, golf tournaments and carnivals, but without offering opportunities for sustained family-based service to those in need.

In practice, she said, parish life too often “caters to the needs of the middle class tribe.”

Families need to be brought into regular contact with the dying, the handicapped, and the poor, Hanlon Rubio argued, in ways that go beyond donating to a food pantry at Thanksgiving.

“Catholic social teaching can’t really penetrate the church unless it goes through the family,” she said.

Even ostensibly family-oriented programs, Hanlon Rubio said, such as youth ministries or men’s and women’s groups, she said, tend to isolate family members rather than bringing them together.

Parishes, she said, “should encourage spouses to reflect on the pace of middle class family life, helping them find time to build communion.” She ticked off a host of forces that limit the ability of families these days to find time for one another: the demands of two careers, an explosion in activities for children, the difficulties of commuting and getting kids to and from multiple schools, and so on.

“The kind of relationship between spouses John Paul II seeks cannot be achieved when they’re just too busy to pay attention to each other,” she said. Rather than adding a host of other activities they simply further fragment family life, she said, parishes should be a place where an alternative ethos is fostered.

Parishes should also, Hanlon Rubio argued, “develop ties that bind parishioners more closely in community,” such as small faith-sharing groups. (Currently, Hanlon Rubio observed, only five percent of American Catholics participate in such a group.)

“Parishes must sustain an environment in which the demands of discipleship trump those of middle class culture,” she said.

David Matzko McCarthy of St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, offered a similar diagnosis. Today’s younger Catholics, he said, have lived through the breakdown of traditional family structures in favor of a vision of family based more on personal goals and fulfillment, and are therefore looking to retrieve some of what has been lost.

In a sound-bite, McCarthy said that today’s young Catholic is looking to “invite back in our own version of Archie Bunker” – the cantankerous authority figure so thoroughly lampooned and dethroned in American culture in the 1970s and afterwards.

That instinct, which McCarthy defined as an “awkward, inarticulate, but overwhelming desire for home,” helps explain the attraction of many young Catholics to John Paul II’s theology of the body, McCarthy said. In reality, he said, many of these young Catholics have never actually read John Paul’s writings on the subject, but they’ve picked up two points from it:
•tSexual intimacy is wonderful
•tSexuality “gives us rules and duties,” meaning that it’s “the context of a vocation.”

McCarthy said that younger Catholics will “put their own stamp” on John Paul’s ideas on the family, which in some ways he described as “too romantic” and insufficiently attentive to real tensions.

Nonetheless, he said, this desire to recover an authentically Catholic sense of the family as a place of communion and solidarity represents “a a real challenge for us and for the newer generation.”

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