What is the theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate? It’s the family.
It is a great mistake, I think, to sell Pope Francis short when he does not say exactly what we wish he would say. I’ve written about this before. (See, for example, How do we react when the Pope fails to express our top concerns? in January and Pope Francis: Get it? Got it? Good! in June.) It is reasonable to be disappointed, within due limits, if the Pope does not take advantage of what appears to be an obvious opportunity to make an important point. But let’s be honest: It is spiritually immature—not to mention a scandal to others—to respond derisively or dismissively to the Holy Father.
Among the many comments I’ve read about the points Pope Francis has made during his visit to the United States, I have seen few which attempted to place his remarks in the context of the overarching themes of his pontificate. The focus always seems to be on whether Pope Francis won or lost this particular round, and especially on whether the Pope’s strategy on this occasion was good or bad, and whether he has revealed a failure or a weakness. That sort of commentary has some value, but it can be terribly self-centered and, even if it isn’t, it is likely to be myopic, missing the big picture.
Concerning his visit to the United States, then, let us begin by taking the Pope at his word when he said before Congress that:
It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.
The further along the Pope got in his visit, particularly in New York and Philadelphia, he delivered repeatedly on this promise, offering a profoundly Christian vision of the family:
From time immemorial, in the depths of our heart, we have heard those powerful words: it is not good for you to be alone. The family is the great blessing, the great gift of this “God with us”, who did not want to abandon us to the solitude of a life without others, without challenges, without a home….
As Christians, we appreciate the beauty of the family and of family life as the place where we come to learn the meaning and value of human relationships. We learn that “to love someone is not just a strong feeling – it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise” (Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving). We learn to stake everything on another person, and we learn that it is worth it.
Jesus was not a confirmed bachelor, far from it! He took the Church as his bride, and made her a people of his own. He laid down his life for those he loved, so that his bride, the Church, could always know that he is God with us, his people, his family. We cannot understand Christ without his Church, just as we cannot understand the Church without her spouse, Christ Jesus, who gave his life out of love, and who makes us see that it is worth the price.
These extracts are from the official text of the Pope’s talk at the Prayer Vigil for the Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on September 26th. (Note: I have quoted the Pope's speech as published by the Vatican for the occasion, even though the Pope, as he often does, deviated from his prepared text to speak less formally at the actual event.)
Who can doubt that the family—created, formed, redeemed and strengthened by Christ—lies at the heart of this pontificate? Francis decided to focus so much on the family that he made it the central purpose of not one but two major synods (the second one coming up in October), ensuring that this subject would dominate Catholic discussions for a period of two to three years. In the year between the synods, he used his Wednesday general audiences to offer an extended catechesis on the family, which he completed earlier this month.
And when he came to consider a visit to the most powerful country in the world, why did he come when he did? Because the World Meeting of Families was taking place in Philadelphia at this time.
Pope Francis sees all too clearly the widespread destruction of families. The particular agents of this destruction all stem from the modern rejection of nature as a gift from the Creator, to which the proper responses are gratitude and good stewardship. Instead, we too often instrumentalize nature, seeing it not as a “given” but as material to be manipulated to create imagined “realities”, to erect false castles of individual selfishness.
This, for example, is the message that lies at the heart of Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si'. The Pope teaches that the technocratic instrumentalization of nature results in not only massive environmental destruction, but the destruction of our very selves: sex-change operations, contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, gay marriage, domestic violence, child abuse, and the general desire to inhabit a soul-sapping and counterfeit world in which pleasure is always perverted and genuine happiness inevitably lost.
Drawing partly from key thinkers in the Orthodox Churches, Francis has considerably deepened Catholic reflection on nature as a whole. He sees that just as a proper response to God engenders a coherent and positive response to all of Creation, so too will a proper reception of nature assist us in responding properly to God—the loving Father who gives good gifts to His children. Clearly, he sees environmental concerns as a kind of bridge to a deeper understanding of all of reality, with family questions at the center.
In fact, nearly all of the broader social issues Pope Francis speaks about are those which he believes most adversely affect the family: immigration problems, environmental depredation, unemployment, poverty, human trafficking, and the general division of the world into “haves” and “have nots”, where the rich destroy not only their own families, through a chronic selfishness which kills the soul, but also the families of the poor, through this same chronic selfishness which excludes them from the goods necessary to keep body and soul—and family—together.
In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict showed the deep connections between what we call the “life issues” and the “social issues”. Referring to them as “sexual” and “social” might serve better to highlight their intimate connection (I use the term “intimate” advisedly). In any case, Pope Francis understands that all of these issues appear with a human face in the family. And no matter how hard we may try, in the family they cannot be separated completely.
A Vital Context
Of course, nobody speaks only of one thing, and I do not mean to argue that Pope Francis never says anything without the family in mind. But if we keep the family in mind—marriage, children, nuclear families, broken families, suffering families, counterfeit families, extended families, the family of grace created by Our Lord’s espousal of the Church as His Bride, nations which inescapably live or die based on the health of their families, and even the international possibilities of a network of families reaching across barriers to support each other—if we keep the family in mind, I suggest we will frequently make much better sense of this Pope’s message.
We do not have to like everything about any pope. My life has spanned the pontificates of Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis. At one time or another I have stared open-mouthed at each, unable to do anything but scratch my head (though only in retrospect for Pius XII, as I was just ten years old when he died). Each pontiff in his turn “failed” to recognize something that was absolutely clear—indeed, blazingly obvious—to me.
Sometimes I may even have been right. Popes are, after all, human, like me. But I’m very glad I never stopped trying to internalize the central message of each one. So let us take very seriously the central message of Pope Francis. For him, thus far, the family is priority one. And this means all families: Not just those “others” out there—the ones with the problems we see so clearly—but also yours and mine.
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Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Sep. 30, 2015 2:28 PM ET USA
christhavemercy821235: You raise a good question, but I'm not sure where you drew your conclusion about what Benedict said. In fact, in his address to the Roman Rota on January 26, 2013, Benedict precisely raised the question of the extent to which lack of faith could vitiate the marriage bond. He outlined several ways in which lack of faith could bear upon the question, and recommended further study.
Posted by: christhavemercy821235 -
Sep. 29, 2015 5:59 PM ET USA
How about the Holy Father's "lack of faith" as the new ground for declaration of nullity? Pope Benedict XVI specifically said that can not be the ground for nullity in his teaching to the Roman Rota. The Church has always used the same standard as everyone else when it comes to the giving consent to a marriage, one does not need to even have Catholic faith to give consent to a marriage. Or are we misunderstanding Pope Francis? Catholic Answers and the Primate of England consider it new ground.
Posted by: Minnesota Mary -
Sep. 29, 2015 5:59 PM ET USA
I would like to rope and hogtie the Pope, all the Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, and other religious persons, and force them to sit through the movie "Grandma," starring Lily Tomlin and Sam Elliot, to see what is billed as a typical American family. Then, after the movie, a discussion of the movie should be held to answer the question, "Why do we have families like this?" This should be done before the Synod on the Family in Rome in October before they discuss tolerance, mercy and Communion.