Should Catholic Families Be Different?

Recently, I was asked by my bishop to provide a response to the survey in preparation for the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  Many of the questions in that document have to do with the faithful’s awareness of the practical significance of the Church’s unique vision of marriage and family life as articulated in various post-Vatican II documents (e.g., Gaudium et Spes, Familiaris Consortio, etc). Pope Francis appears to be concerned  both with how well the Church is communicating its unique vision of marriage and family life to the world and the ways Catholic couples and families are or are not either serving or benefiting from efforts associated with the New Evangelization.

In my response, I argue that there is virtually no practical awareness–among either the laity or the clergy–of what is supposed to make Catholic family life different from Protestant or secular family life except for the prayers we say and the way we worship.   I develop my case for this over about 60 pages, but here’s the short version.

Catholics Have a Syncretistic View of Family Life

Catholics, even devout Catholics, tend not to think twice about building their marriages and families around the ideals and techniques promoted by both secular and Protestant “experts.”  This isn’t to say that Catholics have nothing to learn about marriage and family life from our secular and Protestant brothers, but the vast majority of Catholics don’t even stop to consider what their Catholic faith might have to say about the way husbands and wives, parents and children should treat each other in the home.  They tend to think that as long as they say Catholic prayers, go to Church on Sunday, and turn to marriage and parenting resources that either mention Jesus and/or confirm their unexamined personal biases about relationships, they are de facto living out the Church’s vision of marriage and family life as articulated in the documents mentioned in the survey.

Given a field of popular Protestant or secular experts on marriage and family life such as Gary Ezzo, John Rosemond, James Dobson, T. Barry Brazelton, Bill Sears, Michael Pearl, Gary Chapman, Will Harley, Harville Hendrix, John Gray, Laura Schlesinger, etc., the vast majority of Catholics wouldn’t be able to determine, in even the most basic, gut-level way, who does a better or worse job of articulating ideas that are more consistent with Church’s vision of how husbands and wives, parents and children should relate to each other.  Each of these experts spells out very different ideas about how couples and families should look and interact, and yet there are thousands if not millions of well-meaning Catholic families who take these experts words as gospel and build their family lives around their teachings.

Culture Lost Sense of Family Life

The problem goes even deeper.  It isn’t just that Catholic families aren’t definitively Catholic.  It’s that many Catholic families–even devout Catholic families–aren’t evenfamilies any more.  Like their secular counterparts, many Catholic families haveallowed themselves to become collections of individuals living under the same roof.  The wider culture has lost a sense of what it means to be a family and to live the mechanics of family life.  It used to be that families would join around regular meal times, game nights, family days, household projects, prayer, and of course Sunday worship.

Now, “family life” is the 3 secs we see our kids on the way to busing them to their various lessons, activities, and hobbies and running to our own meetings and commitments.  In this, the Third Generation of the Culture of Divorce, many people feel like family rituals (meals, prayertime, family day, game nights, family projects) are things Ozzie and Harriet did in the 1950′s.   They seem like a fairy tale.   Too many Catholic families are caught up in this tide, following it rather than fighting it.

Lack of Clear Family Catechesis

In light of all this, even Catholic clergy and catechists struggle to communicate what is unique about Catholic marriage and family life.  Even these Catholic leaders regularly recommend the kinds of resources listed above without any regard for whether or not the ideals and techniques promoted by these experts adequately represent a unique Catholic vision of the way husbands and wives, parents and children should treat each other as articulated in the documents cited by the survey.   Most pastors and DRE’s would appear to buy into the same logic that says that as long as the faithful say Catholic prayers and come to Church on Sunday, it really doesn’t matter that much if they interact (as husband and wife, parents and children) the same ways their secular or Protestant counterparts do.

By way of illustration, a listener to our radio program called to share that her parish Director of Religious Education was promoting a “Marriage and Family Day” at her parish.  The talks for the event were to be given by a local, prominent, Protestant minister.  Our caller was supportive of the day and had a favorable impression of the minister, but she asked the DRE if the parish wouldn’t be better served by seeking a Catholic expert to speak at the event.   The DRE responded, “He’s just talking about marriage, for Heaven’s sake! It isn’t as if he is going to be presenting theology or anything!”

We Can Do Better

I genuinely believe that Catholic laity and clergy mean well and are doing their best, but I would argue that being able to articulate a clearer practical vision of what it means to live a uniquely Catholic marriage and family life has to be heart of the New Evangelization.  Families are the basic unit of civilization and the chief vehicle for transmitting the faith both to the world and the next generation.  The way we live is the most important witness.  Our lives are the most important evangelization tool.

