Freud described religion as "the solemn air of sanctity"
we manufacture around our habits and moral decisions. I don't
think I'm taking much of a risk in suggesting that most secular
intellectuals in the United States probably regard religion as
weak or naïve -- a relic of humanity's past and a kind of
cheap alternative to psychotherapy. Maybe I'm being unfair. But
I doubt it.
Unfortunately, too many Christians experience their faith
in exactly this way. That's why we have the world as it is. Many
Christians -- too many Christians, especially in a wealthy country
like ours -- live their convictions as if they were pious cliches.
The language of faith gives us the words to comfort ourselves
in the face of disappointment or suffering. But many of us never
carry Christ beyond that. We're embarrassed to share Him with
others. We're afraid to apply His teachings to our economy or
our politics. And that suits modern secular culture very well,
because privatized faith has no public consequences.
The trouble with such faith is this: It's a form of lying.
It's hypocrisy. The greatest enemy of Jesus Christ in every age
doesn't come in the shape of the world or the flesh or the devil.
It's the lukewarm faith of His disciples. If we want to know why
the world isn't won for Christ, take a good look in the mirror.
Henri Bergson once said, "If you want to know a man, don't listen
to what he says; watch what he does." The Epistle of James says,
"faith, if it does not have works, is dead." God didn't make us
to be "good enough" Catholics. He made us to be saints. He made
us for greatness and heroism. Every human heart, Christian or
not, instinctively knows that. St. Irenaeus once wrote that, "the
glory of God is man fully alive." God calls each of us to humanize
and transform the world, and if we don't live life that way, people
will seek meaning elsewhere, in counterfeits.
Earlier this summer, in getting ready for my comments today,
I read the biographies of two men: Robert Browning's book, The
Emperor Julian, and Jon Lee Anderson's book, Che. Sounds
strange, but bear with me. Julian the Apostate was the Fourth
Century emperor who tried to restore paganism as the Roman state
religion. And of course Che Guevara was the Marxist guerrilla
leader killed in Bolivia in 1967.
These two men lived 1,600 years apart, but they had some odd
similarities. Both were romantics. Both were hungry to change
the world. Both were austere in their personal lives and intolerant
of corruption. Both were intellectuals. Both were also men of
action. Both died in their 30s, fighting for what they believed
in, in places far away from their homes. And both completely rejected
Christianity because of the example of the Christians they knew.
In Julian's case, he grew up in a Christian imperial family where
the men would attend Liturgy, and then systematically murder each
other for power. In Guevara's case, he saw the Church in his country,
Argentina, as just another tool of the ruling classes in the oppression
of the poor. Both men were repelled by what they saw as the hypocrisy
Here's my point: The witness you and I give in our daily lives
has consequences beyond anything we can imagine. Example is powerful.
That's why the historian Christopher Lasch once said that "an
honest atheist is always to be preferred to a [dishonest] Christian."
Real religious faith has nothing do with pious cliches, and it's
never primarily centered on the self. On some level our
faith should make us restless and uncomfortable, like a
good infection. Karl Barth said that "to clasp hands in prayer
is the beginning of an uprising against the world." John Paul
II tells us again and again that our Christian vocation is to
take part in a struggle for the soul of the contemporary world.
Real faith has very serious public consequences. It's always
personal, but never private. And it always seeks to change the
OK, how does any of this relate to Familiaris Consortio, and
especially to Nos. 42-48? Let me answer that with another question.
How many of you have had someone tell you, "What marvelous work
the Church does in housing the homeless, feeding the poor, and
helping migrant workers; it's too bad she's so hung up on the
Buried in a remark like that is the idea that over here,
Catholics have all this wonderful social doctrine -- but over
there Catholics have a slightly nutty fixation on abortion,
contraception, and monogamous heterosexual marriages. And if somehow
Catholics could just lighten up on the sex issues, the world would
open its heart to our social teaching.
But it can't happen. It could never happen -- because the issues
surrounding sexuality and the family connect intimately with the
dignity of the human person. And the dignity of the human person
is what all Catholic teaching seeks to advance. We learn
this first and must fruitfully in the "school of love" which is
the family. We can't remove abortion and contraception from our
priorities in Catholic social teaching anymore than we can forget
about our duty to ensure proper food, clothing and shelter for
children once they're born.
