Second Thoughts on Pope Francis & Family Issues


Last week I posted a (mostly) tongue-in-cheek comment on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The document represented the pope’s reflections on the synod of bishops that met over the last two years to reformulate the Church’s teachings on marriage, sexuality and the family.

Obviously, all of those elements find themselves mired in profound crisis in the contemporary world. Given that fact, and despite the pope’s efforts to save the day in the face of the intransigence of the world’s episcopacy, the document proved to be highly disappointing.

Notwithstanding what I wrote last week, Amoris Laetitia left me wishing that the Church could bring itself to speak in plain language accessible to us all.

But no:  the encyclical was full of platitudes and written in opaque Vaticanese. It demonstrated the out-of-touchness of Church leadership, and its inability and/or unwillingness to help today’s women and men face up to their real problems in the light of a rich faith tradition perfectly capable of providing such assistance.

No wonder so many young people – so many couples – have long since dismissed the Church as irrelevant and counterproductive in terms of making sense of their lives in a globalized world!

[News flash to the Vatican: Outside of your little realm, the major problem facing couples today is not whether divorced people should be allowed to receive Holy Communion! It’s not even whether or not artificial birth control is morally acceptable. (Catholics have long since resolved that “problem;” they use contraceptives in the same percentage as everyone else.)]

Instead, think of the real problems we all face around the fraught matters Amoris Laetitia pretends to address, but which it only dances around, and in the end avoids. These problems were recently outlined by psychologist, Dr. Harriet Fraad, in an interview with economist, Richard Wolff. They include the following:

  • The introduction of the internet and easy birth control has changed the nature of dating and sexual relationships.
    • Increasingly, couples meet online instead of through family and friends.
    • It is no longer socially unacceptable for them to have sex before marriage.
    • In fact, hardly anyone waits till marriage.
    • This makes marriage less necessary and attractive as a means of achieving access to sex.
  • Divorce statistics (as well as witnessing the unhappiness of their parents) similarly discourage marriage. Fifty percent of first marriages end in divorce; 60% of second marriages and 70% of third marriages finish the same way. And after divorce women are usually left holding the bag in terms of child support.
  • Families are stressed when economic circumstances make it necessary for both parents to get jobs. That typically means women end up working a double shift – in the workplace and in the home.
  • The prospect of overwork eventual divorce leads more and more women to choose to remain single. Many become Sugar Babies to Sugar Daddies – older, well-established men who pay off their Baby’s overwhelming college loans or credit card debt.
  • Men, on the other hand, find themselves deprived of their traditional, male-defining role as bread-winners. Anger results – deflected towards guns, the military, sports addictions, evangelical religions (where women are subordinate) and pornography.
  • Children suffer the consequences of it all. They are left alone after school, when most of their problems emerge – not the least of which is obesity.
  • With all those realities in mind, marriage is increasingly viewed as an unnecessary hassle — a luxury good – accessible and desirable only for the well-to-do.
  • So young people end up postponing or rejecting it altogether.
  • They opt instead for serial cohabitations without commitment.
  • Or they become “Herbivore” men, “Dried Fish” women, or MGTOWS.

It’s not that Pope Francis doesn’t bring up many of these problems. Nor is he incapable of addressing them in ways helpful to struggling families. In fact, his three major publications (including Amoris Laetitia) provide clear principles for doing so.

  • His eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, teaches clearly that all things are connected. The role of religion (which means “binding force”) is to make connections apparent.
  • Similarly that encyclical along with his Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” identifies capitalism-as-we-know-it as the connecting structural cause of contemporary problems. Its demands pits employers against their employees and men against women; it underpays them or deprives them of work; it requires them to work longer hours, drives both parents into double shifts, destroys families in the process, and then claims to represent “family values.”
  • And finally, in Amoris Laetitia itself the pope identifies conscience (informed by thoughtful consideration of the Christian tradition) as the most reliable guide humans have at their disposal.

Simply highlighting those principles and calling Catholics to adult dialog about their application to dating, marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, and child-rearing would have done much more than the largely impenetrable document the Vatican actually produced.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “Second Thoughts on Pope Francis & Family Issues”

  1. Hi Mike,

    I’m enjoying seeing your reactions to Francis’ exhortations and declarations (which, Columbo style, he throws in as though they were after-thoughts).

    In short: he provides the answers, which are never the main points he is making, in this place and that. And then he invites you to apply the answers to the areas of concern he delineates, without telling you to do so.

    What would happen if he said “hey, use your conscience to figure out what to do about your relationships” ? Based on the observable human need for certainty and universal answers easily learned, it would be disastrous. Why? Because most people, including in the US, have only a partial hold on the modern mind, which appeared around 1600. He can’t be direct. He has to leave it to people like you to figure it out and propagate it to those who trust you — which is a, if not the, major way that the pre-modern mind makes decisions.

    For which we thank you. 🙂



    1. Thanks for the comment, Hank. For me, Amoris Laetitia was not nearly as accessible and certainly not as inspiring as Evangelii Gaudium or Laudato Si’. I felt the pope was uncomfortable in writing this latest Apostolic Exhortation. He had to incorporate too many ideas he did not agree with.


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