Update from the World Meeting of Families

World-Meeting-of-Families-Logo Resized

By Jake Kohlhaas

Tens of thousands have descended on the city of Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and many more will be arriving as Pope Francis’ visit to the city draws near. Already the crowd is large, and the visible security increases daily. But the mood is warm, welcoming, and friendly. The employees at the convention center, historic landmarks, and Center City restaurants have been exceptionally friendly and patient even as the chaos of the Pope’s visit looms on the horizon. The crowd at the WMF includes a large number of priests and religious as well as many brave parents with children in tow.  Despite the crowded streets and hallways, a feeling of hospitality prevails.

I am attending with a small cadre of students and fellow faculty members. As we near the conclusion of the meeting, the students have now grown comfortable navigating the meeting and disappear for hours only to emerge with stories of their adventures and discoveries. The excitement of these young people as they encounter often beautiful presentations of the Church’s teaching is inspiring. But alas, their news and excitement also leave me feeling like the grumpy old theologian who has to go making problems out of everything.

Making problems, and hopefully offering something in the way of solutions, is of course the task of the theologian. According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, theologians are charged with looking faithfully, rationally, and critically at the content of our faith so as to renew, refresh, and even offer proposals for revision when necessary (1). And so, I take it as an obligation of my vocation to offer some reflections and reservations with particular dimensions of the messages I have been hearing in recent days at what is in many ways a very beautiful World Meeting of Families. These concerns, of course, relate to who I am as a theologian and are certainly influenced by the particular sessions I have chosen to attend.

On this note I confess that I have trouble avoiding the potentially controversial. That is to say, my observations and the concerns I raise are only a very partial glimpse at the World Meeting of Families as a whole. The basic observation I offer here is that certain emphases in the presentations of Catholic teaching have tended towards exclusivist lines of thought. This exclusivism is something more than a recognition of the challenging moral aspects of the call of Christian discipleship. I firmly believe that there are times when Christian inclusivity must be tempered by standing up for principles that are central to our witness. But the exclusivist tone I am pointing to does much more:  for the sake of fidelity to official Catholic teaching it works against even legitimate diversity and complexity within the accepted moral tradition of the church.

In the sessions I have attended, Catholic teaching has been presented as offering the fullness of the truth on matters concerning marriage and family, while quick and decisive condemnations of contradictory perspectives are also offered. For example, one presenter called on Catholics as the largest single faith group in the U.S. to unite against the injustice of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. However, no mention was made of the majority of American Catholics  who self-report agreement with the court’s decision. The message seems to be that we as Catholics are inclusive enough to accept all who claim Catholicism to be counted among our number; yet the perspectives of those who dissent from official moral teaching are not even acknowledged as significant. While there is room to argue the extent to which disagreement remains legitimate, this dynamic of promoting inclusivity when it is useful but turning to exclusivity when church teaching is challenged becomes more worrisome when applied within the realm of the complementary relationships of man and woman, which is an argument itself based on the complementary relationship of faith and reason.

On the topic of gender complementarity, this tendency to selectively include and exclude has arisen regarding the application of the social sciences. One speaker offered a rather sophisticated analysis as to how the findings of the social sciences affirm the importance of fathers’ religious involvement for children’s religious development. Research findings on the importance of paternal religiosity raise many questions, such as why male religious involvement tends to be less stable, what social role fathers tend play that puts them in such positions of influence, and how one partner’s non-involvement in religion could undermine their partner’s religious childrearing efforts. Instead, the speaker opted to rhetorically tie this social scientific observation to something essential about the masculinity of fathers.

In matters of the family, a general appeal to a church that welcomes diverse people and perspectives is delimited with a definitive judgement of what can and cannot be accepted in that same church. This tendency has led me wonder if many of the Catholics who speak on human sexuality are to social scientific research as advocates of intelligent design are to evolutionary biology. That is, while the approach in general presents itself as receptive to the findings of non-theological disciplines, when the data challenges basic commitments it is glossed over with affirmations of Catholic teaching.

WMF People
Photo Credit: HughE Dillon

In embracing these tendencies to selective inclusion, it seems to me we risk some very important Catholic commitments. The Catholic faith posits the fundamental compatibility of faith and reason. Selective uses of observed data undermine this commitment by allowing a prevailing hermeneutic of fidelity to church teaching to obstruct legitimately challenging questions. For example, despite speakers at the WMF who imply that fidelity in all things to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church is the standard of Catholicism, statistically this does not represent the view of actual Catholics. Granted, the observation of diversity alone lends itself to multiple interpretations, but I am hard pressed to believe that the only significant difference is between those who have surrendered faithfully to Christ and those who are captivated by the allure of a sinful world.

Moreover, this presentation of the faith simply fails to acknowledge the realities of Catholics who find themselves struggling conscientiously at the margins of moral orthodoxy. When the emphasis on gender complementarity leads to assertions of the absolute centrality of the biological nuclear family, many are excluded. For example, sessions of the WMF have repeatedly made a two-pronged claim. First, children need both a mother and father for their social and spiritual development. Second, children have a right to know themselves as a product of a loving sexual act between their parents. Yet in this claim, non-biological and non-nuclear family forms are ignored. Certainly no one is saying that a family who has lost a parent or a family formed by adoption is less than a real family. On the other hand the silence is disconcerting.

In both the above examples, inattention to morally complex situations seems to yield a creeping exclusivism that starts with a commitment to defending official teaching, yet grows into the exclusion those who do not fit the ideal.

This general inattention to diversity in family forms and selective use of social scientific data is particularly perplexing given the timing of this meeting. In just nine days, the Synod of Bishops on the Family will begin meeting in Rome for a three week discussion on the Church’s ministry to families in light of the real challenges facing the family at present. After the eventfulness of last year’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, expecting some meaningful changes in the presentation, interpretation, or application of present Catholic teaching on marriage and the family at this year’s synod would seem reasonably warranted.

This leads to me to my fundamental concern. Granted that the WMF is not an academic conference, and that the participants are gathered as much for practical advice, inspiration, and exhortation as for intellectual engagement, how influential is the tendency towards inclusion and exclusion? When bishops gather, will they be able to see difficult challenges and risk asking potentially costly questions? This is not simply a question about the possibility of certain strategic reforms, it is a question about how we balance a commitment to inclusivity with the specific moral teachings of the Church. If simply acknowledging legitimate diversities and challenging realities proves difficult for many Catholic leaders, how are we as Catholics to respond mercifully to the world’s needs?

Jake Kohlhaas, Ph.D. is assistant professor of moral theology at Loras college in Dubuque, IA. His research interests include theology of children and parenthood, sexual ethics, and environmental ethics.

(1) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, paragraph 30.