What Do We Teach and How Do We Teach It? Reversing the Causal Arrow

01.17.2013, 8:40 AM

Catherine PakalukCatherine 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.


9 Responses to “What Do We Teach and How Do We Teach It? Reversing the Causal Arrow”

  1. Wayne Stocks says:

    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.

    Well said. We can’t let the failures of the past prevent us from being The Church today.

    I believe you are absolutely right about the lack of clarity in many church’s teaching. I also believe this ambiguity leads, in part, to the church’s failure to minister to children of divorce. The church does not offer clear teaching on the topic of marriage and divorce, and that leaves many people unable or unwilling then to tackle the issue. Churches, and congregants, end up ignoring the issue all together as though it doesn’t exist and consequently ignoring the children experiencing the divorce of their parents at a time when they need their church the most!

  2. Matthew Kaal says:

    I agree that much of the Church’s work on marriage needs to be internally focused – on strengthening theological understanding and clarifying the message. Great article!

  3. Teresa says:

    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.

    Wayne Stocks in reply to Catherine Pakaluk:

    Well said. We can’t let the failures of the past prevent us from being The Church today.

    I can’t let this go by for either you, Wayne, or Catherine. If the Catholic Church cannot identify and own what has happened in the last 60+ years, how will it be able to correct the itself and the future? Trying to brush past that with statements like “we can’t let the failures of the past prevent us from being The Church today.” is a logical fallacy.

    Why do you go to Confession and what are the 5 principles to a good Confession: Examination of Conscience, Sorrow for Sin, A Firm Purpose of Amendment to avoid Sin, Confession to a Priest, Doing the Prescribed Penance.

    Is the Church above doing this for Herself? How does one avoid personal ‘missing the mark’ without examining Why I do this or that? How can I make an Amendment, otherwise?

    My own opinion, Wayne, is that covering-up for the Church does no one any good, including its hierarchy. Laity have an important role in the Church, not the least of which should be to cry out when our spiritual parents have abandoned us.

    If you did not live through the Vatican II Revolution (still with us today), you may not quite understand this. The trauma that Council dealt the Church is inestimable. The number of people that left the Church subsequent to that, I don’t think has ever been calculated. Quite simply what the Church did was abandon Her children. And, no amount of covering up, ignoring, or glossing over those years without adequate recompense will do.

    When the world was in cultural darkness, the Church was no longer the beacon leading persons ashore; but, actually shut off the light.

    Catherine said:

    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 Church’s message has long been undermined by the hierarchy, itself; starting with the local pastors. There wasn’t much of a message to be discerned when the Church was convulsed by its own internal battles. And, quite frankly, Catherine, I feel this sentence seems quite dismissive to the Catholic faithful.

    Catherine also said:

    Teaching is the most basic form of pastoral work available to churches.

    Again, I disagree. Loving one another is the most basic form of pastoral work available to churches. Teaching is just one of many parts of love. If one is not adequately nurtured and nourished emotionally, teaching falls on deaf ears; and, can, in fact, turn people off. We will find places that welcome us, listen to us, share our journey … and, quite frankly, the Catholic Church is doing a lousy job of that, presently.

  4. Wayne Stocks says:

    Teresa,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I am not Catholic, so I can’t speak for the Catholic church (not that I would presume to even if I were). I can speak as a Bible believing Christian saved by the grace of God. You said,

    Trying to brush past that with statements like “we can’t let the failures of the past prevent us from being The Church today.” is a logical fallacy.

    and

    My own opinion, Wayne, is that covering-up for the Church does no one any good, including its hierarchy.

    I fear that you are reading something into my comments that I never intended and would never suggest. I believe that the church must own its past. The church has committed atrocious acts throughout history all under the guise of speaking for God. It is a black mark on the history of the church and one which should not be “covered up” or “ignored.”

    That said, the church is a place full of imperfect people that God seeks to redeem and sanctify. My point was not that we should ignore the past but that we shouldn’t let the failures of the past keep us from doing what is right now. So, for example, the church must own its role in legitimizing the divorce culture by not speaking up when it should have out of fear of losing church members. However, we SHOULD NOT compound that failure of the past by not now doing something for the children of those divorce just because we failed to speak up in the past.

    Likewise, the fact that we who make up the church are imperfect and fallen human beings shouldn’t prevent us from sharing the Good News that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven.

  5. Teresa says:

    Wayne Stocks said:

    So, for example, the church must own its role in legitimizing the divorce culture by not speaking up when it should have out of fear of losing church members.

    Please help me here, Wayne. Can you point to a document by any Christian Church that has, indeed, owned its role in the cultural debasement we’re now living in; and, given details about its failing, and expressed remorse for it.

    Please, understand, I’m not being snarky here. I sincerely would like to see somewhere, some place, from some Christian Church an exposition about its place in creating the problem we’re dealing with now.

    So, yes, Wayne, I do see what you’re trying to say. And, you’re right; we do have to get on about the business, in our little place in the world, to live as we should.

    Thanks for taking the time to follow-up with me.

  6. Susan Dutton says:

    I couldn’t agree more that the Church (and all communities of faith) need to stand up and teach. Why did they build the hospitals and schools of yesteryear? Because those were the practical needs of the people. What is the practical need of today? To be taught how to make marriage and family successful. The widows and orphans of today are single parents, the divorced, the remarried, and their children.

    But the church not only fails to make its guidelines clear, it fails to address very deep issues. Pornography, hook ups, the sexuality of a single population, necessary divorces, 50 Shades of Grey, open marriages, human trafficking, the fact that singles are now a majority of our population, and the list goes on. These things seem to pass unmentioned, or are used as fodder for a moral crusade, even while they are occurring right in the midst of the congregation. That makes the church just plain irrelevant, and fosters a weird culture of pretense.

    The church has also become irrelevant in hanging on to large buildings, physical location, and a structure based on volunteerism that requires major time commitment. That is used to work in the era of stable neighborhoods, few distractions, and single worker, married couple households, but no more. I also feel the church misses the very spiritual nature of those outside the confines of religious institutions, and fails to engage them in meaningful dialogue that increases involvement, rather than driving people away.

    I used to teach women in jail every weekend. I can’t tell you how many times their stories ended with some version of, “And my church turned it’s back on me.”

  7. Wayne Stocks says:

    Susan,

    The church has also become irrelevant in hanging on to large buildings, physical location, and a structure based on volunteerism that requires major time commitment. That is used to work in the era of stable neighborhoods, few distractions, and single worker, married couple households, but no more.

    While I think I understand your argument here, I fear that it is a little overly simplistic. If this is all the church is about, I agree with you entirely. The church is a committed body of believers who live life together and serve others. If the focus in on buildings, locations, etc. rather than on that, then I agree. But, there is a place for church buildings for the congregation to come together and worship and learn. There is a place for providing an avenue for Christians to serve one another as volunteers, etc. Those things are valuable tools in the spiritual maturity of believers. We must not assume that when we build a building that that is enough – that everyone should just come to us. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to scarp the structure all together either. I think we need to focus on adapting, not necessarily replacing.

    I used to teach women in jail every weekend. I can’t tell you how many times their stories ended with some version of, “And my church turned it’s back on me.”

    As someone who works with children of divorce and has dealt with a good number of adult children of divorce, you wouldn’t believe how many times I have heard the exact same thing.

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