October 2, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

Challenges to family life can seem overwhelming

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

When the Synod of Bishops meets in Rome this month to discuss “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World,” a lot of attention will be paid to the challenges facing families today. These can seem overwhelming because of the number of issues and their complexity.

As reflected in the “Instrumentum Laboris” (working document) that outlines what will be discussed at the synod, there are four major challenges that contemporary families must face: 1) cultural, 2) economic, 3) structural and 4) developmental (or “affective”) challenges. Let me say a few words about each of these.

Much has been written about the ways in which contemporary culture challenges the traditional understanding of marriage and family life. As noted in the synod’s document, only a minority of people today lives, supports and encourages the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. Marriages, whether religious or not, are decreasing in number, while separation and divorce are on the rise.

For some time now, the traditional understanding of the meaning and importance of marriage for society has been on the decline. As the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court concerning same-sex marriage makes clear, the Church’s understanding of marriage is now largely countercultural.

Economic challenges also threaten families in serious ways. The synod’s working document points to low wages, unemployment and economic insecurity as factors that negatively influence family life. It also says, “The following effects of economic inequity are reflected in a particularly acute manner in the family: growth is impeded; a home is missing; couples do not wish to have children; children find it difficult to study and become independent; and a calm planning for the future is precluded.”

Pope Francis insists that a change in perception by everyone in society is necessary to overcome the economic challenges facing families today. “Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth,” the pope says. “It requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.”

Today’s families also face structural challenges, including questions about who should be included in the family unit. Care for aging parents and grandparents has become a very serious issue as people live longer and require more access to health care and assistance in daily living.

The breakdown of traditional marriages, and the contemporaneous rise in the number of “blended” families, can cause confusion about who belongs to whom and about who is responsible for caring for the elderly, disabled and widowed members of families. The synod’s document also calls attention to the effects of migration, sexual exploitation of children, and the role of women as issues that challenge many families today.

Finally, all of these challenges have an effect on the stability, maturity and emotional health of today’s families. The synod’s working document calls this challenge “affective fragility,” and notes that nowadays the question is a pressing one: “A narcissistic, unstable or changeable affectivity does not always allow a person to grow to maturity.” In other words, instability in family life often makes it hard for people to mature and grow as they should. The result is a vicious cycle in which emotionally insecure parents find themselves incapable of rearing children in healthy, responsible ways.

The pastoral challenges facing the Church reflect the challenges faced by families. As the synod’s working document notes, “The Church is conscious of the need to offer a word of truth and hope.” This cannot be simply the empty promise that all will be well. It has to be words that are both courageous and encouraging.

In the face of challenges that can seem overwhelming, the Church believes that human beings, who are made in the image and likeness of God, have the capacity to respond to “the great questions about the meaning of human existence.” In other words, with the help of God’s grace—and a lot of hard work and determination—we can establish (or restore) family structures that are sound, and that are supported by economic, cultural and political systems that build up the family rather than tear it down.

As the synod working document affirms, “The Christian message always contains in itself the reality and the dynamic of mercy and truth that meet in Christ.” Our job is to open our hearts and minds to the Gospel, and to apply its truth concretely to the circumstances of today’s families.

May the Holy Family of Nazareth intercede on behalf of all families, and show us the way to overcome all challenges and find joy in Christ! †

Local site Links: