Chapter 3 of Pope Francis’ recently published work, “On Love in the Family” turns its attention to the experiences and challenges of families. The Holy Father acknowledges that “there is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems”(57).
In identifying the challenges experienced by families, the document mentions many, and some of them are more prevalent in our own society than some others. The effects of “extreme individualism” in society as a whole have had a remarkable effect, generally diminishing societal supports for the family in general. Family bonds are weakened when we consider ourselves more as isolated individuals rather than as members of a group with the benefits and responsibilities that are a natural part of any significant relationship. When individualism becomes the dominant lens through which we understand ourselves in the world, then the “ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability, is swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome”(34). The document goes on to note that “fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals.”(34)
Pope Francis, speaking with the heart of a true Pastor, makes a profound statement when he admits that the church finds it difficult “to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden.”(37) Is he concerned that we have lost the idea of marriage as a process, a pilgrimage, a journey in favor of a static ideal? And as with most ideals, have we become jaded because of our disappointment in ourselves in not living up to the ideals of marriage?
But then he reminds us all of the truth the Church has always held, and that is that conscience is sacrosanct: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
He invites us to the beautiful work of growing into the possibilities and potential of the marriage relationship rather than shying away from the challenges of building life with and for another. He speaks of a need to recover our “capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism”(40) in growing into all that marriage can be for us. This is the antithesis of any form of narcissism that renders us incapable of understanding ourselves beyond our own immediate desires and needs. People, relationships, are not things, and so require us to consider engaging them differently to the material goods of our lives. In relationships, we can’t simply “unfriend” or “block” people because we find ourselves put upon, or are asked to invest ourselves in a fulfilling relationship. We are dared to understand relationships differently than the other goods of life, which we can sometimes throw away, or use, or break, or exploit, or just cast off when it suits us. People are people, not things.Catholic Legislative Network