Real Life, the Synod and the Humanum Colloquium
This summer, my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world. Our partnership expanded into a little community; our marriage blossomed into a family.
Just a few months later, right as our daughter was beginning to giggle, the Bishops of the Catholic Church sat down in Rome for an extraordinary synod to discuss – serendipitously enough – the family: what it is, why it matters, and the challenges it faces today.
Needless to say, we were paying attention. We’d lost sleep, scoured the internet, and worried our new parent worries. We were exhausted, excited, and on the lookout for words of wisdom.
And we watched with a crashing sense of disappointment as, over the two-week duration of the synod, the conversation became mired in the usual dogmatic flashpoints vis-à-vis the “modern family.” The misleading headlines flew and the synod came and went, instantly framed by the dominant narrative about the family and painted as a small blip back in time.
A few days later, we went out to see Richard Linklater’s impressive bildungsroman in real-time, “Boyhood.” I’m a big Linklater fan – I count “Waking Life” and “Before Sunrise” among my favorite films – and I was convinced that this, surely, would be the inspiration our new family was looking for.
I was wrong. “Boyhood” is an aimless and tragic look at broken families covered with an unconvincing veneer of self-creation, one that fails to either affect or instruct. Its originality, though, got people’s attention – and got them to care, to crave a meaning Linklater’s movie didn’t hold and couldn’t deliver. In the end, it was only there to tell a good story filled with small moments; exalting or even understanding the family was beyond its ken. (As one character puts it: “We’re all just winging it.”)
Meanwhile, on the synod side of things, the reverse is true. The poet D.H. Lawrence once remarked that the faith’s understanding of marriage and the “little autonomy of the family” is “the greatest contribution to the social life of man made by Christianity,” one grounded in the “deepest desires in man.” But this story is not being told. (Or rather, not being told well. If “Fireproof” is the summit of the Christian story on marriage, it’s no surprise that young people everywhere are exchanging their birthright for a mess of pottage.)
And it’s not that there’s no sweeping tale to tell and only a little cluster of moral prohibitions – far from it. Once, I bumped into a little old woman in a CVS parking lot who I recognized to be Alice von Hildebrand, a Belgian philosopher of half my height and twice my intellect whose husband fought Hilter and the Nazis and who, to this day, is speaking eloquently about “the divine invention” of marriage. From Genesis to the theology of the body, a veritable ocean of treasures stretching back thousands of years lies behind us. In the absence of good storytellers, though, the wider world doesn’t get to see or feel the adventure, beauty, and excitement of it all.
But all that is about to change.
An epic trailer for what is being dubbed “The Humanum Series” was just released on YouTube, and features philosopher Peter Kreeft and others reflecting on marriage and family in the modern world.
Humanum is a three-day conference that will open in Vatican City on November 17 with a statement by Pope Francis, followed by a series of presentations, testimonials, and films from people of all different cultures and creeds on marriage and family life. (If the presence of Peter Kreeft is any indication of the level of discourse, it should strike the perfect balance between profundity and accessibility. Kreeft, like C.S. Lewis before him, has spoken eloquently and convincingly about the