Family life isn’t perfect. Still, most of us would prefer life with our families than without them. By family, I mean the original context of persons to whom you especially belong. I also mean the people you live with now in marital, communal, or more tentative commitments. Families are built of an amalgam of materials: some parts genetic and others emotional, circumstantial, institutional, or otherwise essential. Some family members are a given when you arrive on the scene. Others are chosen later by means of affection, adoption, religious profession, tragedy, or later matrimonial blendings. Whoever composes the grouping you call family, be assured it’s unique in all the world—and blessed as it is.
Let me hasten to say Pope Francis may not share this overarching definition in his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family). Then again, maybe he does. He certainly agrees that families aren’t perfect, which he repeats many times in the document. He also emphasizes that pastors and family members alike must recognize this qualifying principle and leave any temptation to judgment at the door. The pope insists families are blessed by God no matter their composition. Family life is a school of love, and the lesson plan necessarily includes plenty of forgiveness, forbearance, and compassion.
So if your particular family doesn’t square with the ideal that was held up to you as a child of what a good Catholic home should be, give yourself a respite from the lashings. According to our tradition, revered father Abraham waits a century before receiving at the hand of God the family he longs for. And it turns out to be a twisted fabrication of his wife, Sarah, and bedded maidservant, Hagar; heirs-at-odds Ishmael and Isaac; later wife, Keturah, and six more kids who, like Ishmael, get the boot to firewall Isaac’s inheritance. Abraham’s brood is a mess of a lineage that doesn’t exactly shine like the stars in the sky. As far as you can trace the biblical generations forward—through Jacob’s swollen tentful of women and children, King David’s six wives plus Bathsheba, and Solomon’s harem of a thousand unions—the ideal family doesn’t get much play outside of the gospel triad of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And that’s not a normative nuclear family any way you look at it.
So maybe what makes a family worth fighting for isn’t entirely defined by its legitimacy in courts of law or even, dare we say, the sacramental sniff test. I’m not going to pin that assessment on Pope Francis, who does his doctrinal best to toe the line in Amoris Laetitia, affirming traditional church teaching on what composes the paradigmatic family. That being: a strong, carefully considered, sacramental union of a man and a woman open to sharing their lives with children in an exclusive, lifelong, faithful relationship. This paradigm remains powerfully clear in this and every papal teaching.
If we can bear to drop fierce political posturing for a moment, many of us might agree that the paradigmatic family, living out its commitment in tenderness and mutual respect, is a good and fruitful context on which society, until recently, has been established. One can be socially progressive, dedicated to feminism, willing to acknowledge the complexity of human sexuality and still admit this much. I grew up in such a family—more or less—and have no regrets and much gratitude for its merits. Most of my siblings attempted to re-create such a family for themselves, though several were devastated when the outcome was otherwise.
As I said, I grew up in such a family—with the caveat “more or less.” “More or less” because the pope is right in saying that no family is perfect or ideal, even when it tracks with the ideal in ways that look pretty good from the outside. The “tenderness” and “mutual respect” essential to the formula of a healthy family were not always highlighted in my Catholic home of origin. I also noted earlier that what makes a family worth fighting for isn’t “entirely” contained in legal or religious certifiability. We all know folks who can produce all the right paperwork on their domestic situations—and still reside in haunted houses filled with loneliness, malice, dread, and destruction. That’s why Pope Francis insists on the need for tenderness, kindness, and mutual respect for the dignity of all its members as signature ingredients of family life. Too often church authorities and loyal Catholics champion the forms of marriage while they turn a blind eye to its substance.
By confessing to this up front and repeatedly, Amoris Laetitia defends the traditional ideal while all but begging pastors and family members to recognize that many family structures don’t imitate it, and their members shouldn’t be punished for it. Grace filters into the cracks of every situation, no matter how off the books it may be. Believers are meant to help each other discover, celebrate, and support the holy action of grace operating in our midst. We may prefer that each family resemble a crèche scene, all “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World.” But sometimes children relate more like Cain and Abel, and the soundtrack of domestic life is more noise than hymnody. The pope suggests we spend more effort assisting and encouraging families to survive and thrive together—and less time measuring them against our protocols.
Too often church authorities and loyal Catholics champion the forms of marriage while they turn a blind eye to its substance.
Like all papal documents, Amoris Laetitia is full of biblical citations, quotes from earlier popes, and Pope Francis’ own previous proclamations. Pope Francis doesn’t remove jots and tittles from church teaching, but he does toss in surprising lines meant to rattle our presuppositions about those same teachings. As when he preemptively asserts, “Since ‘time is greater than space,’ I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” I suspect this isn’t at all clear to many parish leaders and faithful Catholics of my acquaintance.
Pope Francis adds in the same paragraph, “Every general principle . . . needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied,” adding that church leaders should feel free to apply their own good judgment and compassion to local situations. In plain English, it’s not about the law; it’s about the people. Jesus makes the same point about Sabbath observance, which sends his religious leaders into a tailspin. Amoris Laetitia has been not a little controversial for the same reason.
Pope Francis pronounced this past year as the Year of the Family, advocating a churchwide study of Amoris Laetitia. From March 2021 (the fifth anniversary of the apostolic exhortation) to June 2022, he invites us to reflect on the meaning and beauty of family relationships and consider how they build up church and society. I hope your parish has been offering homilies, study groups, evening reflections, literature, or other opportunities to consider this teaching more in depth. But I wonder if perhaps the whole Year of the Family got lost in the deep well of distraction of the pandemic. Many of us have been too busy trying to keep our families afloat in uncertain times to do much theological reflection about them.
This may be the main conclusion the pope is making: Family life is awfully important. It’s worth fighting for and definitely worth our earnest attention. A project as precious as our families might need a mission statement, and a star to steer it by.
This article also appears in the March 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 3, pages 47-49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Tyler Nix