Please Don’t Fiddle While The Family Burns: An Open Letter to the 2015 Synod on the Family

Please Don’t Fiddle While The Family Burns: An Open Letter to the 2015 Synod on the Family October 1, 2015

Image via Shutterstock.  Used with permission.
Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

The following is an article I penned for the October issue of Inside the Vatican

The upcoming 2015 Synod on the Family gives us an opportunity to ask “What does the Church need to do to support families in this post-modern age?”

During last year’s Extraordinary Synod, there was much public discussion about how the Church might respond to the needs of “irregular families”; that is, families impacted by divorce, cohabitation, etc . While this conversations is absolutely necessary, it is also 40 years too little and too late.  Now we face a more serious crisis. Namely, the world has  forgotten what constitutes the basic structures of healthy family life to the point that virtually every family is now”irregular” in one way or another.   That includes the intact, erstwhile “ideal” families that regularly attend church–87% of which never pray together even to say Grace Before Meals.  (CARA/HCFM, 2015).  These changes necessitate that the Church find radical new ways to form and support all families not just those facing special challenges.

Family Life: Then and Now

To understand why the need of all families is so great, let’s take a brief tour of family life then and now.

Throughout the 1950’s-60’s, Catholic families, like nearly 80% of all American families,  had a predominantly traditional structure. The father served as the primary breadwinner and the mother stayed at home.  Family life may not have always been as blissful as nostalgia suggests, but it was considerably more stable.  Up through the early 1970’s, the majority of married couples stayed together for life and the divorce rate was lower than 25%.  Cohabitation rates were as low as 1%.   On average, parents had about 4 children and fewer than 5% of children were born out of wedlock.  Likewise about 62% of Catholics attended Mass weekly

              The picture is remarkably different now. Today, about 48% of women have cohabited  before marrying their current spouse.  Since the advent of no-fault divorce legislation in the 1970’s the divorce rate for Catholics as a whole is similar to the general population’s which hovers between 40-50%.   In this 3rd generation of the culture of divorce, it is not unusual for a young adult to have both divorced parents and divorced grandparents with little to no personal experience of long-term, intact family life.  If there is any good news, it is that Catholic couples who attend Mass exhibit much greater marital stability than the general population (the divorce rate for weekly Mass attendees is in the 5-15% range), unfortunately, only 20% of Catholics do so.

If the overall stability of the family has changed, so has its make-up.  The size of today’s average family has shrunk 50% to about 2 children.  Roughly 41% of all children are now born to unmarried women and about half of children (44%) have a step-sibling.  In general, parents today are older, with women regularly delaying childbearing until their 30’s.  Additionally, because of both increased work opportunities for women and economic necessity, 70% mothers now work outside the home.

“Regular” AND “Irregular” Families:
Working Without A Net

             While these statistics may not be surprising, the significance of these changes with regard to evangelizing the culture is lost on many.  Because they are marinated in this cultural milieu, even intact, faithful families are negatively impacted by social changes in family dynamics.

In our post-modern world, family life has been effectively redefined as a collection of individuals living under the same roof and sharing a data plan.  Even so-called “normal” families are struggling under the weight of the divorce-culture’s expectation that extra-curricular activities should now provide the socialization and sense of meaning that family life used to impart.  Parents and children of even the healthiest families are constantly tempted to pursue activity like work, sports, and technology over emotional and spiritual intimacy through family dinners, family time, and family prayer and worship.

Formation Not Information

In past generations, it was possible to adopt a more catechetical approach to marriage and family education in the Church.  The prevailing family-friendly culture did the hard work of defining the nature and the mores of family life. With some exceptions, the Church could simply encourage families to become better at what they were already doing.  Today’s families, however, must function without either a clearly defined blueprint for a strong family life or a cultural safety net to catch them if they fall.  In fact, many social institutions are only too happy to push families off the ledge, trusting that the state will supply the parachute. Without social support and reliable parental modeling, simple catechetical/ informational approaches to family formation are doomed to fail.  Information is not enough. Actual formation, mentoring, and discipleship is needed to teach people even the basic steps of healthy family life.

