Catherine Pakaluk, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Economics, Ave Maria University and Faculty Research Fellow, Stein Center for Social Research. Her most recent publication is Nontraditional Families and Childhood Progress Through School: A Comment on Rosenfeld.
Trends in family formation and dissolution change the composition of churches and faith communities. Since religious participation is strongly correlated with nearly every measure of human flourishing—the findings in the new Institute for American Values’s report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? , pose a challenge for all people concerned with the human project.
For churches in particular, however, it may seem discouraging to know that the causal arrow runs so much from families to churches. What can be done? Here are two concrete suggestions inspired by Matthew 4:23 “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (NIV) Teaching is the most basic form of pastoral work available to churches. And yet most churches are missing the mark.
Churches should clarify what they teach about marriage and family.
What is marriage? What is God’s plan for marriage? Is marriage permanent, or is divorce sometimes/never/always acceptable? If divorce is sometimes acceptable, what are the conditions under which it is so? What is the meaning of human sexuality? What is the relationship of children to marriage? Is cohabitation sometimes/never/always acceptable?
Churches should frequently clarify their answers to these and related questions about family life. This has benefits for the community itself, since the articulation and development of doctrine provides a basis for renewed unity of belief. But equally important, church members have a desperate need for clear, concise answers. The reason is two-fold: first, clarity is a pre-requisite for communicating anything. Churches will be crippled as teachers if they are unclear. And they cannot afford to be misunderstood when choices about family life are on the line. People need working moral guidelines: do this, don’t do that. Second, secular society is saturated with ideas about marriage and family, some explicit and many more implicit, which are inconsistent with the basic tenets of many churches. Since secular society communicates these premises so effectively, through entertainment and other media, churches must be especially clear in order to correct mistakes and misconceptions.
Take divorce for example—while most churches agree that divorce is sometimes acceptable, very few churches have published guidelines about the conditions under which divorce is okay. Similarly, few churches have clear published teachings about the nature of marriage and the meaning of human sexuality. Of course congregations will not agree about all of the answers—but each should strive to be very clear about what they believe. Clarity alone can go a long way. Clarity will also help churches find points of agreement around which they can be unified.
Examples of this sort of refinement and clarity can be found in the 1981 pastoral letter of Pope John Paul II, On the Christian Family in the Modern World, and the 1995 statement by the LDS church, The Family: A Proclamation to the World.
Churches should aim to improve how they teach about marriage and family.
Teaching itself can have a powerful effect on people’s lives; it equips them to make sound moral choices which can be supported in the faith community—this is essentially the process of conversion. I have a dear friend, for example, who recommitted to the faith of her childhood almost solely on account of reading the 1981 pastoral letter on the family mentioned above. For her, the ideals presented by the Pope were so beautiful that she wished to embody that vision in her own marriage and family.
But most Catholics will never read this letter, because the Church hasn’t figured out how to reach adult Catholics with messages longer than 140 characters. The Catholic Church isn’t alone. Collectively, churches in America are doing a miserable job teaching people what it is that they believe. My own research suggests that less than 10 percent of Catholics or Christians in representative samples can answer very basic questions about theological concepts. Churches will need to do better than this in teaching about marriage and family—because so very much depends upon it.
One idea is for churches to consider the sabbatical rule: six active to one contemplative. Suppose members spend an average of 60 hours a year in liturgical services—then 10 hours might be spent in study of the faith. This is a simple weekend, or two 5-hour days. Imagine if all church members spent one weekend per year studying the sacred writings of their tradition, great works of spirituality, and pastoral guidelines on marriage, family, and social life? Over the 25-year span in which adults are forming and making the most significant family choices, this would constitute 250 hours of study, equivalent to several college courses. Executed well, such a plan would have tremendous power to transform lives and families.
The critical point: churches need to get the causal arrow going in the other direction. While they cannot entirely repair the damage done to today’s church from prior generations, they may yet be able to make a claim on tomorrow’s church simply by exercising visionary leadership on basic moral teaching.