How Pope Francis Is Rebuilding the Family
Weeks from Pope Francis's arrival in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, he finds himself caught in a crossfire.
His announcement that he has granted all priests full faculties to absolve the sin of abortion -- something which is usually reserved to bishops alone -- during the forthcoming Year of Mercy has provoked a flurry of interest among journalists who normally show little interest in Catholic confession practices. Once again Francis has managed to scandalize some by what they consider his lenient notion of mercy and others by clearly affirming traditional Catholic beliefs: namely, in this case, that abortion is so grave a sin that it requires special forgiveness.
But it is precisely this combination of limitless mercy and firm adherence to fundamental Catholic teaching which is key to understanding Francis's moral teaching, particularly on the family and marriage.
When he calls for mercy for those alienated from the Church, he is accused of diluting traditional doctrines on marriage and family. When he critiques the "ideological colonization" of gay marriage and gender ideology, or reaffirms marriage as for life, he is charged with failing those most in need of compassion.
A half-million-strong petition of Catholics recently called for him to clarify his support for church teaching while recently the New York Times published a summary of his quotes over the past two years under the headline, "Pope Francis's mixed messages on sexuality."
But through the lens of the Gospel, there is nothing mixed about them. When Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery, he didn't overlook her sin -- and called her to conversion. But at the same time, he saw her as a victim in need of liberation and healing. Pope Francis is inviting the Church -- above all in the synod process that concludes next month -- to live in that tension. For many, it is a deeply uncomfortable experience.
The Pope did not speak during last year's Synod to ensure participants could do so freely. But afterwards, he described the Church as "the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people's wounds, who doesn't look down on humanity from a castle of glass in order to judge or classify people." He told the synod fathers to avoid two dangers: on the one hand, "hostile inflexibility" and legalism; on the other, a "deceptive mercy" that "binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them, that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots."
His Wednesday audiences, as well as his trips abroad, have offered pointers as to how to overcome these dangers.
In a January address to the Meeting of Families in Manila he decried the "ideological colonization" threatening the family, and praised his predecessor Paul VI, whom he had recently beatified in Rome, for his courage and prophetic vision in defending openness to life in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. In the country with the largest Catholic population in Asia, Pope Francis called on strong families to overcome the external threats presented by ideologies such as the contraceptive mentality or same-sex marriage.
He returned to the subject in April when he critiqued the idea that gender is a fluid social construct. "I ask myself if the so-called gender theory is not, at the same time, an expression of frustration and resignation, which seeks to cancel our sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it...The removal of difference in fact creates a problem, not a solution." He reiterated that critique in Laudato Si, stating that "valuing one's own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different."
In May the Pope reflected on why young people were no longer getting married, why it was that many preferred cohabitation with "limited responsibility." He has often proposed to them the adventure of commitment.
But he is not seeking restorationism. In his message for the annual World Communications Day on the theme of the family he ended with the words: "We are not fighting to defend the past. Rather, with patience and trust, we are working to build a better future for the world in which we live." Pope Francis is not idealizing the family of the past, but seeking to promote strong families in our contemporary context.
This context, however, includes ever increasing numbers who have divorced and remarried outside the Church. "How do we help these families," he asked. "How do we accompany them?"
The Church is "fully aware" that such couples are outside the boundaries of the sacraments. But it isn't enough to remain there. The Church's "gaze as teacher always draws from the mother's heart," he went on, spelling out that people in such situations are not excommunicated and should never be treated as such, but always welcome, for their sake and the sake of their children.
Is this a mixed message? Addressing the cardinals in February, Francis contrasted two religious mentalities: those who fear to lose the saved, and those who seek to save the lost. For Francis, it is clear that Jesus was always interested in saving, not simply in preserving.
The Pope sees the collapse of the family across the Western world and cannot stand by. The family, he said in Guayaquil, Ecuador, is "the nearest hospital, the first school for the young, the best home for the elderly. The family constitutes the best 'social capital.' It cannot be replaced by other institutions."
Rebuilding the family is never going to happen as long as the Church concentrates simply on preserving and protecting families within the fold. It must reach out beyond the boundaries, inviting people back. It must become the driver of the reinvigoration of commitment and marriage -- between a man and a woman, for life and open to children.
That renewal begins with helping each family, one at a time, opening up paths to allow as many as possible to return to the life of the parish, and, where possible, to the sacraments. This is a passionate task in which lay people in particular are called to take a front-line role.