Synod to tackle wide range of challenges to modern families

Opinion: Complex pastoral challenges raised by cultural norms and demographic shifts

  ‘Pope Francis’s decision to go to Lampedusa early in his ministry reflected that concern, and few institutions understand better the push/pull factors that underpin forced migration, particularly in the developing world.’ Above, Pope Francis  recently  met  some migrants who survived the boat sinking on  October 3rd, 2013 off the island of Lampedusa.  Photograph: L’Osservatore Romano

‘Pope Francis’s decision to go to Lampedusa early in his ministry reflected that concern, and few institutions understand better the push/pull factors that underpin forced migration, particularly in the developing world.’ Above, Pope Francis recently met some migrants who survived the boat sinking on October 3rd, 2013 off the island of Lampedusa. Photograph: L’Osservatore Romano

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the coverage of the forthcoming synod on the family has focused on whether it will become easier for the divorced and remarried to receive communion. However, this synod concerns the entire Catholic Church, and in many places such a concern is far from being a priority.

Throughout Europe the demographic time bomb is a far more pressing issue. A 2010 labour force survey identified that only 29 per cent of households in Germany had children under 15.

No European country is replacing itself. As former United Nations chief of population estimates and projections Gerhard K Heilig has said: “If a population for generations does not replace itself through children by a large margin, something is fundamentally wrong with its social, cultural and perhaps economic system.”

Yet right across Europe, and even in the United States, women report that their ideal number of children is higher than the number of children they have. So what is going on? Has the drive to enrol women in the paid labour force, an important anti-poverty measure, resulted in the unforeseen consequence of fewer and fewer children, because juggling work and children is just so exhausting?

There are complex problems everywhere. For example, in some parts of Africa the impact of conversion to Catholicism on polygamous families is a central concern. What, in justice, should be the position of wives number two and three when the husband converts?

Many European countries, notably Germany, are becoming more and more dependent on immigration at a time when there is increasing resistance to immigrants across Europe. The church has always had a particular interest in the plight of migrants, particularly those forced to leave their own countries.

Pope Francis’s decision to go to Lampedusa early in his papacy reflected that concern, and few institutions understand better the push/pull factors that underpin forced migration, particularly in the developing world.

Poverty and unemployment are also preventing many young Europeans from founding families of their own, a very significant problem in countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.

Pastoral challenges

As the preparatory document for the Synod points out, “Even in the early Christian community the family appeared as the ‘domestic church’.” Faith is passed on in families. Without strong families the entire community is weakened, and nowhere is this more true than in the church.

New evangelisation

They have no experience of what Pope Francis describes in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei: “Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love. It assures us that this love is trustworthy and worth embracing, for it is based on God’s faithfulness which is stronger than our every weakness.”

The lack of impact of faith on everyday life is particularly noticeable in Ireland. While the census may suggest that numerically there are more Catholics than ever in Ireland, what does that mean?

Witness the outraged response and the jamming of the Liveline phones that occurs when some parish priest is foolish enough to suggest it might be better if children did not receive First Holy Communion if their parents do not have any serious intention of attending Mass regularly, much less living according to Catholic teaching.

The Catholic vision of marriage has a huge amount to offer society. The modern idea of marriage is often close to a State-sanctioned affirmation of romantic relationships. This thin and attenuated vision has far less chance of success than one which emphasises commitment and mutual sacrifice, and the intense rewards of finding a basis for marriage deeper than subjective feelings.

The challenge is to find a way of presenting that vision to Catholics who seem to have only enough religion to vaccinate them against any potentially challenging or life-altering effects of faith.

Virtually single-handedly, Pope Francis is presenting a fresh vision to those jaded people, but he can only do so much. The real challenge is to have communities which live out in messy, ordinary ways what he is presenting, and we have a long way to go before we achieve that in many of our parishes.

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