Vatican II described the family as "the first and vital cell
of society" (AA, 11). It stressed that "the well being
of the individual person and of both human and Christian society
is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family
life" (GS, 47).
But let's go back even further, to 1891, and reread Rerum
Novarum; then after that to Quadragesimo Anno; and
Mater et Magistra; Pacem in Terris, Populorum Progressio, Laborem
Exercens, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Centesimus Annus,
right through to Evangelium Vitae in 1995. Again and again,
over a hundred year period, we see the family either explicitly
or implicitly present as a key element in all the social teaching
of the Church.
Here's just one example. Paul VI's great encyclical, Populorum
Progressio, focuses mainly on issues of international development.
But it includes this line: "The natural family, stable and monogamous
-- as fashioned by God and sanctified by Christianity -- 'in which
different generations live together, helping each other to acquire
greater wisdom and to harmonize personal rights with other social
needs, is the basis of society'" (36).
Why add that reflection in a document on global development?
Because as the U.S. bishops observed two years ago in their statement
on Everyday Christianity, "Our families are the starting
point and the center of the vocation for justice." The habits
we learn and live in the family are the habits we bring to the
public square, and finally to the world arena.
So let's take a look at what Nos. 42-48 actually say. Then we
can turn to some implications for families.
The message of this section of Familiaris Consortio is
simple. I can sum it up in a saying I first heard as a child:
"The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their
mother." What separates Catholic social teaching from every revolutionary
movement for justice is the rejection of violence and the affirmation
of the power of love. Real love -- love that involves a complete
commitment to understand and meet the real needs of the person
we love -- is very hard work.
Nothing is more demanding, and nothing takes more care and self-sacrifice,
than love within a family. Loving "humanity" is easy. Loving family
members, friends and neighbors as God wants them to be loved,
day in and day out -- that's what separates the wheat from the
chaff. Words are cheap. Actions matter. And nowhere is that truer
than within a family.
No. 42 has two key points. First, "it is from the family that
citizens come to birth, and within the family that they find the
first school of the social virtues that are the animating principle
of the existence and development of society itself." What are
those virtues? Justice, charity and a love for freedom and truth
as God means freedom and truth to be understood.
Second, "far from being closed in on itself, the family is by
nature and vocation open to other families and to society, and
undertakes its social role." This means that families can't be
fortresses or enclaves. God created us to engage and sanctify
the world, not withdraw from it.
No. 43 describes the family as "the most effective means for
humanizing and personalizing society." The family builds up the
world "by making possible a life that is, properly speaking, human."
This reminds me of a passage in Pius XI's 1937 encyclical, Mit
Brennender Sorge. Pope Pius wrote this encyclical to contest
the Third Reich's persecution of the Church in Germany, and the
Nazi harassment of Catholic young people, families and schools.
He wrote that, "every true and lasting reform has ultimately sprung
from the sanctity of men who were driven by the love of God and
of men" (33). He said that "personal sanctification" is the crucial
first step to sanctifying the world by extending the kingdom of
God. And that makes perfect sense. Most of us learn how to seek
God and hunger for holiness from our parents and within our families.
Familiaris Consortio encourages families to become involved
in forms of social service, especially those which favor the poor;
to cultivate the practice of hospitality and to engage themselves
politically. The Pope especially encourages families to "be the
first to take steps to see that the laws and institutions of the
state not only do not offend, but support and positively defend
the rights and duties of the family."
The Pope also reminds us that in many places around the world,
the family is under siege from a hostile society and state. And
in response to these abuses, he outlines a charter of 14 family
rights that range from the right to political and economic security,
to freedom of education, of worship and of movement to seek better
John Paul II closes this section of Familiaris Consortio
by reminding us that "[I]nsofar as it is a 'small-scale church,'
the Christian family is called upon, like the 'large-scale church,'
to be a sign of unity to the world, and in this way to exercise
its prophetic role by bearing witness to the kingdom and peace
of Christ, toward which the whole world is journeying." In other
words, in the name of Jesus Christ, every Catholic must
in some sense be an internationalist -- and so must every Catholic
Now how do we apply these teachings?
