If there’s a crisis in Catholic marriage and family life today, the solution will come not solely from the higher echelons of the Church. The active involvement of faithful couples will also be needed. That’s the view of a lay official of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), looking ahead to the synod of bishops at the Vatican in October. Summoned by Pope Francis, the meeting will deal with issues related to marriage and family today.
“It is not only a question of the Church in service to families but also a question of families in service to the Church and her mission of evangelization,” said Andrew W. Lichtenwalner, executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. “The pastoral outreach to the family must involve marriages and families as agents of that outreach.”
“Christian families that live their identity as a domestic Church,” he said, “become schools of love and a locus of redemption.”
The theme of the October meeting, known formally as an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, is “the pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelization.”
The U.S. bishops, too, have responded to modern challenges, Lichtenwalner said, citing a variety of programs the USCCB has initiated, including a National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage, the For Your Marriage campaign and a Pastoral Letter on Marriage.
The attractive For Your Marriage website (also available in Spanish) has been especially effective, with advice articles and video content for couples at all stages of marriage. There’s counsel for those facing challenges such as discerning marriage with a particular person, sexual compatibility, taking children to Mass and infidelity.
With an ongoing attempt to legally redefine marriage, the bishops’ Marriage: Unique for a Reason initiative is promoting and defending the institution. Part of that effort is a call to prayer for life, marriage and religious liberty. Through Facebook and other means, the bishops are asking the faithful to participate in a variety of ways, such as praying a daily rosary and abstaining from meat or fasting on Fridays.
The bishops’ point man on defending the institution of marriage, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, recently urged participants in the Walk for Life West Coast to be pro-life by defending not only the sanctity of the life of the unborn but also the traditional understanding of marriage.
“The pro-life movement is about more than saving the life of the baby,” he said, “It’s especially about connecting that baby to where he or she came from: the mother and the father. There is no other institution that does that.”
In addition to the pastoral letter and the For Your Marriage website, the USCCB developed an NFP Program that promotes “the beauty of conjugal love and responsible parenthood,” Lichtenwalner said, and approved the development of a statement on pornography, “which is such a pervasive problem for marriages and families.”
Trickle Down Theology
Yet given the distractions of popular culture, is anyone listening?
Yes, says Christine Codden, director of Office of Marriage and Family in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., and a USCCB consultant. It might be “trickle-down theology,” but it will trickle down. Efforts to rebuild a culture of marriage and the family will take time, patience, and perseverance, Lichtenwalner admitted.
The USCCB wants to increase awareness of the “gift and responsibility of marrying in the Church,” according to Bethany J. Meola, who works in Lichtenwalner’s office as assistant director. This can happen in a number of ways, including educating young people about the meaning and beauty of marriage as a vocation and sacrament and the importance of getting married in the Church; providing high-quality marriage preparation programs that explain the importance of being married in the Church and help married couples embrace the vocation of marriage; and equipping pastors to find and help invalidly married couples navigate the Church’s tribunals and help them strive for holiness when a marital situation cannot be regularized.
If there are enough problems for the Synod of Bishops to focus on this fall, Lichtenwalner said, there are also plenty of positive developments to acknowledge. He noted that many challenges in the culture today can be linked to a crisis of faith.
“Statistics seem to bear out the correlation between healthy and strong marriages and families and the regular practice of faith,” he said. “Certainly, our culture is in need of healing and renewal in various areas, but there are signs of hope already, especially in those marriages and families who are striving to live their faith, trusting in the Lord in the midst of joys and sorrows and providing a credible witness of love. This is the work of God’s grace and our graced cooperation with it.”