Faith and family in the modern world

Starting today, Oct. 5, Catholic bishops from all over the world are congregating in Rome to discuss for the next two weeks the situation of the family in the contemporary world and the pastoral challenges this poses for the Church “in the context of evangelization.” This extraordinary synod reflects the substance and style of Pope Francis’ leadership of the Catholic Church. It is expressly consultative and collegial. And, judging from the working documents and discussion papers that have been circulated ahead of the synod, the sessions appear to throw open for discussion many Church teachings and practices that have alienated large numbers of the Catholic faithful.

Some have unfairly caricatured this gathering as the “synod for giving communion to the divorced.” But, as Francis pointed out in an interview he gave on his return flight from the Holy Land last May, the issues to be covered are deeper and broader. “Today, everyone knows it, the family is in crisis; it is in a global crisis. Young people don’t want to marry or they don’t marry but live together. Marriage is in crisis and so too the family.”

He is correct. The Church cannot stand still while the rest of the world changes. However, what form this crisis of the family takes varies in every society. The West has long had to contend with the growing number of failed marriages and divorces, and of couples who explicitly avoid the complications of marriage even as they may live together. Families in these societies have indeed shrunk considerably.

Single-person households are common, and suicides are unabated. Those who bother to get married tend to have no more than one child. Busy couples whose work takes them to different places completely forego having any children. Gay relationships are finding increasing acceptance in many families. Yet Church teachings remain intolerant of homosexual unions.

The problems of the average Filipino family are of a wholly different order. Mass poverty underlines most of these problems. Many couples form families without the benefit of marriage, not because they fear the commitments that go with marriage but because they couldn’t afford the wedding itself. Thus equated with the ritual and the wedding celebration, marital vows lose all meaning. Common-law marriages break apart as casually as they are formed.

In this context, children are not planned. They come into the family purely as a consequence of the sexual act, triggering little parental responsibility, if any, to ensure their growth. Extreme poverty forces these children to leave their homes and fend for themselves at an early age. Homeless kids roaming the streets and nomadic families living in the margins of our cities call into question not just the presence of government but, as well, of the Church.

But, neglect and abuse take many forms. Overseas employment has forced countless parents to leave their young behind. Certainly, this, too, is a form of abuse. The impact of their prolonged absence on their children’s lives is not as easily measured as the money they send home. Today, 10 million Filipinos, or roughly 10 percent of the total population, work abroad, making the Filipino nation one of the most highly dispersed in the modern world. How husbands and wives and children are able to bear the stresses of such prolonged separation is a miracle in itself. The kinds of adjustments that families make and the inventive strategies they develop to keep a semblance of wholeness across long distances are worthy of recognition. Surely, no portrayal of the situation of the family in the modern world would be complete without an account of the complex challenges that overseas Filipino workers have had to face.

It would be a pity if the bishops now meeting in Rome used their time merely to exchange notes on various pastoral approaches appropriate to a changing world, while skirting the question of the relevance of existing Church practices and teachings. The two concerns are inseparable and can only be discussed in the same breath. But this is easier said than done.

While Francis has demonstrated an uncommon boldness in opening up doctrinal questions to debate, there are many in the Church who would tread cautiously, preferring to project the Church as a beacon of certitude in a confused world rather than as a mirror of that confusion. These contradictory attitudes, I think, proceed from two divergent conceptions of the task of evangelization. The first sees evangelization as fearless engagement with a changing world through dialogue. The other views it solely as the exercise of the magisterial authority of a teaching Church.

Francis famously said: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” His greatest fear, he said, is not of being led astray as a Church, but of being shut out of the lives of its flock.

Perhaps the bishops in our country have no reason to fear the growing irrelevance of faith in the everyday lives of Filipinos. Here, the churches are full, and piety is strangely palpable even in Sunday Masses at the malls. But it would be a mistake to equate this with the community of faith that Francis is talking about. This Pope challenges us all to look more closely: “[A]t our door, people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat.’”

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