"An even more generous, intelligent and prudent pastoral commitment, modeled on the Good Shepherd, is called for in cases of families which, often independently of their own wishes and through pressures of various other kinds, find themselves faced by situations which are objectively difficult.”
The family is one of the basic social institutions in our world. But there are many issues facing a modern family. These can be explored in light of the Catholic Social Thought. What does CST say about women in society? What does it say about those with a homosexual orientation? Does it speak to situations concerning domestic violence? Does it speak to contraception? What does it say about marriages? Does it address some of the plethora of challenges facing the modern society?
Part of the role of the Church is the read the “signs of the times” and seek pastoral strategies, communal responses and possible ways in which these signs can be addressed. One such sign is the current changes in marital patterns. In 1996, the median age for marriage was 24.8 for women and 27.1 for men, whereas in 1960 it was ages 20.3 for women and 22.8 for men. The age today continues to increase. Further, consider that 25% of children will live in a situation where there is a stepfamily. About 60% of mothers with children under the age of 6 are employed outside of their home, and five million children (ages 5-14) are left at home unattended, as both parents are working.
The family dynamics continue to change with each passing year. Further, the aforementioned challenges such as cases of domestic violence, the role of a parent when confronted with their child’s sexual orientation, or the issue of contraception continue to increase, no decrease. This is the situation that the Church continues to attempt to address, attempting to uphold human dignity at all levels and at every age, and address the degradation of individuals as well as the family communities.
Modern Challenges and the Family as CommunityOne of the major challenges facing families is the parent(s) struggling to balance work priorities and family priorities. Should the mother or father take long hours with little time for family - in order to support their children, pay for schooling, and so forth? It is a difficult shift to move from “welfare to poverty” without often adverse effects to the children. This is further complicated by family relationships - challenges abound.
Put simply, current technological, sexual, sociological, political, economic and cultural trends have created a number of issues. The document A Family Perspective lists a few of these:
- “Television, which is the principal recreation for Americans, is a solitary form of recreation and socialization. Leisure-time industries, of increasing economic significance, compete for the remainder of Americans’ free time.
- With the development of computers and the subsequent knowledge explosion, families are increasingly reliant on information drawn from outside the home.
- The typical family now relies on childcare rather than having the children cared for solely at home.
- While it appears that the rapid rise in divorce, beginning in 1965, is over at least for the present, recent rates indicate that at least one out of three first marriages entered this year will end in divorce.
- Abortion, the growing acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide are other powerful threats to family relationships.
- One million children run away each year, many of them supporting themselves by prostitution.
- At least one out of nine youths will be arrested before the age of 18.
- The suicide rate among 15- to 19-year-olds has tripled in thirty years.
- The use of drugs and alcohol by teenagers, as well as involvement in premarital sex, has been well documented.”
If the family is intended to be an intimate community of persons, then this intimacy must begin with the parents. In the Rite of Marriage (developed in 1969), a man and woman are asked “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? Will you love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives? Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” When two people come together in holy matrimony, God becomes the third person in the relationship, and God works in and through your relationship. As such, it is considered one of the seven sacraments of the church. In today’s Catholic Church, you meet with a pastor several months before the wedding, fill out paperwork and then proceed to go into a marriage preparation program. The focus on marriage preparation is intended to allow the couple to live fully and lovingly together by getting ready for the marriage itself.
Now, friendship is a big part of daily human activity on various levels – socially, mentally, emotionally, and particularly spiritually. Friendship reflects God’s love for us, as we enter into relationships with other people and through this human experience is reflected the divine experience. When two people enter into a marriage, this becomes particularly valid. Vatican II established marriage as a commitment that two individuals make to each other by making a covenant with one another. Prior to this, marriage was understood more in contractual than covenantal terms. In this view, the marriage is a contract in which you agree to the legal exchange of each other’s body – which, as we understand today, is not a very loving and caring approach but more of a physical and legalistic approach.
Entering into a marriage covenant is a serious matter. You are committing yourself wholly and fully to the other person, and both individuals realize that to make the covenant work – just as covenants between God and man – there must be trust, communication, honesty, and love, as well as seeing all of this in light of their faith in Jesus. Vatican II defined faith as committing oneself freely and completely to God, which certainly sounds a lot like a marriage covenant. This is likely why there were marriage comparisons in early Christian literature between Christ and the Church. Both marriage and faith in Christ require commitment, hence why it sounds so similar.
