Pope Francis' visit to the US in 2015 was marked by its proximity to the upcoming Synod on the Family.
In his officially recorded speeches, available at the Vatican website as the key reference point for many in the future, the Pope focused on a number of social, political and environmental themes. However, due to its timing just before the Synod, let us look at how the theme of marriage and family takes an important place yet can remain somewhat open to interpretation in the Pope's messages.
The Pope's speeches
In his addresses to the US Congress and to the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Pope focused on aspects of the family within society, voicing his concerns for the family being endangered from within as well as from without. He reminded the audience of every creature's inherent value and the dignity of life and he pointed out that moral law inherent to human nature includes the natural difference between the sexes. The Pope also talked about the sacredness of human nature and of every human life and in both addresses he called for the protection of human life in all stages of its development. He also referred to the unborn and those under the threat of capital punishment.
While meeting with American bishops, the Pope brought up some of the key-points regarding the nature of marriage and family, being “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race”. Then, however, he lamented the changes in society with their subsequent effects on the marital bond and the diverging relationship between sacramental and civil marriage. To illustrate this, he offered a parallel regarding the development from small familiar neighbourhood shops to large supermarkets that provide mere anonymous satisfaction of needs in consumption.
In the setting of the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis depicted the positive aspects of families, calling them “the most beautiful thing God made” and “a workshop of hope, of the hope of life and resurrection”. Indeed, he summarised, family is “the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God”. Bringing up God's attributes of goodness, beauty and truth, he reminded us that the Church, we, are Jesus' bride with the families being the domestic church. Without marginalising the hardships that spousal life brings, the Pope was able even to talk about mothers-in-law, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, while encouraging people to grow in love.
The themes discussed above are founded on the teachings of the Church. The Pope's articulation of the nature of marriage as “a sign and instrument of communion with God” should remind us that it is a Sacrament and what this implies. The important point of marriage as “the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God” reminds us further about marriage: it is a covenant, that is a union, between one man and one woman that cannot be repeated during the life of both spouses. This reference to the generation of life also points to openness to having children. It is precisely this openness in self-donation and reception of the other spouse that should be total and without withdrawing any of the aspects (including one's fertility). Then, such a covenant reveals God, Who gave Himself for us on the Cross also totally, without any holding back. This also reveals God's loving and self-giving nature, that is His goodness, beauty and truth. Then, marriage truly is “a workshop of hope”.
Such an understanding of marriage can be truly enabled only if it is founded on the natural difference between the sexes. Francis' reference to the outside dangers for marriage probably includes various forms of redefined unions, bonds and partnerships, while the inside dangers are more likely connected with spouses seeking satisfaction of needs and consumption, as opposed to selfless giving. Thus, the difference increases between sacramental marriage and the various forms of civil marriage and contracts.
Regarding the dignity and protection of life, Pope Francis reminded us that every creature possesses an inherent value and the dignity of life. This therefore belongs to the entirety of the creature's life, implying the need for protection of all stages of its development, right from the moment of conception to its natural end.
Other Possible Interpretations
Such papal messages are in accordance with the teachings of previous popes. However, in the post-modern era, there are those who attempt to alter the meaning of some of the Church teachings. This is evident by the recent appeal for the Pope to clarify the Church doctrine on marriage and family that was signed by nearly 800 000 people. Hence, clarity in language and meaning with regards to the Church teaching on marriage and family is crucial, particularly around this time of the Synod.
Indeed, those approaching American papal messages with different goals in view, whether of a personal or social nature, might read the papal messages in various ways. Thus, the above-mentioned marriage and family being “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race” can be interpreted by some in the way of flexibly desired forms and amounts of partnerships, regardless of people's sexes, differences or other commitments. For them, family as “the most beautiful thing God made” is founded on and justified by love, a love, regardless of the nature, mutual compatibility and truthfulness of this particular love. Then, the lamented divergence between sacramental and civil marriage might only reinforce the preconception of an old, exclusive and prejudiced Church.
Furthermore, the “the covenant [...that...] generates life and reveals God” is taken by many as generating new life in a specific amount, often restricted to one or two children in Western society. This tends to be justified precisely by the satisfaction of one's (perceived) needs and welfare, regardless of their true (God-willed) welfare. Thus, again, the Church is seen as out-of-touch.
The relativistic approach also enables the redefinition of key terms, such as human person and therefore the beginning of life. Many will agree with the need to protect the “unborn”. However if a child is redefined as a foetus or a mere clump of cells and is perceived as becoming a human later on, this would allow (or perhaps even justify) various practices endangering the life hidden in the womb. Thus, the Pope's mention of the protection of the unborn is important, however his immediate refocussing onto capital punishment allows opportunity for such misinterpretations.
Finally, in the homily at the closing mass of the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis made some thought-provoking points on love, acceptance and cooperation with the Holy Spirit. However, this was expressed in language that includes a number of formulations that could be easily misinterpreted if taken out of the context of the true nature of marriage and family. Such a thing happened, for example, with the well-known “who am I to judge” quote that the Pope stated during an in-flight interview on his return from the 2013 Rio De Janeiro's World Youth Day. The quote was taken out of context (even out of the rest of the sentence, giving it a very different meaning) and those with a pro-homosexual agenda welcomed this, cheering the long-expected opening up of the Church to modern times and possibly even a change in Church teachings.
Similarly, Francis' homily from the World Meeting of Families could be misinterpreted with a similar selective reporting of his words. He uses words such as “'intolerable' scandal”, and later “Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions” is followed by “for we know that things can change” in the same paragraph, leading to a conclusion of “May he [God] grant us the grace to be worthy of that purity of heart which is not scandalized by the Gospel”. Although it is precisely this homily, where the definition of marriage is found (“the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God”), these words could easily be re-contextualised into a pro-homosexual narrative and even be perceived as the awaited shift in the Church's teaching to become more up-to-date with society. However, such attitudes allowing alternative interpretations of the Pope's words can only originate from positions irreconcilable with Church teachings.
What Does It All Mean?
Pope Francis' talking about the nature of marriage and the protection of life is nothing new in the Church. It is a continuation of a long process that reaches to her beginning, dating back throughout the centuries as far as to Didache, the Gospels and even to the Old Testament. These themes have been a focal point especially since the Second Vatican Council and now, perhaps more than ever, they are a highly important issue.
So, Pope Francis' words in America echo the teachings of the Church, reminding people of the nature of marriage, family and humanity. Many share the Pope's “concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before”. Overall, Pope Francis' words are very truthful and so much needed in the contemporary society, inspiring many families. However, their clarification through a more specifically articulated teaching is increasingly necessary and we can hope that this will come from the Synod on the Family that has just begun.