Chicago — Catholic social teaching about the family and the human person "flies in the face of the modern individualist attitudes that pervade our culture," Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., told a gathering of economists, theologians, bishops and social theorists April 30 on the campus of the University of Chicago.
The church, he said, "stands, in some respects, in direct opposition to the reduction of the individual to nothing more than an autonomous rights-bearing consumer."
Cantu, the chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made his remarks during his keynote address for a two-day conference on the family and the changing American economy sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute.
In an interview, Cantu expanded on his remarks, saying, "Capitalism needs to be regulated by a vision that holds up the human person and the family."
Taking a similar tack, Chicago's Archbishop Blase Cupich told the crowd of about 300 that comments heard from lay Catholics in his archdiocese in preparation for the second session of the church's Synod of Bishops on the family in October pointed out the many ways in which the American culture "makes genuine family life extraordinarily difficult and, at times, seemingly impossible."
Materialism, he said, "fuels a frantic consumerism. People are then defined -- and they define themselves -- in the measure that they can acquire things."
False expectations arise, Cupich said, and "conflicting family schedules, burdened by work, school and recreation commitments, mean that many families have few common meals and less time together to share experiences and learn from each other."
The church's moral vision and social teaching "emphasize that the family cannot fit within an economy whose only value is efficiency," Cupich said.
In their remarks to the gathering, both Cantu and Cupich went through what might be described as the greatest hits of Catholic social teaching, starting with Pope Leo XIII and his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, and including insights from the Second Vatican Council and from more recent popes, including St. John XXIII, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.
In John XXIII's Pacem in Terris, promulgated a few months before his death, the pope presented a new vision of the global community that Cantu summarized as "one of the whole world as a family, in which societal relations were not simply a field of contested individual goods, but in which the whole world shared a common good."
Cantu said the church needs to work with economists and other experts to find ways to nurture families. "We are partners, and together we must pursue the just ordering of our social life."
"We have much to learn from one another," he added.
The present historical moment represents "a moment of convergence" in which church teaching and the findings of social scientists are both pointing to the need to bolster families, Cantu said. This, he said, is "an emerging opportunity."
Within this context, he noted that John Paul II described the family as "the basic cell of society."
Even deeper, however, is how the nature of the family parallels that of the Trinity, Cantu said. "God is a community of three persons. At the heart of the universe is a relationship -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit ... Thus, the family mirrors the Trinity, and so participates in reality at the deepest level."
Like the Trinity, the family and human society are "a kind of mysterious dialogue between the individual and the communal," he said. In other words, the family isn't just another "volunteer association."
"It is not something that humans have invented or constructed or evolved," Cantu said. "It is written into the spiritual DNA of humanity and reflects the life of God."
Cantu said the church needs to do more outreach to families. "By teaching Catholic social teaching and living it, we are able to help families," he said, and told of story of his time as a new pastor in the Houston parish where he had grown up.
He visited a second-grade classroom where the children were being prepared for their first Communion. But after a few moments, he realized that the youngsters didn't seem to know who he was.
Finally, one said, "You're the priest" -- which was a good guess since he was in his Roman collar, Cantu said.
Cantu pointed out the window at the church and asked the children if they'd ever been inside. One child responded, "What's in there? I've been wondering all along."
It became clear to Cantu that the children came from dysfunctional families where the parents, grandparents and guardians of the children weren't churchgoers themselves but wanted the youngsters to "get their Communion."
"We've got a hook," he realized, so he set up a two-year program. While the children were being prepared, the parents and other caretakers were required to come once a month for their own preparation.
The first year wasn't about the tenets of Catholicism, though, Cantu said. It was about how to be a good parent and tackled such subjects as communication skills, substance abuse and physical abuse. "Then, in year two, we talked about the faith," Cantu said.
The decline in marriage, particularly among people with low educational attainments and among minorities marginalized by the American culture, is a great challenge to church leaders, Cantu said.
"It's a moving target because the family structure has changed so precipitously and continues to change so rapidly," he said in the interview. That's difficult for parishes and dioceses to address because, as institutions, they tend to set up structures that are often immediately out-of-date, he said.
Yet it's an issue that must be addressed, particularly for "the families who are falling through the cracks, often through no fault of their own," Cantu said.
"More and more, we need to teach some of the basic human skills that strengthen families. We can't simply tell them about God."
[Patrick T. Reardon is author of Catholic and Starting Out and of Daily Meditations (with Scripture) for Busy Dads.]