Moreover, because of these cultural changes, the majority of modern families don’t have a clue as to what it means to allow their faith to impact and inform their family life. Using a merely catechetical approach to convey the ins and outs of faithful family life is like asking people to learn juggling from a textbook.

These facts necessitate a new approach to evangelizing the family that shows rather than tells the world that the Church’s vision of family life is a vital, workable, desirable, positive option to the world’s alternative of personal fulfillment though radical cultural isolation.

3 Critical Tasks

In the upcoming Synod, it is my deepest hope that, rather than merely trying to put out fires, the Synod Father will address three critical tasks.

First, the Church needs to definitively say, “this is what constitutes family life.”    Is family life, as one popular children’s program puts it, “any group of people, living together and loving each other?” and, if so, how is a family different than the Chinese orphanage my youngest daughter lived in for the first 14mos of her life where she and the other children and caregivers lived together and loved each other as well as they could?  If living together and loving each other is enough, what were they all pining for?

Just as the Church defines the word “church” (a religious body with apostolic succession) and distinguishes that term from an “ecclesial communion” (a religious body without succession) we need to define what distinguishes a “family” from other groups of people who live together and love each other.  And we need to speak to what the pastoral care of both of these social realities should entail without confusing the two.

Second, the Church needs to describe what makes the Catholic vision of family life distinct from our secular and non-Catholic counterparts.  Specifically, in what ways is a Catholic family called to be a witness and sign to other families?  If we can’t explain the unique gifts our faith brings to family life, we have no business sitting down to have this conversation at all.

And if we were to search for a “Catholic family mission statement”  I would suggest that we need look no further than Evangelium Vitae which tells us that families are called to ground their lives in the pursuit of “authentic freedom, actualized in the sincere gift of self” and to cultivate, in all their interactions, “respect for others, a sense of justice, cordial openness, dialogue, generous service, solidarity and all the other values which help people to live life as a gift” (#92).  Imagine the powerful impact such a family could have on each other’s hearts and the hearts of those who encountered them!  True, only Christ can accomplish this vision in our lives, but isn’t that the point?  Even the mere pursuitof this vision through God’s grace would be stunning enough for the world to take notice. To encounter Christians who believe in this vision of love enough to allow it to form the way they live as husband, wife, parents, and children through good times and bad, sickness and health, wealth and poverty would be a transformational experience for  families themselves and for the communities in which they lived.

Finally, the Church needs to produce guidelines that help families rediscover that family life is its own activity and not an accessory.  The Church needs to remind the world that we can’t simply “have” a family but work on everything else in our lives. Instead, we need to prioritize regular, daily and weekly appointments to work, play, talk, and pray together as a family, and schedule every other outside commitment around these rituals that represent the sacred rites of the domestic church. The family that does this is a revolutionary family that God can use to change the world.

Family Life IS the “Culture of Encounter”

If we, as Catholics, are to be successful in our mission to claim the post-modern world for Christ, we must, as Pope Francis puts it,  give the post-modern world an encounter of Christ as he lives in Catholic family life.   To that end, we need to stop acting as if the real crisis is our response to irregular families.  Having this conversation now is like trying to go find the cows 40 years after they have left the barn–while the barn itself is now on fire and in danger of burning to the ground.  The new crisis is the fact that family life, itself, has become an endangered species and that even many of the faithful don’t really know what it means to be a family much less live family life as a prophetic witness in the world.  As far as family life is concerned, Rome is on fire.  Will the Synod Fathers fiddle while the family burns? Or will they respond to the alarm?  Let us pray that they will hear the klaxons wailing loud and clear for those with ears to hear.

Dr Gregory Popcak is a counselor, professor, broadcaster and author of almost 20 books on Catholic marriage and family life.  He and his wife, Lisa were featured speakers at the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadephia.  Please visit him at

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