Pope Francis and Domestic Abuse Awareness: An Anniversary Reflection

Pope Francis and Domestic Abuse Awareness: An Anniversary Reflection March 10, 2023

Pope Francis greets reporters
(Alfredo Borba, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Although a great deal of faithful Catholics don’t agree with a many of the stances and statements Pope Francis makes, in regards to exposing the evils of domestic abuse, he’s done an excellent job.

On the 10th year anniversary of his papacy, now is the perfect time to recall some of the firm proclamations he’s made regarding the horror of violence within the home.

Pope Francis has been one of the most outspoken Catholic leaders regarding the evils of domestic abuse and the dire need for awareness. Other popes have alluded to the dignity of women, in particular St. Pope John Paul II who wrote extensively on the topic. For example, in Mulieris Dignitatem he stated,

The matrimonial union requires respect for and a perfecting of the true personal subjectivity of both [spouses] … The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her “fulfilment” as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the “image and likeness of God” that is specifically hers … Whenever man is responsible for offending a woman’s personal dignity and vocation, he acts contrary to his own personal dignity and vocation.

Despite the hesitation of so many faithful Catholics regarding the papacy of Francis, it’s only with his pontificate that the topic of domestic violence has been brought up with frequency and in a more overt ways within the Church.

I first became aware of how vocal Pope Francis has been on the topic of domestic abuse through the exceptional work of Dr. Christauria Welland and her non-profit organization, Pax in Familia. With a doctorate in clinical psychology, Dr. Welland is a specialist in intimate partner violence and has been foremost in domestic violence education within the Church for decades.

The second edition of her book, How Can We Help to End Violence in Catholic Families? A Guide for Clergy, Religious and Laity is full of healing and inspiring quotes from a variety of Church sources including biblical references, statements of the USCCB, and frequent mention made by past popes such as St. John Paull II and Benedict XVI. Drawn together, her book is not only about awareness and how to help educate Catholic leaders about the epidemic of domestic abuse, but she also reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). This means that we have to love ourselves as much as we love others.

However, the one person Dr. Welland quotes the most is Pope Francis—and there’s a reason for that.

On September 7, 2013—within months after being elected to the papacy—during the Vigil of Prayer for Peace held in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, Pope Francis stated:

How I wish that all men and women of good would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken. This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace! Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation.

Two months later, in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he pointed out:

In the case of the popular cultures of Catholic peoples, we can see deficiencies which need to be healed by the Gospel: machismo, alcoholism, domestic violence … and the like.

This obviously isn’t a new teaching within the Church. The early Church Father John Chrysostom, who lived in the fourth century, spoke extensively on the book of Ephesians. In his homily on Ephesians 5 he said:

The partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband himself enjoy, if he dwells with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free-woman?

In 1992 the USCCB issued a document entitled, “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence” which clearly states, “violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage.” This seminal document, updated in 2002, provides the clearest framework for the Catholic response to domestic violence and how abuse is never to be tolerated, in any situation.

Even so, hearing this message again and again is an essential element in domestic violence awareness. It’s also important to remember that violence isn’t limited to physical actions. Domestic abuse encompasses a wide range of actions and attitudes including coercive control, emotional mistreatment, verbal abuse, psychological manipulations, spiritual manipulation, and financial domination.

In 2016 Pope Francis wrote:

If we must fight evil, so be it; but we must always say ‘no’ to violence in the home.

He also firmly stated:

I think particularly of the shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected, domestic violence and various forms of enslavement which, rather than a show of masculine power, are craven acts of cowardice. The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.

And he’s still at it. As recently as March of 2023 Pope Francis stated in a prayer intention for abuse victims:

The Church cannot hide abuse, no matter where it occurs, but instead must serve as a model in its response to abuse – including by shining a light on the issue of abuse in society and in families. As part of that response, the Church must also offer safe spaces for victims to be heard, supported psychologically, and protected.

Despite so much controversy regarding the papacy of Francis, I will openly and happily admit that Pope Francis has one thing right.

Any and all forms of abuse are evil and need to be exposed to the light. End of story.

A Catholic's Guide to Domestic Abuse

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