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
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
We thank the Lord for the witness of these families.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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