June 17, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

The experiences and challenges of families

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

In his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis devotes the third chapter to “The Experiences and Challenges of Families.” It’s a tall order to describe, in just 23 pages, all the things—positive and negative—that confront families today!

“Faithful to Christ’s teaching we look to the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with both its lights and shadows” (#32). Pope Francis insists that we deal with reality—not the family as we want it to be, but as it truly is. This requires some humility. It also demands that we forgo political correctness on the one hand, and, on the other hand, “an almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of families” (#36).

To the extent that we pastors and teachers in the Church have presented marriage and family life as “a lifelong burden” rather than what it truly is—“a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment”—we are guilty of what the Holy Father calls “idealization” (#36). The key to helping families cope with contemporary challenges is to “form consciences, not to replace them,” the pope argues (#37). That means we cannot shy away from the truth as we understand it, but we also cannot use it as a means of “denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness” (#38).

Openness to grace must always accompany our presentation of doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues. We dare not give the impression that marriage and family life are too difficult to live faithfully today. God’s grace and mercy are always with us—especially when we fail to live up to the promises we make through baptismal and marriage vows. The Church’s message on marriage and the family must “clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman, or the woman caught in adultery” (#38).

What are some of the main challenges families are facing today? The space limitations of this column allow me to name just a few.

Cultural changes have resulted in less stability and support for families from relatives and friends. There is also “the decline in population due to a mentality against having children” leading to “economic impoverishment and a loss of hope in the future” (#42).

The “weakening of faith and religious practice” is also seen as having a negative impact on family life today. So does poverty, the lack of affordable housing, the increasing number of children born out of wedlock, sexual abuse of children (“especially when it occurs in places where they ought to be the most safe”), migration, persecution and injustice, drug abuse and other forms of addiction (alcohol, gambling and sex) and the “breakdown in families torn apart, the young uprooted and the elderly abandoned, children who are orphans of living parents, adolescents and young adults confused and unsupported” (#51). The list goes on.

“No one can think that the weakening of the family as that natural society founded on marriage will prove beneficial to society as a whole,” Pope Francis warns. “The contrary is true,” he insists. “Only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life” (#52). This is the hard truth that we must not water down. But it is also an ideal that many today—as in the time of Jesus and every other age—fail to realize perfectly if at all.

The Holy Father concludes his chapter on “The Experiences and Challenges of Families” by thanking God for the many families “which are far from considering themselves perfect,” but which “live in love, fulfill their calling and keep moving forward, even if they fall many times along the way” (#57).

I grew up in such a family. And during my priestly ministry, and my service as a bishop, I have encountered thousands of these “holy families.” They aren’t perfect, but they are loving and forgiving (most of the time) as Jesus taught us.

Thank God for our families—here in central and southern Indiana and throughout the world. May our Lord bless them with his grace and his mercy—now and always! †

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