The Church is at a crossroads.
For years, there have been large parts of the evangelical community that have made it their mission to literally focus on the family. For the most part, these efforts have been two-fold. Along with offering ministry resources and biblical support for Christian families—presumably, families who have expressed a desire to live by traditional, evangelical values—there has also been a secondary focus: “protecting” these values in a culture that increasingly doesn’t collectively recognize them.
This is where things have gotten complicated.
Unlike strictly ministry-focused efforts, protecting these “traditional values” has often taken the form of a culture war that has been fought in courtrooms, at ballot boxes and in pop-culture debates. But, as the Catholic Church has recognized, “the social and spiritual crisis, so evident in today’s world, is becoming a pastoral challenge in the Church’s evangelizing mission concerning the family.”
In other words, the Church is losing (or has already lost) the “culture war”—they see that it’s time to reassess how the Body of Christ approaches changing values in culture when it comes to the family. Whether Christians that hold to certain standards like it or not, when it comes to the family, cultural values are changing. That’s why, under the direction of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church wants to change how the Church responds.
In an unprecedented move, the Pope has issued a questionnaire to bishops around the world, seeking their feedback about family issues facing their congregations. The answers to the survey will be used to help inform the agenda of an upcoming church leadership conference, where Catholic bishops from across the globe will meet and discuss how family values are evolving—and what the Church should do about it.
Even if you’re not a practicing Catholic, looking at how the Vatican is attempting to wrestle with the issues is an exercise that benefits any Christian. How would you answer some of the key questions posed to the bishops? Though many of the questions are framed from a Catholic perspective (underscoring conflicts regarding prohibitions from who may receive the sacraments), at their core, these issues boil down to a question all evangelicals must wrestle with as well: How can the modern Church—that frequently holds views at odds with changing cultural values—still support families of all backgrounds, worldviews and make-ups?
Though the survey acknowledges there are many issues facing couples and families globally (“interreligious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman; the caste system … the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life”), the actual questions posed to the bishops (along with trying to gauge the prominence of certain issues) primarily focus on four areas:
What is the Church’s response to same sex-couples?
What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union?
What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?
In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?
How does the Church handle ministry to divorced/remarried and “cohabitating” couples?
Are separated couples and those divorced and remarried a pastoral reality in your particular Church? How do you deal with this situation in appropriate pastoral programs?
Do the baptized live in this irregular situation? Are they aware of it? Are they simply indifferent? Do they feel marginalized?
Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognizing a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved? If yes, what form would it take?
How is God’s mercy proclaimed to separated couples and those divorced and remarried and how does the Church put into practice her support for them in their journey of faith?
How should the Church make itself available to children of non-traditional families?
In the current generational crisis, how have Christian families been able to fulfill their vocation of transmitting the faith?
What is the estimated proportion of children and adolescents in these cases, as regards children who are born and raised in regularly constituted families?
How do parents in these situations approach the Church? What do they ask?
How do the particular Churches attempt to meet the needs of the parents of these children to provide them with a Christian education?
How is “the family” helping to build and support the Body of Christ, and vice versa?
What critical situations in the family today can obstruct a person’s encounter with Christ?
To what extent do the many crises of faith which people can experience affect family life?
What experiences have emerged in recent decades regarding marriage preparation? What efforts are there to stimulate the task of evangelization of the couple and of the family? How can an awareness of the family as the “domestic Church” be promoted?
How successful have you been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture?
In what way have the local churches and movements on family spirituality been able to create ways of acting which are exemplary?
What specific contribution can couples and families make to spreading a credible and holistic idea of the couple and the Christian family today?
What pastoral care has the Church provided in supporting couples in formation and couples in crisis situations?
By issuing this survey, the Catholic Church is, in a way, acknowledging that when it comes to issues of the modern family, they don’t have all of the answers. But, they are willing to start asking the right questions.
Many evangelicals could benefit from doing the same.