The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the context of Evangelization (2)
The Knowledge and Acceptance of the Teachings on Marriage and the Family
from Sacred Scripture and Church Documents
8. The life of the Church in these times is characterized by a widespread rediscovery of the Word of God, which has had an impact in various ways in dioceses, parishes and ecclesial communities. Many responses and observations conclude, however, that the knowledge, communication and reception of the Church’s teaching on the family takes place in a variety of ways, depending on family life, the fabric of the Church and socio-cultural factors. In places with a vibrant Christian tradition and a well-organized pastoral programme, people are responsive to the Christian doctrine on marriage and the family. In other places, many Christians, for various reasons, are found to be unaware of the very existence of this teaching.
The Knowledge of the Bible on the Family
9. Generally speaking, it can be said that biblical teaching, particularly that in the Gospels and Pauline Letters, is more extensively known today. Nevertheless, all bishops' conferences agreed that much work remains to be done if this teaching is to become the bedrock of spirituality and the Christian life, even in reference to the family. Many responses also note the faithful’s great desire to know Sacred Scripture better.
10. In this regard, the formation of the clergy stands out as particularly decisive, especially in the quality of homilies, on which the Holy Father, Pope Francis has insisted recently (cf. EG, 135-144). Indeed, the homily is a privileged means of presenting Sacred Scripture to the faithful and explaining its relevance in the Church and everyday life. As a result of preaching in a befitting manner, the People of God are able to appreciate the beauty of God’s Word which is a source of appeal and comfort for the family. In addition to the homily, another important means is the promotion, within dioceses and parishes, of programmes which help the faithful take up the Bible in a proper way. What is recommended is not so much multiplying pastoral initiatives as inserting the Bible in every aspect of existing ministerial efforts on behalf of the family. Every instance where the Church is called to offer pastoral care to the faithful in a family setting can provide an opportunity for the Gospel of the Family to be announced, experienced and appreciated.
The Knowledge of the Documents of the Magisterium
11. The People of God’s knowledge of conciliar and post-conciliar documents on the Magisterium of the family seems to be rather wanting, though a certain knowledge of them is clearly evident in those working in the field of theology. The documents, however, do not seem to have taken a foothold in the faithful’s mentality. Some responses clearly state that the faithful have no knowledge of these documents, while others mention that they are viewed, especially by lay people with no prior preparation, as rather “exclusive” or “limited to a few” and require some effort to take them up and study them. Oftentimes, people without due preparation find difficulty reading these documents. Nevertheless, the responses see a need to show the essential character of the truth affirmed in these documents.
The Necessity of Properly Prepared Clergy and Ministers
12. Some observations attribute the responsibility for this lack of knowledge to the clergy, who, in the judgment of some of the faithful, are not sufficiently familiar with the documentation on marriage and the family, nor do they seem to have the resources for development in these areas. Some observations inferred that the clergy sometimes feel so unsuited and ill-prepared to treat issues regarding sexuality, fertility and procreation that they often choose to remain silent. Some responses also voice a certain dissatisfaction with some members of the clergy who appear indifferent to some moral teachings. Their divergence from Church doctrine leads to confusion among the People of God. Consequently, some responses ask that the clergy be better prepared and exercise a sense of responsibility in explaining the Word of God and presenting the documents of the Church on marriage and the family.
A Diversified Acceptance of Church Teaching
13. A good number of episcopal conferences mention that, when the teaching of the Church is clearly communicated in its authentic, human and Christian beauty, it is enthusiastically received for the most part by the faithful. When an overall view of marriage and the family is sufficiently set forth according to tenets of the Christian faith, its truth, goodness and beauty is clearly visible. Church teaching is more widely accepted, when the faithful are engaged in a real journey of faith and are not just casually curious in what might be the Church’s thinking in the matter of sexual morality. On the other hand, many respondents confirmed that, even when the Church's teaching about marriage and the family is known, many Christians have difficulty accepting it in its entirety. Generally speaking, where certain elements of Christian doctrine, although relevant, receive treatment, in varying degrees, other elements are overlooked, e.g., birth control, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, cohabitation, fidelity, premarital sex, in vitro fertilization, etc. However, many responses recount how Church teaching on the dignity of human life and respect for human life might be more widely and readily accepted, at least in principle.
14. The observations rightly indicate the need for a greater integration of a familial spirituality and moral teaching, which would lead to a better understanding, even of the Church’s Magisterium, in the field of moral issues related to the family. Some responses note the importance of identifying elements from local cultures which can be of assistance in understanding Gospel values. Such is the case in many Asian cultures often centered on the family. In these areas, some bishops' conferences argue that it is not difficult to integrate Church teaching on the family with the social and moral values present in these cultures. At the same time, attention needs to be given to the importance of intercultural exchange in proclaiming the Gospel of the Family. Ultimately, the responses and observations call for the need of establishing real, practical formation programmes through which the truths of the faith on the family might be presented, primarily to appreciate their profound human and existential value.