As a result, in the Rite of Marriage, the couple is asked if they are willing to accept children. Certainly, the primary biological purpose of sexual union is procreation - but this is not its sole purpose. It is also a physical expression of love. However, due to its procreative nature, one of the things the Church sees as an issue is contraception. Using contraception is contrary to the teaching of one of the function of the sacramental marriage. This is where Natural Family Planning enters in. NFP is the name for methods “of family planning that are based on a woman’s menstrual cycle. A man is fertile throughout his life, while a woman is fertile for only a few days each cycle during the child-bearing years. The end result is not the only thing that matters, and the way we get to that result may make an enormous moral difference. Because NFP does not change the human body in any way, or upset its balance with potentially harmful drugs or devices, people of other faiths or of no religious affiliation have also come to accept and use it from a desire to work in harmony with their bodies.”
Up until the 1930s, the majority of Christian churches - Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and so forth - held the position that using contraception was not the message of the Church, and in 1968, Pope Paul VI, warned that using contraception would cause many spouses to treat the other as more of an object than a person. Indeed, “today we see a pandemic of sexually transmitted diseases, an enormous rise in cohabitation, one in three children born outside of marriage, and abortion used by many when contraception fails.” In fact, at times the contraceptions can change the lining of the uterus so that it can actually make it impossible for a woman to conceive, as fertilization cannot take place - which would make it an early abortion. This is what the Church, in its teachings on social justice, speaks of the right to life as one of the basic human rights. This right to life is an extension of the dignity of the human person - which is also connected to two other challenges facing the Church - that of domestic violence and homosexual orientation.
Sexual Orientation and the FamilyThe United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has written a number of documents relating to social justice of the years, two of which are Always Our Children and When I Call for Help, which are pastoral statements on homosexuality and domestic violence, respectively. Each of these pastoral documents finds its basis in a number of principles that are derived from the social doctrine and social mission of the Church, namely, the dignity of the human person being made in the imago dei, so that each person ought to be treated with dignity, value and respect.
The USCCB addressed Always Our Children to parents of those who express a homosexual orientation. They wrote, “Our message speaks of accepting yourself, your beliefs and values, your questions, and all you may be struggling with at this moment; accepting and loving your child as a gift of God; and accepting the full truth of God's revelation about the dignity of the human person and the meaning of human sexuality... Having a homosexual orientation does not necessarily mean a person will engage in homosexual activity. Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose.”
In other words, they are asking both the families and the readers at large to concentrate on the person, not on the homosexual orientation itself. Most certainly, God loves each person in their own uniqueness - what John Duns Scotus called haecceitas. Modern Catholic anthropology would tell us that our sexual identity aids us in defining who we are as individuals, and certainly, one large aspect of our sexual identity is our sexual orientation. As the document points out, God looks at the heart. But for parents struggling with their own emotions, they may experience relief, anger, mourning, fear, guilt, shame, and loneliness.
This is why the Church says, “We call on all Christians and citizens of good will to confront their own fears about homosexuality and to curb the humor and discrimination that offend homosexual persons. We understand that having a homosexual orientation brings with it enough anxiety, pain and issues related to self-acceptance without society bringing additional prejudicial treatment.” Further, this is why they declare, “Though at times you may feel discouraged, hurt, or angry, do not walk away from your families, from the Christian community, from all those who love you. In you God's love is revealed. You are always our children. ‘There is no fear in love... perfect love drives out fear.’ (1 Jn 4:18).”
Therefore, in light of this understanding, and realizing that families struggle with how to react to their son or daughter’s sexual orientation or how to guide them through a society that can be discriminatory and scrutinize them, what are pastors, deacons, lay ministers and all other called to? They are asked to welcome those of homosexual orientation into the community, to avoid stereotyping and condemning them, and not to presume that simply because they express a sexual orientation does not mean that they are active. Those in ministry may also wish to learn more about STDs such as HIV/AIDS in order to be more informed about such issues and be more compassionate. A sensitivity to actions as well as language toward a person can also help in a good number of ways.
Domestic Violence and the FamilyWhat of domestic violence? Domestic violence is defined in When I Call for Help as “any kind of behavior that a person uses to control an intimate partner through fear and intimidation. It includes physical, sexual, psychological, verbal and economic abuse. Examples include battering, name calling and insults, threats to kill or harm one’s partner or children, marital rape, or forced abortion.” It treats the person as an object to be used. Consider: 85% of the victims of reported cases of non-lethal domestic violence are women, over 50% of men who abuse their wives also beat their children, and children who grow up in violent homes are more likely to develop alcohol and drug addictions and to become abusers themselves.
