2014 will stand out as the year Pope Francis led the Church into the battle to save the family.
Of all Pope Francis’s accomplishments, 2014 will stand out as the year he led the Catholic church to confront the crisis in the family. Foundations for the Synod of Bishops that met in October were begun in November 2013 when a questionnaire was sent out to the world’s bishops. Early in the year initial consultations were held to continue preparations for the synod, and in June the results of the questionnaire were discussed and published. In October, the historic synod of bishops took place with the second and final session to follow in the Autumn of 2015.
The family has been a strong emphasis of Francis’s papacy. Not only in the official meetings, but also in his preaching and prophetic gestures, Francis has reminded the world of the importance and value of every member of the human family from the unborn to the vulnerable elderly. In his pastoral care and passion for meeting people where they are, Francis has shown his awareness that the human family is in crisis.
Swept up in the cultural and technological changes facing humanity, it is easy for Catholics to underestimate the impact of the modern world on both the traditional family and the Catholic faith. Three factors of modern life have especially impacted the family, and Catholic leaders are struggling to know how to deal with the fallout. From his experience as an “on the streets” bishop, Pope Francis is aware of the tensions and troubles the modern innovations present for Catholic families.
The first problem is that of mobility. With modern transportation and communication, people are able to move freely around the world to live and work anywhere. For millennia, human beings have lived in a limited locality within a close-knit extended family. Family structures were extensive, with a strong network of support, shared values and mutual care. In the last fifty years the village or tribal family has all but disappeared. Families exist in isolation—either in the suburbs or in anonymous urban communities. Increasingly, individuals live alone, and may do so completely cut off from family members who live thousands of miles away. Without an extended family it is difficult for individuals to maintain their Catholic values, find a Catholic spouse and raise a strong Catholic family.
The second massive problem for the traditional family is reproductive technology. Through artificial contraception, sterilization and abortion the human race has the means to switch off the baby machine. Likewise, through artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood, we have the means for people to produce children through methods unimagined by our grandparents.
Reproductive technology has allowed human beings to separate sexual activity from procreation. As a consequence, an increasing number of people are confused about their gender identity, uncertain about their sexual roles and unclear about the meaning and purpose of human sexuality. Extreme feminism, transgenderism and increasing homosexuality are signs of the widespread confusion and uncertainty about sexual roles.
These three factors of mobility, reproductive technology and shifting understandings of sexuality have forced ordinary Catholics to confront profound and difficult moral questions. How should the Catholic Church respond to the challenges of feminism? What is the Catholic response to persons who experience same sex attraction? How do we welcome all, while still upholding the Catholic understanding of the human person and the human family? How do we face the challenges of mobility, easy divorce, civil partnerships and the whole array of reproductive technologies?
These are challenges that the human race has never before had to encounter, and they are challenges that directly and profoundly affect the spiritual lives and destiny of ordinary Catholics. The "big picture" answer is to affirm, strengthen and build up the traditional family as a radiant example of human love and abundance. The "small picture" answer is more difficult, for it will be in the continued struggles within families, parishes, dioceses and the whole church that Catholics will discover the answers and find the courage to move forward positively and compassionately.
Aware of these profound difficulties, Pope Francis has led the Church into the battle, knowing that in the midst of a fast-changing, often chaotic and confusing modern world, the truths of the Catholic faith provide a clear light of guidance and a firm rock on which to build.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is a parish priest in South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.