A Lonely Hearts Church
Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive is a slim volume, more of an overgrown pamphlet, prepared for the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. It’s meant to lay out Catholic beliefs about vocation, sex, and family life in a way that acknowledges and responds creatively to contemporary challenges. It contains discussion questions to make it easy to use in ministries, book clubs etc. This is what outspoken Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and his team think is most important for American Catholics to hear on the subject of family life.
How’d they do?
In the end I think they got the most important things right.
Many people will be disappointed by this book, because it’s inadequate. But that’s the nature of the beast. I don’t intend to list the various lacunae, unexamined premises, pet causes (which really are important!) that go unmentioned. If I were writing this book it would at least mention the incarceration crisis, because I see the prison system’s effects on families every week, but I get that everyone wants to add one more thing. In the words of Steven Wright, “You can’t have everything; where would you put it?”
There are broader problems with LIOM: I initially wanted to say, “This book needs more about premarital sex, and how fear of divorce has made it seem like the only responsible choice.” But what the book really needs is a clearer statement on the “capstone” model of marriage. The biggest cultural alternative to Catholic sexual ethics isn’t hedonism, but a risk-averse model of responsibility: a model in which every option must be explored and exhausted before one can finally subside into marriage, and in which marriage is the reward for finding yourself and attaining both personal and economic stability.
There’s also just way too much pope. Surely people who were not Pope in the past 20 years have something to contribute to Catholic discourse on the family? Popes John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis are just all over this volume, it’s like a papal Whack-a-Mole. Papal authority is one thing, papal celebrity another. At least some of the papal page-count in this book could be better spent on the voices of married people, women (hey there’s a thought), people who actually are poor rather than just “serving the poor,” etc. (That said, the quotes from Pope Francis were blunt and homey, refreshingly different from the professionally soothing tone of much of the writing. Still too much of him, but not as much too much.)
But there are unexpected grace notes as well: “Mary, as virgin and mother, uniquely and beautifully recapitulates both the vocation to celibacy and the vocation to motherhood”; or the lovely riff connecting Pope Francis’s “field hospital” metaphor with St. Augustine’s depiction of the Church as the inn where the Good Samaritan brought the wounded man to be healed. The artwork is beautiful and touching. Without exception the illustrations are striking and add to the meaning and resonance of the words.
And the three big things I took away from this volume are all things it gets right.
First and most importantly, LIOM insists that Christian ethics flow out of the life and mission of Jesus. Early on the book promises, “Everything we offer in this catechesis flows from Jesus himself,” and it constantly reminds us of the specifics of Jesus’ life, from the hospitality he received in the homes of the disciples to his sacrifice on the Cross, which models for us the “sacrificial fidelity” we must show in our families and communities. This is so basic, but so easy to leave undone—it’s easy to think of sexual morality as an abstract, rule-bound sphere, totally alien to the vivid and shocking and compelling life of Jesus. And the more we abstract the rules away from their source in the Trinity, and especially in Christ, the easier it is to feel that the rules are malleable, and/or to use them as tools to judge others.
LIOM also presents a model of ethics which is not so much about rules as about vocation. Everyone has a calling from God to give and receive sacrificial love from others. Whether you do that in marriage, in parenting, in vowed religious life, in friendship, in hospitality and love for the stranger, or in several of these at once, you were made to love, to be loved, and to give selflessly. “[I]f our parishes really were places where ‘single’ did not mean ‘lonely,’ where extended networks of friends and families really did share one another’s joys and sorrows, then perhaps at least some of the world’s objections to Catholic teaching might be disarmed.” The family is a church—the “domestic church,” a phrase which recurs throughout the volume—and the local parish needs to act more like a family.
The emphasis on hospitality is not something I’ve seen from other church documents. Families are challenged to serve and welcome others, rather than retreating into cul-de-sacs. Families and married adults can feel incredibly isolated, and the isolation of single laypeople is even more obvious. LIOM suggests that mutual hospitality, focused on serving one another rather than meeting one’s own needs (even when those needs are for inherently good things like companionship and love), can fit the scattered puzzle-pieces of the parish back together. This is a form of solidarity which can be practiced at any level of society.
This catechesis is supposed to re-present eternal truths in a way which fits the specific needs of contemporary Americans. And it insists that the central cultural question of our time is the question of trust.
It begins by noting, “Many people today honestly seek meaning” (there’s that lotion-y abstract-reassurance voice) “but don’t know whom to trust or where to commit their lives. Amid this uncertainty, Christians are people who trust in Jesus Christ.” This theme of trust and lack of trust emerges throughout the book. For a book almost exclusively devoted to sexual and familial ethics, LIOM spends a surprising amount of time discussing how and why to trust the Church; it was written by people with a poignantly obvious understanding that the Catholic Church lacks credibility.
That loss of credibility of course stems in large part from the horrific sexual abuse scandals. But LIOM implies, I think rightly, that the Church has also lost credibility here because Her parish and communal life is fragmentary at best. Even people who want to live as deeply embedded as possible within the Body of Christ often find it really hard to know where to start with the Catholic Church.
LIOM speaks to a world where isolation is the result of justified mistrust. It’s the world of Coming Up Short: a world of disconnection and drifting. LIOM insists that Jesus and his Bride the Church are trustworthy even when everybody else lets you down—including churchmen and lay Catholics. And it challenges Catholics, reminding us that we need to earn trust by loving. We can’t act entitled to trust we haven’t earned through our own sacrificial love for others.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor and blogs at Patheos.com.