However, even if their abusers isolate them from other social contacts, they may still allow them to go to church. This is where the Church meets the needs of those caught in the trap of domestic violence, sometimes secretly and carefully helping the one who has been abused. Unfortunately, however, both the men and the women misuse the Scriptures and take them out of context, making it difficult sometimes for women to want to approach the Church, although they are often the first responders. This justification for abuse behavior is unjust. The men refer to the submission the wives, and insist that their wives forgive them as Christ commands (Matthew 6:9-15). If the victim cannot forgive the abuser, she feels guilty, and creates an image of a harsh or injust God as opposed to the merciful, loving and just God of Scripture. God is present even in situations of suffering - consider the examples of the woman with the hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34) or the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). In both examples, God is present with these women in their suffering including when it was God promises to be present to us in our suffering, even when it is unjust. The Church can also be present to women in their suffering, and offer a number of solutions to their situation, whether it involves counseling, a program that involves a safe-house, or other alternatives.
Application and AnalysisToward the end of October 2014, I went with a group of students to Philadelphia and Camden, Pennsylvania. We had gone down to work at the St. Francis Inn, a Franciscan-based soup kitchen. While there, our group had also taken a short excursion to the site in Camden, NJ to visit two of the friars. We were given a tour of the site - the church, the friary, the school, the garden, the Francis House, and the nearby park area. While at the Francis House, there was a poster that caught my attention.
It begged the question, “Who is my neighbor?” and commanded, “Love Thy Neighbor. Thy Homeless neighbor, thy Muslim neighbor, thy Black neighbor, thy Gay neighbor, thy White neighbor, thy Jewish neighbor,” and so forth. If we are all made in the image of God, regardless of nationality, religious tradition, political views, socio-economic status - then each of us are created with inherent dignity, value and worth. All of us are created to be worthy of love. That poster still sticks in my mind. We are called to love all. Our Muslim neighbor. Our Orthodox Christian neighbor. Our Atheist neighbor. Our Homosexual neighbor. Christ gave the command to “love one another,” or, as I paraphrase it, “Love the Other.”
This love of neighbor can be seen in the attempts of the Church to reach out to families, to the marginalized and others. From October 5-19, 2014, the Third General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops met in Vatican City to discuss pastoral challenges on the family in today’s world. This synod - which is a meeting or council of bishops, different than an ecumenical council - stirred up quite a bit of controversy in the discussion, drafting and publication of the document Relatio Synodi. The controversy dealt with a few key paragraphs that were revised and edited from the original to the finished product, namely on fathers and homosexuality. But it was the latter that ended up causing the most controversy. The irony is that the aforementioned USCCB pastoral statement, Always Our Children, already stated the those with a homosexual orientation ought to be treated with sensitivity.
Now, one must note that officially, the Church does not endorse homosexual marriages or sexual relations, but it does emphasize, as aforementioned, the dignity of the human person and the love of God dictate that we ought to treat those with a homosexual orientation with respect. The finished report, Relatio Synodi, has this to say about homosexuality: "Some families live the experience of having their internal people with homosexual orientation. In this regard, we have questioned on pastoral care which is appropriate to deal with this situation by referring to what the Church teaches: "There is no foundation whatsoever to assimilate or to establish even remotely analogous, including same-sex unions and the plan of God for marriage and the family. " Nevertheless, men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. "In their regard should be avoided every sign of unjust discrimination" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, 4). It is totally unacceptable that the Pastors of the Church suffer the pressures in this matter and that international bodies to condition financial aid to poor countries, the introduction of laws that establish the "marriage" between persons of the same sex."
Early in October, the LGBTQ+ community spoke out about the Synod. The hopes of LGBTQ+ Catholics are often echoed in the song from Marty Haugen's song, "All Are Welcome," but none of those who spoke out seemed to feel that the synod would bring any change in the outlook on homosexuality, nor did they feel welcome. They ask, “if Joseph was not Jesus' biological father, then the Holy Family was a nontraditional one - thus, are families not brought together by love, not biology?” The National Catholic Reporter interviewed several individuals in the LGBTQ+ community who were Catholic - and Australian couple who worked for the institutional church, a lesbian woman who had been in a religious community but was at one point rejected because of her sexual orientation, a mother who counts the Sunday collection in her parish and loves her gay son, a 24-year-old who is struggling to understand their own gender identity, and others. There was an older gentleman who said, "I have moved on to live my life as I must. ... As a result of a long journey in conscience ... I need to live my life in a healthy, honest way, with love and a respect of the truth that is at my core in relationship to others. I am freed of the negative pronouncements of the past. ... I know I must live what I discern to be true, regardless of what the bishops think."