As the Holy Father says in Novo Millennio Ineunte, we
should never be "seduced by the naïve expectation that, faced
with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic
formula . . . It is not a matter of inventing a new program. The
program already exists: It is the plan found in the Gospel . .
. [and it] has its center in Christ Himself, who is to be known,
loved and imitated, so that in Him we may live the life of the
Trinity, and with Him transform history . . ." (29).
The most important way for families to live Familiaris Consortio
as if it really mattered is to pray often and together
-- and not to "lie" when they do it. We need to live what we say
we believe. That means bringing Christ into all of our daily routines,
and all of our daily interactions and reflections.
I think it was Karl Barth who said that there are actually two
sources of revelation: the Scriptures and the newspapers. In one
sense he was right. It's a poetic way of expressing the fact that
God speaks to us through the events of our time, not only important
events but also in the daily events of our lives at home, in our
communities, and with our relatives and friends.
That's why I've always clipped the newspapers. Sooner or later,
God uses the headlines to speak to the heart. Let me give you
just a few examples.
Here's the first example: Awhile back the Congressional Budget
Office reported that the wealthiest 2.7 million Americans now
have as much to spend as the poorest 100 million Americans. The
incomes of the richest Americans are rising twice as fast as those
of the middle class. Four out of five American households take
home a smaller portion of the economic pie than they did in 1977,
and the gap between the rich and poor in the United States is
Here's another example: A couple of weeks ago the Chicago Tribune
reported on the rise of a "pro-anorexia" movement on the internet.
Hundreds of websites now exist to encourage and support people
-- not in overcoming their anorexia, but in hanging
onto it. About 5 million Americans, mostly young women, struggle
with anorexia, and at least 1,000 die from it every year. And
it's very difficult to shut any of these websites down because
of the protection they get from constitutional guarantees of freedom
Here's another example: Last fall, the London Times reported
on the marketing of a new toy called "Death Row Marv." The toy
allows children to electrocute a plastic doll based on a comic
book character convicted of murdering the man who killed his girlfriend.
According to The Times, "strapped into the chair, the 6 inch
figure can move his neck, shoulders, waist and wrists. As the
current is applied, his eyes glow red and his body convulses.
In his death throes, he taunts his executioners through clenched
teeth [with the words, 'Is] that the best you can do, you pansies?'"
Here's another example: Earlier this month Chicago papers reported
on the death of a Richard Englbrecht. At 81, Englbrecht was quiet
and something of a loner, so he didn't have many friends. He was
dead in his house for several weeks before anyone noticed he was
But that's not the whole story. Englbrecht lived right next door
to Adolph Stec, 72, who was also found dead in his house,
earlier this spring. Stec had been dead, sitting in his living
room chair, for more than four years. Both men had died
of natural causes. Neither had close relatives. Nobody noticed
they were missing. In the case of Adolph Stec, he wasn't discovered
until the authorities auctioned his house for unpaid taxes, and
the new owners broke in to do renovations.
And here's one final example: On August 2, the New York Times
reported a story entitled "Bioethicists find themselves the ones
being scrutinized." The story had three key points. (1) Bioethicists
play a growing role in deciding morally sensitive questions like
stem cell and cloning research. (2) As one expert complained,
"anybody can stand up and claim to be an ethicist -- there is
no licensing, there is no accreditation." And (3) in the words
of another expert, research corporation "bioethics boards look
like watchdogs, but they're used like show dogs." In other words,
corporations tend to hire and manipulate bioethicists to get the
moral counsel they want.
What can families draw from these stories in the light of their
relationship with Jesus Christ?
We live in an economy that runs on the artificial creation of
desires -- and the goods to meet those desires. Every day, in
a hundred different ways, we're told that we don't have enough
things, we deserve more things, and we should get
the things we want right now. The average American child
sees 16,000 hours of television before the end of high school
and 1 million commercials before the age of 20. In effect, our
kids get a free education in greed, discontent and fantasy relationships.
And then we wonder why their marriages don't work.
