Faith in the family - Madonna Magazine

Faith in the family

Andrew Hamilton SJ 10 March 2017

The Synod on the Family, which may have begun and even concluded by the time you read this article, has caused a stir. Bishops have publicly differed about some topics to be discussed in it, priests have taken up petitions, and journalists wondered if it might divide the Church. If family life is a happy topic, the Synod has strangely put frowns on many faces. Why is this so?

The reason lies in two aspects of the Synod that are in tension with one another. The Synod was summoned by Pope Francis, who clearly rests great weight on it. It is conducted over two sittings, and Pope Francis has left the deliberations and conclusions of the Synod to the participants. But he has emphasised that the Synod should be marked by compassion and should reach out to those on the edge of the Church.

The emphasis on reaching out is in some tension with the topic of the Synod. The building block of the church is families, and particularly married couples, who are united in faith, are duly married in the church, pray and participate in Sunday Mass with their children, and remain faithful to one another. To encourage such families and to hold up the ideal of family life to Catholics is important for the growth and strength of Catholic life. Some fear that in reaching out without judgment the Synod may compromise the demanding teaching of the Church on the family.

The challenge facing the Synod is simultaneously to strengthen the faith of devout Catholic families by confirming the goodness of and blessing their commitment to family life, and to go out without judging to people who live outside such families. They include people, particularly in Latin America, who live together without being married or who have married outside the church, gay couples and people who have been divorced and remarried.


The tension between the inner focus and the movement to welcome people on the edge is sharpened by the rapid change in marriage customs in the Western world and its churches. In Australia many people live together without marrying. Single parent families and unmarried couples are very common. The proportion of people who have married in a Christian ceremony is very small. And many of these marriages have ended in divorce and the remarriage of one or both partners.

This changing situation underlies the current dispute in Western societies about legalising same sex marriage. Given the small proportion of people who are married in church, same sex marriage can hardly be seen as a unique threat to Christian marriage. But it shows how large is the gap between the Christian understanding of marriage and the varied forms of relationship that our contemporaries see as equivalent to it.

The tension between going out to people on the edge of church and nurturing the families who are its core is expressed in the debate whether divorced and remarried people should be allowed to receive communion. To go out to people and to say to them, ‘We welcome you back as our brothers and sisters; but of course you must not receive communion, the deepest sign of being brothers and sisters in Christ’, gives a double message, not one of simple welcome. That is why Pope Francis would like to find a way that both allows people who are marginalised in the church to receive Communion and respects Catholic teaching.

At one level Pope Francis’ approach to the family is very traditional. He is above all a good pastor. He sees families as the heart of the Catholic Church, and when he speaks directly to them in his audiences and homilies, he shows that he knows the ordinary challenges and joys of married couples and of families. He does not have an idealised image of family life but speaks of the difficulties involved in supporting and educating children, and of the influences of the culture we live in. He encourages them to live the Gospel and through their family life to come close to Jesus. His priority is not to insist on Catholic teaching about the family and to warn against relationships that fall short of the ideal, but to encourage people to give themselves happily and generously to one another.

Pope Francis is original in tucking the care for family life into a wider concern: bringing the Good News of Jesus to people who are marginalised in the Catholic Church and society. If we are to speak to people about Good News, we must be joyful and accepting when we welcome them. If we judge them for their sinfulness and scold them for their shortcomings, we shall be bearers of sour news. So he wants the Synod to reflect on the family as part of its reaching out with Good News to people at the edge.

This way of looking at things does not simply affect the Synod. It can also change the way we look at the family. We shall not regard the Christian family primarily as a jewel that we must protect against people who wish to steal it from us and against all the things that will corrode it. Nor shall we spend our time warning people against the fake jewellery that is on display and against people who spruik the imitations as if they were the real thing.

Pope Francis wants us to see the family as like a mango tree that can be put to work to provide shelter for passers-by, fruit for the hungry, wood for building and burning, and joy to the onlooker. If people are to find the Good News and compassion of Jesus, where better to find it than in Catholic families that welcome them? The question Pope Francis asks us is not how to save our souls by keeping the faith, but how to bring the Good News by sharing the joy of the Gospel with others


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