The Family in the Teachings of Pope Francis. Conference in Genoa.

Pope Francis speaks frequently about the family. We all remember the great teachings of John Paul II about the family. He had been called “the Pope of the family”. Memorable in particular are the catecheses dedicated to human love delivered during general audiences. No less so is the teaching of Pope Francis, who speaks about the family with a magisterium that is both well structured and profound. He spoke about the family with President Obama during his visit to the United States, as well as in Cuba, where he said: “Wherever the family disappears, persons turn into isolated individuals, and are therefore easy to manipulate and govern”. He spoke about the family with President Mattarella on 18 April 2015, and during his journey in the Philippines in January 2014. In addition, just like John Paul II, he has spoken about the family especially during the Wednesday audiences, which for a lengthy period of time – from December 2014 to September 2015 – focused on the family. Hence, a great patrimony of teachings.

I have cited these two pontiffs not for purposes of superficial comparison, but rather to underscore the continuity of one and the same teaching, albeit in the diversity of their respective ways of speaking and the forms of communication used. John Paul II was more roundabout, while Pope Francis is more direct. St. John Paul II as well used some expressions with great communication impact; for example, the reference to “feminine genius” in the Letter to Women, or the expression “human ecology” launched in Centesimus annus to say that the family is the first and principle structure of the ecology. Overall, however, his way of speaking was robust, roundabout, elevated and broad sweeping. Pope Francis expresses himself in a different way, in an agile way abounding with imagery. By way of example, let us take expressions such as “the family is the Constitutional Charter of the Church” (17 October 2015) “the family is the first hospital for sick persons” (10 June 2015), or the family “is a gym that gives training in forgiveness”. A constitution, a hospital, a gym: simple and eloquent images. It is not a matter of strictly theological or doctrinal definitions, but expressions of a preaching format able to transmit human and Christian substance.  Moreover, we cannot forget the way Pope Francis, when speaking about the family, uses many images from concrete life, including his own life: for example, when speaking about our Mother, he evoked his own mommy: “We were five children, and while one of them was doing one thing, another one was thinking about doing something else, and poor mommy went back and forth. She gave us so much” (7 January 2015).  

Lastly, I’d like to recall some well-chosen expressions used by Pope Francis when addressing some current issues of a thorny nature, with respect to which he had been unjustly accused of remaining somewhat silent. For example, he called gender ideology “an error of the human mind” (22 March 2015, in Naples), and also said it is “a form of ideological colonization of the family”. Here again we see a pliant and incisive way of speaking.

Questions of language are not just that alone. They respond to a position taken and express both a theoretical vision and a strategy. On this point I’d like to venture a few interpretative hypotheses.

The current situation of the family is perhaps more problematic than ever before. Data relative to the decline in marriages, the increase in common law cohabitation, births outside matrimony, the declining birth rate, separations, divorces, and the use of contraceptives with possible abortive effects, etc., provide documentary proof – in the latest Censis statistical report as well – of a grave crisis of the family as such. In the meantime, lawmakers all around the world are weakening the family by considering it not a natural structure, but a conventional one open to many forms, and this in deference to a liquid anthropology that rejects any given identity.

Notable in Pope Francis’ words regarding the family is a sharp awareness of this grave cultural and social crisis affecting the family, and he seems to correspond thereto with a new attitude and approach. 

The first thing to do is reconstruct the ‘abc’ of the family lexicon. At a time when imminent is the risk of losing the meaning of words like ‘mommy’ or ‘grandpa’, evidently urgent becomes the need to recover the semantics of such words. At a time when family relations are crumbling, when parents never get together with their offspring except in the evening, when inter-generation relations are imploding, and when technological instruments are becoming substitutes for family roles, it is necessary to once again explain what it means for family members to speak with one another. Pope Francis therefore explains the importance of words like “thank you”, “I’m sorry” and “please” in everyday family life, and, as he recently did (11 November 2015), explain to both parents and children how necessary it is leave smart phones and TV sets out of the picture and speak with one another around the dinner table in the evening. Early in 2015 Pope Francis dedicated the Wednesday audiences to explaining the meaning of the words mommy, daddy, grandparents, brothers and sisters.

Someone may be surprised that a pope actually speaks about little things like this, and instead of delivering profoundly theological talks explains the importance of switching off mobile phones when sitting around the same table. In my opinion, however, in so doing the pope is performing an indispensible task of re-educating people to essentials in an effort to flag the danger of a degeneration of the family which, yes, does begin with ideological onslaughts and legislative attacks – which the Holy Father never ceases to denounce – but becomes concrete also in the little abysses of everyday human relations.

Moreover, I ask myself, is this really a matter of nothing more than common and elementary indications, or is this colloquial and domestic approach – as if we were seated on a couch at home – the pope’s way to help people understand much more profound things? In order to answer this question I’d like to make some observations based on the Social Doctrine of the Church.  