Some Reasons for the Difficulty in Acceptance
15. Some episcopal conferences argue that the reason for much resistance to the Church’s teaching on moral issues related to the family is a want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level, for which no doctrinal presentation, no matter how accurate, can substitute. In this regard, some responses point to the insufficiency of pastoral activity which is concerned only with dispensing the sacraments without a truly engaging Christian experience. Moreover, a vast majority of responses highlight the growing conflict between the values on marriage and the family as proposed by the Church and the globally diversified social and cultural situations. The responses are also in agreement on the underlying reasons for the difficulty in accepting Church teaching, namely, the pervasive and invasive new technologies; the influence of the mass media; the hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; the growing secularism; the prevalence of ideas that lead to an excessive, selfish liberalization of morals; the fragility of interpersonal relationships; a culture which rejects making permanent choices, because it is conditioned by uncertainty and transiency, a veritable “liquid society” and one with a “throw away” mentality and one seeking “immediate gratification”; and, finally, values reinforced by the so-called “culture of waste” and a “culture of the moment,” as frequently noted by Pope Francis.
16. Responses from many countries recall the obstacles created by the long domination of atheistic ideologies, which have caused a general attitude of distrust in religious teaching. Other responses relate the difficulties which the Church encounters in tribal cultures and ancestral traditions where marriage is characterized very differently from the Christian view, for example, those supporting polygamy or others opposing the idea of marriage as indissoluble and monogamous. Christians living in these cultural surroundings certainly need to receive the strong support of the Church and Christian communities.
Fostering a Greater Knowledge of the Magisterium
17. Many responses voiced a need to find new ways to communicate the Church's teachings on marriage and family, which depends greatly on the vitality of the particular Church, its traditions and the effective resources at its disposal. Above all, some recognize the need of forming pastoral workers to communicate the Christian message in a culturally appropriate manner. However, almost all the responses stated that a Commission for the Pastoral Care of the Family and a Directory on the Pastoral Ministry to the Family exists at the national level. Generally speaking, the episcopal conferences offer the Church's teaching through documentation, symposia and many other initiatives. On the diocesan level, work is done by various bodies and commissions. Clearly, responses from some particular Churches reveal the burdensome situation of a lack of economic and human resources in organizing an ongoing catechesis on the family.
18. Many responses relate the critical importance of establishing relations with academic centers which are adequately and properly prepared — doctrinally, spiritually and pastorally — in family matters. Some respondents speak of the fruitfulness at the international level between centres on university campuses and dioceses — even in outlying areas of the Church — in promoting qualified formative sessions on marriage and family. An often-cited example in the responses is the collaboration with the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome which has several locations around the globe. In this regard, various episcopal conferences recall the importance of developing the insights of Pope St. John Paul II in his “theology of the body” series, in which he proposes a fruitful approach to the topics of family through existential and anthropological concerns and an openness to the new demands emerging in our time.
19. Finally, the observations insist that catechesis on marriage and family, in these times, cannot be limited exclusively to the preparation of couples for marriage. Instead, a dynamic catechetical programme is needed — experiential in character — which, through personal testimony, shows the beauty of the family as transmitted by the Gospel and the documents of the Magisterium of the Church. Long before they present themselves for marriage, young people need assistance in coming to know what the Church teaches and why she teaches it. Many responses emphasize the role of parents in the catechesis on the family. As afar as the Gospel of the Family is concerned, they have an irreplaceable role to play in the Christian formation of their children. This task calls for a thorough understanding of their vocation in passing on the Church’s teaching. Their witness in married life is already a living catechesis in not only the Church but society as well.
The Gospel of the Family and the Natural Law
The Relation of the Gospel of the Family to the Natural Law
20. Speaking of the acceptance of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family necessarily involves the subject of the natural law, which is often quoted in the Church’s magisterial documents and poses difficulties today. The large-scale perplexity surrounding the concept of the natural law tends to affect some elements of Christian teaching on the subject of marriage and the family. In fact, what underlies the relationship between the Gospel of the Family and the natural law is not so much the defense of an abstract philosophical concept as the necessary relation which the Gospel establishes with the human person in the variety of circumstances created by history and culture. “The natural law responds thus to the need to found human rights on reason and makes possible an intercultural and interreligious dialogue” (ITC, Alla ricerca di un’etica universale: nuovo sguardo sulla legge naturale, 35).
Present-Day Problems Related to the Natural Law
21. In light of what the Church has maintained over the centuries, an examination of the relation of the Gospel of the Family to the experience common to every person can now consider the many problems highlighted in the responses concerning the question of the natural law. In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible. The expression is understood in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all. Many bishops' conferences, in many different places, say that, although the spousal aspect of the relationship between man and woman might be generally accepted as an experiential reality, this idea is not interpreted according to a universally given law. Very few responses and observations demonstrated an adequate, popular understanding of the natural law.
