October Synod The Family in Context

“The proclamation of the Gospel of the Family is an integral part of the mission of the Church,” opens the just-released working document for this coming October’s Synod of Bishops.

Jul 05, 2014

By Fr Drew Christiansen SJ, America
“The proclamation of the Gospel of the Family is an integral part of the mission of the Church,” opens the just-released working document for this coming October’s Synod of Bishops. “The Gospel of the Family”: the words rather shocked me. For what should be obvious to every student of the New Testament is that Jesus’ preaching, what we call the Gospel, if it did anything, it relativized family life. As the late, great New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias explained, Jesus’ mission was to found “the new family of God.” "

Consider some of Jesus’ hardest sayings. When he was told his mother and brothers wanted to speak to him, Jesus replied, “‘Who are my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother’” (Matt 12:42-50). To the woman who praised his blood ties to Mary, Jesus responds, “Rather blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28). Those are such unexpected, counterintuitive statements that exegetes say they most likely come directly from Jesus himself, ipsissima verba as scholars used to say.

Likewise, Jesus demanded detachment from family from those who would follow him. He tested a scribe who asked to follow him, warning that like Jesus himself he would have no home. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have their nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 9:20). And to a follower who hoped to fulfill the basic filial obligation of burying his father he replied, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury the dead” (9:21).

I do not mean to denigrate the Christian ideal of the family, nor do I want to disparage the work of the Synod office. The work they have done is exceptional and, as I read the working document, the challenge the synod faces in formulating a pastoral strategy for families is enormous and enormously complex. It is in the family, after all, that most of us will experience the holiness of others and attain holiness ourselves. But I do want to warn against over-sacralizing the family and discourage hyper-inflating its religious importance as “Gospel.”

A biblical theology of the family that focuses on the Holy Family and thinks of the (nuclear) family as uniform through history is faithful neither to the text, nor to history of the Church’s pastoral experience. Speaking of the ‘Gospel of the Family’ as if Jesus’ good news was about family life deviates from the New Testament witness.

If we want to say that the Church has good news for families or that she has to do a better job at communicating the Gospel of Mercy to families who are suffering in ever so many ways, that is a different matter. The document does that and does it well. What it doesn’t do for bishops and families alike is retrieve from the Scriptures the complex, not always comforting, outlook on the family by which Christianity brought something new to the world, found neither in pagan antiquity nor in the Jewish tradition: the community of disciples as the new human family “born, not of blood, nor of the will of flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:13).

--Drew Christiansen, SJ, the former editor in chief of America, is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University

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