PASTORAL CARE OF THE FAMILY: COUPLES IN DIFFICULTY
Pontifical Council for the Family

Conclusions of the 15th plenary assembly of the pontifical council for the family

At the invitation of Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family met in Sacrofano, Rome, from 17 to 19 October 2002. The participants reflected on the issue of couples in difficulty from the point of view of pastoral care, according to the features dealt with in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, n. 77. Here is a translation of the conclusions of the Plenary Assembly.

I. Observations

The family is the "way of the human person", the place where a human being becomes acquainted with life and social existence. It remains a place of strong emotional involvement. It is the place for one's expected recognition as a person. It ensures the necessary stability to the mission of education. It is recognized as the ultimate refuge from the danger of marginalization.

Let us not forget that even in the midst of the situations of family crisis, many families, indeed the majority, live instead in a firm and faithful union and this is so even in countries where the problem is more acute.

We thank the Lord for the witness of these families.

Divorce mentality

However, the fragility of the marital bond is a notable feature of the contemporary world. It spares no continent and is present at every level of society. It makes society fragile and even jeopardizes the educational task. All too often it leads to numerous separations as well as to divorce.

One sometimes has the impression that separation and divorce are considered the only way out of marital crisis. This is part of the growing "divorce mentality". Difficulties frequently lead to real friction and conflicts which, in the "new mentality" also lead to separation (advisable perhaps, in extreme cases), and even to divorce. We will make frequent reference to these cases and we want to insist on the danger of the spread of the "divorce mentality", which the Holy Father recently branded in his address to the Roman Rota (28 January 2002; ORE, 6 February 2002, p. 6). This mentality weakens spouses and creates a greater risk for their personal frailty. Giving up without a struggle is becoming far too common, whereas a strong faith might enable them to overcome even serious difficulties.

In fact, divorce is not just a question of a legal decision. It is not like a "crisis" that passes away. It leaves a lasting impression on the partners. It is a problem of a relationship, of relationship that was destroyed. It will mark every member of the family community for life. It is a cause of financial, emotional and human impoverishment. This impoverishment especially affects women and children. Its social costs are particularly high.

One can realize that there is no proportion between the motives given for the divorce and the irreparable consequences that come from it.

II. Reasons for this situation

Different factors contribute to the current increase in divorce, with elements that vary from country to country. First and foremost is the surrounding culture, "a world that is becoming ever more secularized", as the Holy Father said to us (Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family, n. 2; ORE, 30 October, p. 3). In this culture particular mention is made of economic difficulties and the break-up of families they create. One can mention a false concept of freedom, the fear of commitment, the practice of cohabitation, the "trivialization of sex", as John Paul II describes it, sexual promiscuity, and life styles, women's fashions, films, TV sitcoms, etc. They make people harbour doubt about the value of marriage and go so far as to propagate the idea that the reciprocal gift of spouses until death would be something impossible. They weaken the family institution and even manage to discredit it, to the advantage of other pseudo-family "models".

Radical accent on the individual

We are also witnessing the invasion of many areas of human activity by a radical individualism: economic life, excessive competition, competition in all fields of human activity, disregard of the marginalized, etc.

This individualism certainly does not encourage generous, faithful and permanent self-giving. Nor does it foster a solution to the crisis of marriage.

It often happens that States themselves, responsible for the common good and social coherence, encourage this individualism, enshrining it in legal expressions such as, for example, in France the "civil pact of solidarity" (PACS), which is presented, at least implicitly, as an alternative to marriage. Worse still are the homosexual or lesbian unions, whose members also demand the right to adopt children. By so doing, they render marriage precarious in public opinion and contribute to creating problems that they are incapable of solving. Very often, marriage is no longer considered as a social good, and its "privatization" paves the way to reducing or even eliminating its public value.

This social ideology of pseudo freedom authorizes the individual to act primarily for his own pleasure, his own interests, his own usefulness. The spouses' commitment acquires the air of a mere contract open to indefinite renegotiation; the word given has no more than a limited value in time; persons are only responsible to themselves for their actions.

Erroneous visions of married life

It must also be noted that many young people form an idealistic or even erroneous vision of the couple as a living unclouded happiness where their own wishes will be fulfilled. They can reach a latent conflict between the desire to be one with the other and the desire to protect their own freedom. A growing misunderstanding of the beauty of the genuine human couple, and of the richness of the difference and the complementarity of man and woman leads to a growing confusion about sexual identity, a confusion which has culminated in the feminist ideology of what is known as "gender". This confusion complicates the assumption of roles and the sharing of tasks in the home. It leads to a renegotiation of these roles as permanent as it is extenuating. Today, moreover, the conditions created by the professional activity of the husband and wife reduce the time they spend together and their communication in the family. They also impoverish the capacity for dialogue between the spouses.

Financial problems

In some countries, unemployment or economic difficulties that oblige one parent to live abroad are also a danger for the couple. They give priority to money, sacrificing their life as a couple.