22. The responses and observations also show that the adjective “natural” often is understood by people as meaning “spontaneous” or “what comes naturally.” Today, people tend to place a high value on personal feelings and emotions, aspects which appear “genuine” and “fundamental” and, therefore, to be followed “simply according to one’s nature.” The underlying anthropological concepts, on the one hand, look to an autonomy in human freedom which is not necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things, and, on the other hand, every human being’s aspiration to happiness, which is simply understood as the realization of personal desires. Consequently, the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. Today, in not only the West but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not “scientific.”
23. Generally speaking, the notion of “human rights” is also seen as highly subjective and a call for a person to self-determination, a process which is no longer grounded in the idea of the natural law. In this regard, many respondents relate that the legal systems in many countries are having to make laws on situations which are contrary to the traditional dictates of the natural law (for example, in vitrofertilization, homosexual unions, the manipulation of human embryos, abortion, etc.). Situated in this context is the increased diffusion of the ideology called gender theory, according to which thegender of each individual turns out to be simply the product of social conditioning and needs and, thereby, ceasing, in this way, to have any correspondence to a person’s biological sexuality.
24. Furthermore, much attention is given in the responses to the fact that what becomes established in civil law — based on an increasingly dominant legal positivism — might mistakenly become in people’s mind accepted as morally right. What is “natural” tends to be determined by the individual and society only, who have become the sole judges in ethical choices. The relativization of the concept of “nature” is also reflected in the concept of stability and the “duration” of the relationship of marriage unions. Today, love is considered “forever” only to the point that a relationship lasts.
25. If some responses refer to a lack of proper understanding of the natural law, several episcopal conferences in Africa, Oceania and East Asia, mention that, in some regions, polygamy is to be considered “natural,” as well as a husband’s divorcing his wife because she is unable to bear children — and, in some cases, unable to bear sons. In other words, from an emerging point of view, drawn from a widely diffused culture, the natural law is no longer to be considered as applicable to everyone, since people mistakenly come to the conclusion that a unique system of reference does not exist.
26. The responses point to a general belief that the distinction between the sexes has a natural foundation within human existence itself. Therefore, by force of tradition, culture and intuition, there exists the desire that the union between a man and a woman endure. The natural law is then a universally accepted “fact” by the faithful, without the need to be theoretically justified. The demise of the concept of the natural law tends to eliminate the interconnection of love, sexuality and fertility, which is understood to be the essence of marriage. Consequently, many aspects of the Church’s sexual morality are not understood today. This is also a result of a certain criticism of the natural law, even by a number of theologians.
Practical Objections to the Natural Law concerning the Union between a Man and a Woman
27. Given the lack of reference to the natural law by many academic institutions today, major complaints result from the extensive practice of divorce, cohabitation, contraception, procedures of artificial procreation and same-sex unions. Other complaints against the natural law come from the poorest areas and those least influenced by western thought — especially some African states — which cite the phenomena of machismo, polygamy, marriages between teens and preteens, and divorce in cases of sterility or a lack of a male heir, as well as incest and other aberrant practices.
28. Nearly all the responses as well as observations relate an increasing number of cases of “blended” families, especially because of the presence of children from different partners. Western society is now witnessing many cases in which children, in addition to their being with separated and divorced parents who might or might not be remarried, find themselves with grandparents in the same situation. Moreover, in Europe and North America in particular (but also among some countries in South Asia), the instances of couples or single persons, who lack a mentality of an openness to life, are increasing; single parenthood is also on the rise. A dramatic increase can also be seen on these same continents in the age at which people decide to wed. Many times, especially in northern Europe and North America, children are considered a hindrance to the well-being of the individual and the couple.
29. Some responses, particularly in parts of Asia, point to a willingness, on the civic level, to recognize so-called “multi-personal” unions between individuals of different sexual orientations and sexual identities, based simply on personal needs and on individual and subjective necessities. In short, this tendency accentuates the absolute right to personal freedom without any compromise: people are “formed” on the basis of their individual desires only. What is increasingly judged to be “natural” is more of a reference-to-self only, when it comes to their desires and aspirations. This situation is heavily influenced by the mass media and by the lifestyles of some people in sports and entertainment. These aspects are exerting influence even in countries with traditional family cultures which seem, until now, to have exercised great resistance in the matter (Africa, Middle East and South-Central Asia).
A Call for a Renewal in Terms of Language
30. The language traditionally used in explaining the term “natural law” should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner. In particular, the vast majority of responses and an even greater part of the observations request that more emphasis be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and recommend greater reference to the Bible, its language and narratives. In this regard, respondents propose bringing the issue to public discussion and developing the idea of biblical inspiration and the “order in creation,” which could permit a re-reading of the concept of the natural law in a more meaningful manner in today’s world (cf. the idea of the law written in the human heart in Rm 1:19-21; 2:14-15). Moreover, this proposal insists on using language which is accessible to all, such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy. The recommendation was also made to engage young people directly in these matters.
(to be continued)
You can also read: