The recent Sochi Olympics offered a clear picture of how drastically the cultural image of a family has changed.
The television advertisements by Coca Cola and by Chevrolet pictured families with a varied number of parents in assorted combinations of genders. It is telling that these companies felt that highlighting same-sex couples with children as a normal variant of the family would enhance the appeal of their products.
NBC, the major television network broadcasting the games, kept up a steady stream of pro-homosexual programming: from host Bob Costa’s tirade in support of gay rights to the nightly appearance of self-avowed homosexual Johnny Weir, flamboyantly dressed to highlight his homosexuality.
And finally, in case there was any doubt as to NBC’s view of the family, NBC sports writer Skyler Wilder characterized gold medal skier David Wise as living an “alternative lifestyle” because he is happily married with a two-year-old daughter. Such an overt celebration of homosexuality would have been unthinkable a mere four years ago at the Vancouver Olympics.
United States President Barack Obama seeks to codify these cultural shifts into international law. His administration tried to delete language in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights that construed the family as the union of a man and woman as normative. Instead, they hoped to replace it with a more amorphous definition of the family that stressed the “diverse forms and functions” of families and the “diversity of individual preferences”. It was clear that this was an attempt to validate same-sex unions as a fundamental human right. Fortunately, this move was thwarted and rejected by UN member states.
In contrast to those trying to pervert the definition of marriage and family, there are those who find the whole institution of marriage and family irrelevant. United States Congressman Nancy Pelosi made headlines when she suggested there was really no reason for anyone to get married. Her statement reflects the views of many in the United States, as well as in Europe, where marriage rates are plummeting while out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing. In 2010 in the United States, 40% of all births were to unwed mothers. When this was broken down according to race, 53% of all Hispanic births and 73% of all African American births are to single mothers. Europe is seeing similar numbers with 35% of all children born out of wedlock in 2008, double the rate from two decades ago.
This rejection of the traditional family has taken its toll on the culture of life. Instead of seeing marriage as a vocation and a pathway to service, modern society views marriage as one of many avenues for individual pleasure. Children are no longer seen as the purpose of marriage but as an optional accessory to adult relationships. Instead of children being an integral part of marriage and a gift of life to be cherished, they are treated as commodities acquired for the benefit of adults. This attitude shift began with society’s embrace of contraception to prevent pregnancy, but then expanded to include abortion when children interfered with adult desires.
It is against this backdrop of both a movement to redefine marriage as well as a cultural rejection of the intrinsic link between marriage and children that Pope Francis has called both the laity and clergy to renew evangelization efforts with regards to the Church teachings on marriage and family. He has called an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to be held in October, 2014. The theme of this gathering will be, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi explained that it is critical that the Church moves forward as one community when it comes to pastoral care of the family. This is an important opportunity to get everyone on the same page.
This is not a gathering convened to change teachings. Rather it is an opportunity to frame the teachings in a way that reaches those who have yet to appreciate their truths. The Church’s teachings on marriage and family are so much more than a mere laundry list of prohibitions and arbitrary rules. Instead they are an invitation to align our human relationships with the natural order as designed by God so that we can experience the fullness of love for which God created us.
The challenge for this upcoming synod will be to present the teachings of the Church in ways that convey love, mercy, and joy. By including “evangelical context” in the title of this synod, Pope Francis has explicitly told the bishops that just clarifying the Church teaching on family is not enough. They must also persuade.
Pope Francis also does not intend for the synod to be a top-down affair. He wrote an open letter to all Catholics asking for prayerful support of the synod. He expects the lay faithful to be actively engaged in this evangelical effort. He writes:
“Such support on your part, dear families, is especially significant and more necessary than ever. This Synodal Assembly is dedicated in a special way to you, to your vocation and mission in the Church and in society; to the challenges of marriage, of family life, of the education of children; and the role of the family in the life of the Church. I ask you, therefore, to pray intensely to the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit may illumine the Synodal Fathers and guide them in their important task.”
The defense of life and the defense of marriage and family are intertwined. Life flourishes when children are cherished as generous gifts from God instead of as strategic acquisitions. Family life lived as a vocation of total self-giving welcomes the infirm, the disabled, and the elderly family members with generosity and love. They are not seen as burdensome or disposable.
Pope Francis is calling this synod on the family to renew and reclaim this ideal image of the family, but he is tasking the bishops and us with even more. Many families fall short of this ideal in some way. The Holy Father likens the Church to a field hospital, and with the upcoming synod he focuses on those patients whose families are broken and hurting. He asks clergy and laity alike to reach out and welcome these families so that they too can experience the mercy and love of Christ.
Every life has dignity and inestimable worth, not just perfect lives. So let us respond to Pope Francis’s request with ardent prayers for the success of the synod. Strengthening marriage and the family is the cornerstone for building a culture of life.