Pope Francis does not use the expression ‘Social Doctrine of the Church’ very often. Yes, in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium he cites the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church many times. Yes, he has used the expression itself on numerous occasions, especially when speaking to the offices of the Roman Curia and the Pontifical Academies. That said, I’d like to remark that he uses the social doctrine of the Church in a more implicit than explicit way, more indirect than direct, and this is evident in particular when he is speaking about the family. Evident when reading his words about the family is the presence of all the major themes of the social doctrine of the Church regarding the family, but without highlighting that fact and using daily and not scholarly language as pointed out above. I could also say that the social doctrine of the Church is a premise to his words and comes across through them without being formerly cited and redefined.

Many indeed are examples of this approach.  

At the general audience on 2 September 2015 the Holy Father spoke about the family as the antidote to the current desertification of society. With these words based on  imagery – the desert – he reiterated the traditional doctrine of the family as the source of social reality and  receptivity, as well as the place of the experience of oblative gift of self that we find in the Caritas in veritate of Benedict XVI, or in the Familiaris consortio of John Paul II. During the audience on 18 February 2015 he had already insisted on the fact that the experience of being brothers and sisters takes place in the family, and only because it takes place there can it then be lived in the Church and in society. This also applies to helping those most in need: the family is where we become accustomed to doing so not for ideological reasons, but out of love.

During the catechesis on 19 August 2015, Pope Francis spoke about the family as the “school of work”, cautioning one and all that if they want to save work it is necessary to safeguard the family. He thereby evoked the teachings of Rerum novarum of Leo XIII and Laborem exercens of John Paul II.

At the audience held on 11 and 29 April of this year he spoke about the complementary reciprocity between man and woman. He gave a negative assessment of the ideologies that nowadays profess to deny it, and then called for equality of treatment at work for men and women. In the first case he revived and updated Benedict XVI’s teachings about the gender ideology set forth especially in the latter’s address to the Roman Curia in December 2012.  In the second case he went back to John Paul II’s considerations about conciliation between work and family life and the suitable enhancement of “feminine genius” in Familiaris consortio and Mulieris dignitatem.

In the audience on 11 February 2015 Pope Francis spoke at length about children as a gift: “Children are a gift, a present: is that clear? Children are a gift. Each one is unique and unrepeatable; and at the same time unmistakably linked to his or her roots. In fact, being son and daughter, according to the plan of God, means bearing within self the memory and the hope of a love that has attained fulfillment precisely in kindling the life of another original and unique human being”. In this way, and with this direct language, he conveyed the substance of Catholic bioethics and bio-politics, from the Humanae vitae of Paul VI to the Evangelium vitae of John Paul II and later documents of the Holy See.

I have cited numerous documents of the Magisterium of the Church, whose contents echo anew in the words of Pope Francis, but without being rendered explicit. We could perhaps define them as “soft” in nature insofar as not weighed down by the academic format of quotations, but inserted in the mainstream of life itself.

I have given these four examples to illustrate how what Pope Francis says about the family is put across, yes, with homespun language focusing on images and particularly evocative phrases – “he who does not live to serve does not serve to live” – but this does not mean very lofty contents are not conveyed. I have dealt thus far with themes connected with the Social Doctrine of the Church, but the same could be said about other ambits of the Church’s teaching.

As I approach my conclusion I would like to return to the method, which, as we have seen, is not just a problem of method as such. I have the distinct impression that Pope Francis wants to show us a way characterized by two elements: the first is to begin anew from the ‘abc’ of humanization and evangelization, also as far as the family is concerned. Please note that I have not spoken just about evangelization, but also humanization. These two elements are ever interwoven in the Holy Father’s words, and we are all aware of the need to recoup and restore elementary human conditions of life together with Christianity and through it. The second has to do with the need to work especially on relations, because not only is the family first and foremost relation, but nowadays at stake is the selfsame existence of society at large in this same area. In no way whatsoever does this mean to refrain from taking a correct position also with respect to institutions, laws and policies, while at the same time remembering that those three realities are not static, but respond to bottom-up solicitations bred in the texture of family and social relations. The truly successful models here are the ones that give life to forms of behavior, attitudes, practices in daily life and relations. Hence what is most likely a certain reluctance or parsimony on the part of the Holy Father in giving definitions, and his propensity to indicate ways to behave, practices to be promoted, dimensions of life to be enhanced, or, as he likes to say, processes to be launched.

Naturally situated first and foremost in this relational and vital dimension is the life of faith. On 25 March 2015 the Holy Father proposed a prayer for the family in view of the then upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family. Now that the Synod is over, I would invite you not to forget that prayer. I say this because I think Pope Francis wants to teach us that Christianity is life lived, flesh incarnated. Basically speaking, the family will save itself if the life of the Family of Nazareth penetrates into our families.


S.E. Mons. Giampaolo Crepaldi

Conference in Genoa