This is the third post in Political Theology Today’s symposium on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, on marriage and the family. The first two posts can be found here and here. Future posts will be published on Wednesdays and Fridays in the upcoming weeks.
Pope Francis is beloved by many because he locates the heart of Christian faith in justice and care for the most vulnerable, including the very poor and the earth itself. While his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI also made major contributions to Catholic social thought, Francis has managed to shift the narrative of Catholic presence in the world from “private” to “public.” Both in his actions and his public statements, his focus on social justice has been extraordinarily consistent and powerful.
Yet he chose to utilize the powerful instrument of the synod to bring attention not to poverty or environmental destruction but to the family.
Unlike much of mainstream political thought, Catholic social thought (CST) connects family, community, and politics. In this light, a synod on the family is not inconsistent with a strong focus on social justice. In CST, family is called the “first cell” of society, a “school of deeper humanity,” and the “domestic church.” Like the larger church, the family has a social mission. It plays a key role in stabilizing the social order, forming virtuous citizens, and contributing to a more just and peaceful world. Families also have rights to a society that enables their flourishing. As I have argued elsewhere, these connections between family and society have marked CST from its very beginnings.
Many hoped that the “social justice” pope would amplify the existing connections in CST between family and society by drawing attention to social forces that tear families apart and by calling families to focus less on themselves and more on those in need. Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) makes some moves in this direction, but contributes less than do other key Catholic social documents such as the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes (1965) and John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (1981).
Gaudium et Spes situates the family in the context of the opening of the church to the modern world. The family is the first of five dimensions of the modern world to be considered. The document moves outward from family to culture, to economic and social life, to national politics, and finally to international relations. When family is called a “school for deeper humanity” and “the foundation of society” (#52), and placed in fundamental relation to other spheres of society, the public significance of love and care are underlined.
Familiaris Consortio continues this trajectory, announcing itself as an exhortation “on the role of the Christian family in the modern world.” Its structure, too, is important. John Paul II gives families four tasks: building a communion of love, serving life, participating in the development of society, and contributing to the mission of the Church (#17).
In his description of this third task, the connection between family and society could hardly be stronger. John Paul II insists, “Far from being closed in on itself, the family is by nature and vocation open to other families and to society, and undertakes its social role” (#42). He talks about how families have an indispensable role as a humanizing influence and claims that family is where most learn about “relationships marked by respect, justice, dialogue, and love” (#43). Though raising children is a crucial dimension of the family’s work, “the social role of the family cannot stop short at procreation and education” (#44). The pope calls families to political involvement (#47-48), cites the Charter on the Rights of the Family to make the point that families need and deserve social support (#48), and calls the Church to respond to the needs of families in difficult circumstances, such as migrants, those who are incarcerated, the homeless, and refugees (#77).
In contrast, Amoris Laetitia is an exhortation not on the role of families in the world, but “on love in the family.” Its primary contribution, which is considerable, is its call to married couples to persist in married love through time. It takes up important questions—“Why get married? Why stay married?”— and provides better answers than any other official Catholic teaching on marriage.
Yet it is surprising that the global reach of the synod combined with the pope’s strong condemnations of aspects of the modern economy did not move Catholic teaching much further along in its thinking on the relationship between family and society.
Attention to social structures that harm families is evident in section two on “Experiences and Challenges of the Family,” and includes acknowledgement of financial instability, lack of decent housing, migration, poverty, and work-related stress. Still, there is far less emphasis here than one would hope for. The response to these challenges is pastoral mercy and accompaniment, both of which are crucial. Yet sections three and four, on “The Vocation of the Family” and “Love in Marriage,” seem relatively untouched by encounter with the struggles of families. How can we can we allow the realities of racism, incarceration, migration, and poverty to penetrate our theological and ethical thinking about family?
The most promising section of AL is section five, “Love Made Fruitful.” Here, much like Margaret Farley, the pope offers an expansive understanding of the fruitfulness that is an essential mark of family life. Families are called to “go forth from their homes in a spirit of solidarity with others,” to become “more than just two” (#181). They are to allow scriptural passages such as Matthew 25:40, Luke 14:12-14, and 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34 to shape their home, their feasts, and their way of being in the world (#183-86). There is beautiful language here, but we are left without much direction, and then Francis moves on to other topics. What would it mean to be a family like that?
Catholic teaching on family is at its most prophetic when it points to how society limits or enlarges the possibilities of families and when it stresses that love is not meant to be insular but overflowing. AL echoes the tradition in recognizing the struggles families face and calling them to more, but its emphasis on fidelity and mercy limits its ability to extend what is perhaps the greatest strength of Catholic family ethics. We need more reflection on how family struggles might transform our notions of what families are in themselves and what it means to be for “the family.” We need the radical message to which Francis is calling individuals to penetrate more deeply the more domesticated image of family that is more popular and more familiar, but less central to the gospel.
Julie Hanlon Rubio is Professor of Christian Ethics at St. Louis University, where she teaches courses in sex and gender, and faith and politics. Her new book Hope for Common Ground: Mediating the Personal and the Political in a Divided Church was recently published by Georgetown University Press. She is also the author of Family Ethics: Practices for Christians (Georgetown UP, 2010).