Too many of our kids are being raised in homes that don’t look any different than the homes of their secular or Protestant friends except for the prayers we say and, maybe, the rules we have.  How can we change the world if we look and act exactly the same as everyone else?    In order for our faith to seem relevant to our children and the world at large, Catholic couples and families must present a vision of love that both shows our children the ability of our Catholic faith to satisfy the longings of their heart and makes the world stand up and take notice.

Tertullian once said, “The world says, ‘Look at those Christians!   See how they love one another!’”  Catholic marriages and families are the primary means of communicating this unique vision of love to the world and the next generation.  By and large,  I just don’t think we, as a body, are communicating a vision of love in our homes that looks that different from anyone else.  It isn’t enough to have different rules and prayers.  Our homes have to be qualitatively different.  We are called to be qualitatively different.  I believe the success of the New Evangelization depends on our homes being qualitatively different.

In Part II of this reflection, I’ll post what I think represent the “5 Marks of Catholic Families”; that is, 5 principles that I think should distinguish  the way Catholic husbands and wives, and  parents and children interact with each other and the world.  In the meantime, what do you think makes Catholic couples and families different?   Beyond the prayers we say and the way we worship, are there ways that Catholic families distinguish themselves from their Protestant or secular counterparts?  How would you articulate the “Catholic difference” of marriage and family life?

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the author’s Patheos Blog and is reprinted here with kind permission.

Dr. Gregory Popcak


Dr. Gregory Popcak is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.

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  • Rob

    If Catholics or Protestants have loving and honoring marriages, why must there always be the desire to separate them and declare on better than another

  • Marie Dean

    Of course, Catholic families should be different. We are counter-cultural at this point in history by definition. The selling out of our identity has weakened the Church. Many problems have caused this, but contraception and the acceptance of worldly values have changed Catholic families into looking and acting like any other.

    Three main points here. One, the Catholic family must be the domestic church with daily rosary, Bible reading and allowing time for all members to have private prayer time. This domestic church must include an awareness of the liturgical year and the days of fasting and abstinence.

    Two, if the father is weak in the Faith, the family may be weak. Women should marry strong Catholic men, not ones who “might” convert or change. The man is the religious leader of the family and if he is only concerned with money or comfort, or status or not causing any ripples in society, the children will not learn to be part of the Church Militant. Kids need to learn to think like Catholics.

    Three, Catholics are given virtues in baptism but these need to be cultivated at home. Without personal holiness and the life of virtues, children will be lost to the world. The parents need to help their children act like Catholics.

    If you are interested in these topics, see my blog for more.

    Weak Catholic families have undermined the Church and also caused the crisis in vocations.

  • OttFatherofTwo

    Excellent!! Looking Fwd to Part2! Could we see your 60 page response??

  • Joleen

    This article is right on–to the treatment or the ignoring of the older people of the family.

  • Rob

    One more comment. The way I am seeing your view of Catholic marriage is, unless you have a marriage exactly like the church says you should have your marriage is not good. I tend to differ. I have seen atheists with wonderful marriages and Catholics with terrible marriages. I really don’t think one religion can say that only they have the best marriages. God bless your marriages.

  • ML

    Marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic church. Jesus Himself showed this importance when He performed His first miracle at the Wedding of Cana. The wisdom of the church on marriage surpasses all simply because Jesus is married to it.

  • kat

    The funny thing is we prayed the rosary together, game nights, mass every Sunday. Actually more like forced us to participate. I am the oldest of 5, and my sister and I (the only two out of the house) do not have good relationships with our parents.
    I will attend mass with my boyfriend because I love love being Catholic. Because of my parents wanted to have the “Catholic family life” so badly they hurt the relationship and refuse to see any differently.

  • ct

    Beautifully articulated, if not a bit deep for the average consumer on some points. But, Dr. Popcak has hit the nail on the head, and the Catholic family “crisis” is exactly why Pope Francis will lead the Extraordinary Synod on the family in October of 2014. I hope most, or at least many, Catholics completed the survey that was available to them from their Bishop’s, as this survey was offered in an effort to take the pulse of Catholics regarding their knowledge of Church teachings on marriage and the family, AND to glean Catholic’s personal opinions about said teachings. As Catholic families accept and become more and more like “worldly” families, and adhere less and less to the ideals of the Holy Family, well the results are clear and impacting our society in every way. I for one will be praying for miraculous things to come out of this Synod and that Catholic families the world over will reap the benefits of such a gathering of our Pope and our Churches leaders.

