Family life: warts and all
While we may be experts in describing family life at our own ‘micro’ level, the pope together with bishops and married couples at the Synod on the Family, representing the four corners of the globe, help us to read the signs of the times at the ‘macro’ global level. This in turn gives us a broader perspective to evaluate our local experience of family life and to consider challenges we are perhaps unaware of.
For example, does our own family life unconsciously imitate what Pope Francis calls the ‘global trend towards individualism’? He does not mince his words when he says that we need to be alert to ‘the growing danger represented by an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds and ends up considering each member of the family as an isolated unit, leading to the idea that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires which are considered absolute’.
Put simply, it’s the old problem of ‘me, myself and I’. Yes, it may be true that the modern human sciences have helped us to recover the dignity and importance of the individual as someone to be valued in his or her own right but at the same time we can’t deny the tensions created by a culture of individualism and materialism. These, says Pope Francis, lead to intolerance and hostility in families.
One of the most obvious manifestations of this individualism is found in the ‘cyber effect’ – the way computer and internet technology impacts upon human culture and behaviour. The pope, himself a user of tablet and smart phone, clearly sees the downside of a ‘virtual’ experience of life. As he puts it so realistically: “Here I think of the speed with which people move from one affective relationship to another. They believe, along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and a relationship quickly blocked.”
I think, too, of the fears associated with permanent commitment, the obsession with free time …’ Rooted as he is in the gospel values of Jesus and the very best of Catholic social teaching, the pope laments the way we treat human relationships like we treat material objects: “Everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye!” Our faith provides the perfect antidote.
As followers of Jesus we reject selfishness and arrogance. We believe in self‐sacrifice and commitment. We imitate Jesus in his humble service of others and like him we are willing to give ourselves generously to others. Where more than in family life do we learn that individuals cannot act privately and arbitrarily without reference to the needs, dignity and rights of others?
The Catholic Link cannot stress enough the value for its readers themselves studying the pope’s exhortation on the family. Available on the Vatican’s website it is easy to read, but it contains more material than can reasonably be covered in our Link articles.
Today, we can only touch on a few final points from Chapter Two on the ‘Challenges Facing Family Life’. The first of these, which will no doubt resonate with many, is the raising of children. You would think Pope Francis was a regular visitor in our homes the way he understands that parents come home from work exhausted, not wanting to talk.
Families often no longer share a common meal. Distractions abound, including addiction to television. Another stress on families is that they are so busy trying to secure their future that it’s hard to enjoy the present. There are always fears about steady employment, finances and the future of one’s children. And all this in turn impacts on the handing on of the faith. Regarding the complex situation of divorce and remarriage the pope is compassionate, but he does point out that one of the results is so‐called ‘blended or reconstructed families’.
Someone put it this way: “Darling, your children and my children are fighting with our children.”
The pope encourages parents not to give up, whatever way their families may be constituted. He then touches on something that cannot be swept under the carpet: the problem of substance abuse. This, he says, is one of the scourges of our time, causing immense suffering and even breakup for many families where the young are uprooted and the elderly are abandoned; where children become ‘orphans of living parents’.
And he asks, “Who is making an effort to strengthen marriages, to help married couples overcome their problems, to assist them in the work of raising children and, in general, to encourage the stability of the marriage bond?” He apologises for the Church’s failures in this regard and urges creative ministries to emerge, but he also lays responsibility upon society and the state for the role they must play.
What is particularly refreshing about Pope Francis’ approach is that he is not hankering after ‘the good old days’, and he even suggests that it is legitimate to reject older forms of the traditional family marked by authoritarianism.
But this should not lead to a disparagement of marriage. Instead, he says, we should rediscover its authentic meaning and promote its renewal. Quoting the recent Synod, he affirms that the strength of the family ‘lies in its capacity to love and to teach how to love. For all a family’s problems, it can always grow, beginning with love’.
A final word must go to the pope’s thoughts on the dignity of women. While significant advances have been made in the recognition of women’s rights, he says that unacceptable customs need to be eliminated. ‘The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.’
Marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman who are equal before God.
This edited version of Chapter 2 of Amoris Laetitia titled ‘The Experiences and Challenges of Families’ is by Larry Kaufman CSsR. The Year of the Family runs until June 2022. Sunday May 15 is also the International Day of Families. This year’s theme is Families and Urbanisation.
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