The Relatio Synodi has been criticized for the largest portion of families are completely ignored - not only homosexuality, but also a number of other living situations. But among all of this criticism, there are a few important pieces to consider. First of all, the Church teaches that homosexuality was not the original design of family life by God, as evidenced by Scripture. But more than this, it seems that many - including those in the LGBTQ+ community - have missed the words of the USCCB and others concerning homosexuality and homosexual orientation: you are loved. When Pope Francis called the Synod on the Family, he was scandalized by some of the bishops for asking them to freely speak their mind and the concerns of their hearts. That is why Relatio Synodi was not the final word; the bishops will meet again in October of 2015, after having listened to the pastoral concerns of their parish and the Catholic Church as a whole. They seek to consider the words of Christ in the laity and in the clergy at large. This example of the Synod is one example of how teachings on Catholic Social Thought are not always accepted, but are not always easily conveyed. Practically, one can apply love for “the Other” in everyday life, and go about showing love each day.
Although it may seem tangential, the other issue - on the treatment of women - is worth noting. There is a website - Care2 - which has helped many causes over the years, through the use of click-to-donate sponsored funds, internet-signed petitions and growing online communities of people who share concern for the common good, the dignity of the human person, the rights of the family, the rights of the individual, and so on. One Care2 Petition says, “March 8 is International Women's Day, but every day millions of girls in the developing world are denied basic human rights like freedom from violence, economic and political independence, access to education, and even basic nutrition. Right now, world leaders are working to finalize the next set of priorities for global development, the Sustainable Development Goals for 2015-2030. The decisions that are made now will echo for generations to come. We can help encourage UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to use this important opportunity to advance the rights of women and girls everywhere. If you believe in equality, freedom, and opportunity for women and girls, please send a message to Ban-Ki Moon today calling on him to make defending the rights of women and girls a top priority. You have the power to create change. START SHARING AND WATCH YOUR IMPACT GROW.” When I signed this petition, the counter said “we've got 11,513 signatures, help us get to 12,000,” but by March 15, I found: “we've got 59,101 signatures, help us get to 60,000.” In the seven days since I signed the petition, there were 47,588 more people who signed. It is clear that people care about these causes, they simply need to find outlets in which to apply their concern for social justice and human rights. This is not always easy, but it is necessary.
ConclusionPope John XIII once said, “The family is the first essential cell of human society.” Without the cells that make up the body, the body falls apart. If the family is in a bad place, so too is the society. The values of society influence the family - but it needs to be borne in mind that the values of the family can also influence society. This is why there is a dire need for a family perspective. This is why documents such as those mentioned by the USCCB, the Synod of Bishops and others are important. They not only promote a family perspective that takes the Catholic anthropology into consideration as a filter for its theology, but it also welcomes each individual in and reminds them of the transformative love of God.
As previously noted, there many challenges that are facing the modern family today. It is not within the breadth of this paper to consider and offer solutions for each of these challenges, and what has been said is a mere skimming of the surface. Each of these challenges requires careful attention, loving hearts and willing people. The CST promotes a view of the family that is sacramental, communal, faith-based, and one that sees love as its guide. But Catholicism is not the only religious tradition facing these issues. As one has pointed out, Natural Family Planning is being used in all manner of religious traditions. The same applies for the issues facing each family today. Although each family has a different origin, a different background, different experiences and a different way of relating to one another, we all belong to one human race, and it is thus a challenge bigger than Catholicism. It is important for men and women everywhere to carefully consider these challenges and continue to work together for a family perspective that promotes love and dignity as well as justice and understanding. In short, it calls us to love our neighbor regardless of who they are - including our the members of family.
Endnotes John Paul II. On the Family, 1981. 77. Print.
 A Family Perspective 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid, 3-50.
 Ibid, 20.
 USCCB. Married Love and the Gift of Love 1.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 7.
 Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning, 1991. 55. Print.
 USCCB. When I Call For Help: A Pastoral Response To Domestic Violence Against Women.
 Relatio Synodi, 55-56. October 5-19, 2014.
 Gramick, Jeannine. "LGBT Catholics Hope That Synod on Family Will Lead to Welcome for All." LGBT Catholics Hope That Synod on Family Will Lead to Welcome for All. National Catholic Reporter, 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.
 Pope John XIII. Pacem Terris.