All too often, when the crisis comes, the couple have to solve it alone. They have no one who can listen to them or enlighten them, which would perhaps enable them to avoid making an irreversible decision. This solitude leaves couples closed-in on their problems, especially when families do not support them, since they no longer see any alternative to separation or divorce as a solution to their suffering. Instead, this temporary crisis might have been overcome if the couple had had the support of a human or ecclesial community.

III. Consequences of divorce on children

Among the problems connected with divorce, there is a particular concern for the children. They are the first victims of their parents' decisions. It is true that the idea that separation or divorce are the natural solution to a marriage crisis is becoming very widespread, and some say that after all it is not such a bad thing for the children. "A good divorce is better than a bad marriage", they declare. It is said that children suffer less from a clearcut separation than from a combative atmosphere between their parents.

Long term negative effect of divorce

On the contrary, in the numerous studies dedicated to this topic, many experts emphasize that divorce upsets all the family members, profoundly disturbs the relationship between parents and children in the crucial years in which the personality is formed, and causes them to lose the symbolic reference points offered by the family environment. The child has to find his bearings in new family relationships which cause him upheaval and suffering. For the child, his/her parents' divorce will be the most important and painful event in the years of his growth, the event that affects him/her most deeply. The consequences of divorce on the child are manifold, profound and permanent. Some will only surface in the long term.

Therefore it is not surprising to note that divorce often causes such phenomena in children as falling behind at school, the temptation to crime, drug use, personal instability, relational difficulties, fear of commitments, professional failure, alienation, as the experts in these matters prove. Statistics also show that the children of divorced couples have greater difficulties than others in forming a stable conjugal relationship and that divorce is more frequent among them. In fact, separation and especially divorce, cause considerable damage to children and mark them for the rest of their life.

IV. Pastoral action

The Church is certainly not indifferent to the separation or divorce of married couples, to the destruction of families or to the situations that divorce creates for children. We are facing the denial of fundamental dimensions of human nature! In accordance with the expressed wish of the Holy Father ("To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good, the source of which is found in Christ the Redeemer of man.... What I offer, then, is an invitation: an invitation addressed ... to my Brothers in the Episcopate, and to priests, religious families and consecrated persons.... I speak ... to all people of our day, so that they will come to appreciate the grandeur of the goods of marriage, family and life; so that they will come to appreciate the great danger which follows when these realities are not respected, or when the supreme values which lie at the foundation of the family and of human dignity are disregarded" [John Paul II, Letter to Families, 2 February 1994, n. 23; ORE, 23 February 1994, Insert]), the Pontifical Council for the Family, joining forces with the Bishops' Conferences, is doing its utmost to foster a true family culture, a culture of life. In a society that no longer considers communion of life and stable, faithful and exclusive love possible, one must restore the value of love, not as happiness and passion, but as a plan of life, integration and openness.

Formation for pastoral care of marriages

This demands specific pastoral attention, with the involvement of priests and laity. Pastoral care requires a concentration of reflection and formation at the parochial and diocesan levels. Pastoral care will be prepared by a satisfactory formation of future priests in the seminary.

Three aspects of this pastoral action can be distinguished:

to prevent;

to accompany;

to reconcile and to start over again.

a) One must insist on the prevention of these situations, hence on the prevention of separation and divorce in themselves. Certainly, this prevention passes through a full, thorough and extensive preparation for marriage, as the Pontifical Council stresses in the document it has dedicated to this topic, observing the teaching of Familiaris consortio, n. 66 (Pontifical Council for the Family, Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage, 13 May 1996).

This preparation must be remote, close to the event and immediate. The remote preparation begins in childhood, in the home where the children are born, where they are opened to affection and love, following their parents' example.

Prayer in the family is of great importance. If it is true that many families have given up prayer, it is also true and encouraging that many others have freshly taken up the habit of praying for their future and for the future marriages of their children, putting everything in the hands of the Lord of the Covenant. Indeed, as the Holy Father recalls, "the family that prays together stays together" (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, n. 41).

Human and affective formation of young people

Children and young people need a human and affective formation which shapes their personality, their responsibility, their sense of fidelity and initiative. They need to be taught about their sexuality which, to be valid and fully human, must find its place in the process of the discovery of the capacity for love, impressed by God on the human heart. This is a formation for responsible love, guided by the Word of God and by reason. From this point of view it is never too much to recommend vigilance, when it is a question of choosing educational material destined for the young. What they have to use today is often offensive and dangerous, and creates a "mentality" which does not promote a mature commitment.

Catechesis must not neglect to present in a positive light the human values of friendship, mutual help, loyalty, the promise to be kept, and love. It must not hesitate to be appealing when it is a question of presenting the beauty of Christian marriage and the importance of the virtue of human sexuality, chastity (Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family, n. 16-25, 8 December 1995).

Parish formation of the young

In the period between the sacrament of Confirmation and the sacrament of Marriage, in the schedule of youth activities, parishes should organize special catecheses on the themes of commitment in marriage, in the family and for life.

The preparation for marriage of engaged couples must include an increased insistance on the definitive commitment they will be making before God and men. It is on these lines that it will be possible to place an emphasis on the promise to be kept and their responsibility for their own actions. Psychologists, educators or Christian couples should help young people discover genuine love in themselves, with all that this implies in the way of feeling, attachment, passion and also reason. By underlining these points, the Church will make her message on responsible parenthood understood and better received. During this preparation, special formation has to be given to children who come from broken homes.

