Taking stock of where things stand and what still needs to be addressed in October 2015
Many of my students have asked me what I thought about the Extraordinary Synod, now that it is over. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but it felt incomplete to me, or perhaps it’s better to say it felt "unbalanced." Some things I expected to see discussed didn’t make it onto the table, and others seemed to take on greater importance than they deserve.
Now, this is not a criticism per se. It is not the purpose of the synod to assemble some kind of representative list of the issues facing the family. And it is perfectly reasonable for the Synod Fathers to address matters they are inspired to take up. But still, as Katrina Fernandez soulfully pointed out in her blog post picked up by Time Magazine, some difficulties of real significance were overlooked, or received the merest of cursory treatments.
My readers will know that I have defended Francis’s approach on these pages and elsewhere. And I am profoundly grateful for the conversation initiated by the Synod because the shape of the human family is in complete disarray and only the Church has anything like the promise of a strategy. But a credible strategy, pastoral or otherwise, requires an honest accounting of where we are on the battlefield of human history.
So, in the spirit of taking stock, here are a dozen things for next fall’s agenda that outline our losses on that battlefield most poignantly.
1. Lowest-low fertility.Below replacement-level fertility has persisted in the West for several decades and shows no sign of reversing. The trend is creeping into the East and the South and many nations with traditionally high fertility have experienced declines more precipitous than believed possible. "Be fruitful and multiply" was the first command to the human family. One would imagine that below-replacement fertility is a pretty big problem.
2. Divorce. Forget about divorce-and-remarriage problems. Let’s talk more about divorce. Divorce is no longer a live policy issue in most nations – although Leo XIII and Pius XI devoted entire encyclicals to the dangers posed to the "wealth of nations" by divorce. It may be that western society has moved on – but the Church should not move on.
3. Retreat from marriage. The age at first marriage in the United States has crept upwards steadily for both men and women, reaching nearly thirty for men. While the Synod did address the problem of cohabitation, we need to confront head on what has brought about the retreat from marriage. A single line in the first draft of the doc said “Simply to live together is often a choice based on a overall attitude, opposed to anything institutional and definitive.” This deserves a lot of attention.
4. Contraception.The entire world remains basically unconvinced that contraception is a really bad idea. Now, if we really believe what we teach about this, we ought to be standing on our heads trying to get people to understand. If instead we spend most of our time talking about things that are probably secondary effects of the contraception problem anyway, we risk giving the impression that we don’t really believe what we teach about contraception. In that case, governments might have a hard time believing that this is a deep matter of conscience for us.
5. Abortion. There are millions and millions of legal abortions each year and increasingly fewer ways for Catholics and people of good will to oppose abortion in a meaningful way. In that light, the abortion problem has become almost exclusively an evangelical one. Why does this not represent one of the most formidable pastoral challenges to the family?
6. Plight of children who suffer from fragile families.
Until the sexual revolution, social trends in the welfare of children were generally positive – less child labor, less hunger, less poverty, greater education and health. Since the sexual revolution, new problems have been foisted upon children with little regard for their needs. The Church should be the champion of those children whose lives are marked by betrayal, abandonment, and confusion as a result of the free choices of their own parents.
7. Plight of spouses who have been left behind by other spouses. Before divorce and remarriage there is usually spousal abandonment of some form or another. These spouses living alone and heroically raising their children in great hardship, need a victor.
8. Pornography.Need I say more?
9. Sexualization of children.Again, need I say more?
10. Gender identity. There is a great movement underfoot to dissociate the notion of gender from that of biological sex. This movement is not unrelated to the pastoral problems facing the family and evangelization. The Church is the great expert in humanity. She needs to get out ahead and lead on this.
11. Geographical divorce between parishes and neighborhoods. People no longer conduct their lives in a geographic area marked by walking distances. Parish life is a drive-by experience – once a week at most. It is hard to understand how sacraments, the life of grace, and the communal life of the parish can play any role in the life of the family. Baptisms, first communions, marriages – these have become purely individualized experiences. (When was the last time you attended a celebration of marriage to which an entire parish was invited?) The family should be a domestic Church – but no one knows what the life of the Church ought to look like.
12. Christian Education of Youth. The "procreation and education of children" is the primary end of marriage. In a way, a family fails to reproduce itself if children fail to receive a Christian education. Education is also the first path to social reform – and a path that cannot be separated from the question of marriage and family. The opponents of the Church have understood this lesson better than we. Pius XI warned:
In the United States more than ninety percent of our children are educated by the state. In Europe the numbers are similar. Apparently, then, we have been warned. We have a lot to think about before Synod 2015.
Catherine Ruth Pakalukis an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion.She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010). She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.