In the last 20 years, the average U.S. worker has seen his annual
number of working hours increase by one full month. In
other words, instead of creating leisure and more time for the
family, the U.S. economy has brought about a permanent culture
We've created an environment where both parents frequently have
jobs outside the home; a society of more work and more stress,
caused by our addictive consumption of goods, which is fueled
by the relentless marketing of products, which creates more consumer
debt, which generates the need for longer work hours, in order
to make more money. Families have no time to be a family. And
tens of millions of husbands and wives are essentially working
to service their credit-card debt. They live to pay their bills.
To counter this economic environment, one of the most important
gifts parents can give their children and each other is gratitude.
The German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said,
" . . . in ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a
great deal more than what we give, and it is only with gratitude
that life becomes rich." The Roman poet and philosopher Seneca
once wrote, "He that urges gratitude pleads the cause of both
God and men, for without it we can be neither social or religious."
Gratitude leads to humility. Humility makes us aware of others.
And an awareness of others and their needs softens our hearts
to forgive -- and leads us to see our own sins and our own need
for repentance. These are the seeds of both justice and mercy,
without which no society can survive.
We need to teach our children that what we do becomes
who we are. We need to share more and acquire less. We
need to unplug a little from the network of noise that surrounds
us. We need to create the room for a silence that we can fill
with conversation -- conversation with each other and with God.
If our children play with toys like "Death Row Marv" or video
games that involve murder and violence, they lose a sense of the
sanctity of life. If they ignore the elderly people who live next
door or down the street, they help create a culture of isolation
and loneliness. If they think "freedom" includes the right of
a website to encourage young women to starve themselves to death,
they don't understand what real freedom means.
Freedom is not the right to do whatever we want. It's not "choice"
for its own sake. It's not an endless variety of consumer goods.
Freedom is the ability to see and the courage to choose what's
We live in odd times. Those of you who are my age may remember
a song the Rolling Stones did about 30 years ago called Sympathy
for the Devil. There's a verse in that song that kept coming
back to me as I thought about our discussion today.
Every cop's a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails, just call me Lucifer
And I'm in need of some restraint.
These days, Lucifer is in need of a lot more than "some"
restraint. We live in an age when fertility and the creation of
new life can be divorced from love. It's an age when words don't
mean what they mean; when the breakdown of the ties that connect
us as a people is described as social progress; and when even
the definition of the family can be turned upside down. The Pontifical
Council for Culture described our situation this way two years
"Painful personal situations call for understanding, love and
solidarity, but what is a tragic breakdown of family life should
never be put forward as a new model for society. Anti-family and
anti-birth campaigns and policies are merely attempts to modify
the very notion of 'family' to the point of robbing it of its
meaning. In this context, forming a community of life and love
which unites spouses in association with the Creator is the best
cultural contribution Christian families can offer society."
One of the biggest lies of our age is that individuals can't
make a difference. It's exactly individuals who do make
a difference -- and united in the love of Christian families working
together, they can change the world.
Let me close with one final reflection. We call the Church Ecclesia
Mater for a reason. She's our mother as surely as the mother
of any family. The Church continues the mission of Jesus Christ
in the world. She suffers for the world, forgives, heals, encourages,
corrects and guides us exactly as a mother does. So the sooner
we stop calling the Church an "it" instead of a "she," the sooner
we stop thinking of the Church as a religious institution, or
corporation or sociology project, and begin to listen to her again
as our mother, our mater et magistra, the better
she -- and we -- will accomplish God's work of changing and sanctifying
C. S. Lewis once wrote that "There is no neutral ground in the
universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by
God and counter-claimed by Satan." John Paul II once said that,
"Against the spirit of the world, the Church takes up anew --
each day -- [a] struggle for the soul of the world." And
the great French theologian, Henri De Lubac, once wrote that "The
Gospel warns us that salt can lose its flavor. And if we -- that
is, most of us -- live more or less in peace in the midst
of the world, it is perhaps because we are lukewarm."
God doesn't need lukewarm Christians. He doesn't want lukewarm
families. The mission of the Church is sanctifying the world;
and all of us as her sons and daughters -- especially those of
us responsible for forming and nourishing families -- share in
her mission. "Go make disciples of all nations" is still the mandate.
So let's pray honestly, work honestly, love honestly and live
honestly so that others will see and believe.