Ongoing support of newly-weds

b) It is desirable that the married couples who accompany the engaged couples in their immediate preparation for marriage, will continue to follow them in the first years of their union to help them face tensions and misunderstandings before they degenerate into a crisis. Couples who have benefited from this kind of support will in turn be able to offer it to others.

Preventive pastoral care demands that throughout their married life, couples be offered possibilities and opportunities to go back in spirit to the beginning for their reflection and inspiration. This guidance should take such forms as encounters with other families, recollection, retreats or other meetings. Parishes and apostolic movements must be able to ensure they take place.

Holy Family Feast, chance for prayer and meeting with other families

Much should be made of the Feast of the Holy Family or of other celebrations in which couples meet, to offer them the opportunity to renew their marriage vows publicly in church; and to encourage husbands and wives to take the time and the necessary means to deepen the dialogue between them, so that their communication becomes a communion of hearts.

In this preventive pastoral approach, one must foster all that can reinforce cohesion and communication in the family. It is necessary to develop a true spirituality of marriage, as the Holy Father has pointed out ("Prayer increases the strength and spiritual unity of the family, helping the family to partake of God's own 'strength'.... This 'visitation' of the Holy Spirit gives rise to the inner strength of families, as well as the power capable of uniting them in love and truth" [Letter to Families, n. 4]).

c) In times of crises, all of the abovementioned means can help solve the sources of tension. They will enable the spouses to return to the starting point of their love, to relativize the stress of the moment and to overcome crises. Within themselves they possess the energies of the grace of marriage. These energies only wait to be reawakened and guided. It is here that an encounter with a mentor, a "spiritual director", a help network, a couple whose witness is an example or even a welcoming community can play an essential role.

As often happens in these cases, a crisis overcome can be the starting point of a new phase in the life of a couple. The Christian community must strive to make available to couples welcoming places where they may find people they can talk to in difficult moments.

In addition to the support of the Christian community, centres for marriage counselling should provide their professional expertise and wisdom. They must also have had a solid Christian training.

Successful marital commitment

d) The success of married life is "a commitment" that requires time, energy, carefulness and perseverance. The celebration of marriages is a favourable opportunity to proclaim this good news to all the wedding guests (Familiaris consortio, nn. 67-68). Wedding anniversaries and other celebrations that gather all the generations of a family should give them a strong experience of living together important moments.

Bishops, in their teaching, must remind married couples of the grace of the sacrament of marriage. They will know how to encourage them in their commitment to fidelity, in their concern to give themselves to one another and to invite them to mutual forgiveness. They must recall to both parents their responsibility for their children, reminding them that their children's happiness must have a central place in their lives. They will prudently point out to them that separation and divorce destroy a way of life without doing away with responsibility, since parents continue to be responsible for their children after their separation.

Formation of children from broken homes

e) The emotional upheaval suffered by children of separated couples who suddenly find themselves with a single parent or in a "new" family, poses a challenge for bishops, catechists, teachers and all who are responsible for the young. The number of these children is growing constantly. Despite their capacity for adaptation, the children often suffer and find it difficult to trust others. Educators must help them. It is not a question of replacing their parents but of collaborating with them. It is a matter of enabling their children to express themselves, to rediscover their confidence and to learn forgiveness. This can be done in the context of their family life, of friends' homes, of movements for children and youth, of Christian guidance teams and on the occasion of catechesis.

Conclusion

In all our thoughts on couples in difficulty, the problems of couples, the fragility of the institution of marriage, and the remedies for it, one topic constantly recurs and, in a certain way, constitutes the conclusion of our resolutions: the importance of the family, of the Christian family, as a testimony, model and support for all those for whom the problem of separation arises. This is what the Holy Father said today: "How important it is to foster family support for couples, especially young couples, by families who are spiritually and morally solid. It is a fruitful and necessary apostolate at this time in history" (Address to the 15th Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family, 18 October 2002, n. 8; ORE 30 October 2002, p. 3) ("The richness of the sacramental life, in the life of the family ... is undoubtedly the best antidote for confronting and overcoming obstacles and tensions" ibid., n. 2).

The Lord shows patience, confidence in difficulties

The Lord teaches us hope, patience and confidence in difficulties. He does not despair of the human person's inner energies, of his capacity for correction. After his example, we too should count on the person because we count on God; we should count on the family because it comes from God. As the Holy Father has recalled so beautifully in the Message he addressed to our Assembly: "There is no difficult situation that cannot be adequately confronted when one cultivates a genuine atmosphere of Christian life. Love itself, wounded by sin, is still a redeemed love" (ibid.).

We present these conclusions in the firm conviction that the problems couples are facing today, which weaken their union, have a true solution in the return to the solidity of the Christian family, a place of mutual trust, of reciprocal giving, of respect for freedom and of a training for social life. For this reason, we have confidence in the witness of those radiant, joyful homes that draw their energy from the sacrament of Marriage.

 
Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 November 2002, page 9

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