  • Juliecm

    Great points! I would also add that Catholics should understand that marriage is a Sacrament and how they are to be means of grace to each other. People get married today thinking that the other person will make them happy, but the main reason they get married is to help each other attain heaven. Being open to life and having more than 2 children (if they are able to) help them grow in virtue and holiness.
    I like how you mentiond the Liturgical seasons. It is the rhythm of our life and helps us focus on the Domestic church.

  • Marie Dean

    Thanks and of course…your point about helping each other attain heaven is so beautiful and reminds me of Blesseds Louis and Zelie Martin

  • solms

    How about promoting Genesis 26 – 28? I would guess 90% of practicing Catholics have 2 children or less. Even in the pro-life movement I observe the leaders have Planned Parenthood families. How different is that. Right out of the PP booklet. Stop at two.
    Discussing the issue of pregnant students in Catholic schools, I was confronted by a mother who thought these girls should be allowed to continue to attend Catholic schools. Despite my many objections, the one that hit home was it pointing out if she felt that the evolvement of life was being taught ;by the student/mothers presence. I counter by pointing out that it was the duty/love of the parents to teach that lesson through their offspring and continued building up of family life. Most children grow up without ever having to care for a younger sibling. They are not even fit for baby sitting positions.

  • WSquared

    The DRE responded, “He’s just talking about marriage, for Heaven’s sake! It isn’t as if he is going to be presenting theology or anything!”

    What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks?!?!

    Wow. Just… WOW. And *this* is the sort of person we trust to impart the Catholic faith to our children, if anyone at all?!? This is right up there with (and arguably related to) “I’m not going to seek marriage advice from some old, [white] celibate man in a dress!” Pray for those who don’t like and can’t handle paradox, lest it make them think.

    Too many of our kids are being raised in homes that don’t look any
    different than the homes of their secular or Protestant friends except
    for the prayers we say and, maybe, the rules we have.

    In terms of the picture that accompanies this very astute and timely article, I noticed, for example, that family members were holding hands before going into the usual and familiar “bless us, O Lord, for these Thy Gifts…” and with no Sign of the Cross. So I politely asked that we start making the Sign of the Cross again, because it reminds us of our professed belief in the Holy Trinity. There are enough people who call themselves Christian whose theology essentially denies the Holy Trinity and denies the Incarnation. You can’t claim to be Christian when you deny either or both, and whenever we say that we believe in God, we should know what we mean by it.

  • WSquared

    I agree somewhat, in that it’s really about whether those atheists and Catholics are living in the fullness of the truth of the human person. Moreover, atheists and agnostics are not a monolithic bloc, and a good many understand the need for natural virtue. Also God, after all, is not bound by the Sacraments, but the Sacraments are the surest means of Eternal Life. If God has torn down the curtain in the temple separating God from Man with His Sacrifice on Calvary, then it follows logically that Eternal Life also involves the here and now, and not merely some fuzzy concept of the “hereafter” or “afterlife” in the sky where we will all– presumably– be doing what we loved best in this world, from playing golf to chasing tail, for all eternity. This is about letting God into our marriages, and allowing Him in all his magnificence, magnitude, munificence, and mystery, elevate our marriages and bring them up into Himself.

    No “religion” except the Catholic Faith– the Way, the Truth, and the Life– can claim to have that and the surest means of access to it. Here, C.S. Lewis’s observation that Christianity is about God’s search for Man is apt, if not crucial. So is St. Edith Stein’s comment that “anyone who seeks the truth is seeking God, whether he admits it or not.” Theological virtue makes a huge difference for the illumination and sanctification it provides (we’re talking about participation in the life of God here!), and it is also true, as we pray at Mass that the true extent of anyone’s devotion is known only to God.

    But I will agree about Catholics with terrible marriages, though with the caveat that there are Catholics and then there are Catholics. Not all who call themselves Catholic truly practice, and everyone is at a different place on the way to conversion. Terrible things happen when we squander what God has given us– it ultimately acts to our condemnation. When we do this repeatedly, we also diminish our capacity to truly love. A profound lack of coherence tends to do that. Our consciences become warped, and we loose sight and sense of God, who IS Love. Christ, however, can and does make all things new.