The Family Crisis and Evangelization

On the flight home from the Holy Land, a journalist asked Pope Francis the running question, “What is going to happen with communion to the divorced and remarried?”

Francis responded, “The Synod will be on the family, the problems of the family, the treasures of the family, the present situation of the family…. I have not been happy that so many people—even church people, priests—have said: ‘Ah, the Synod will be about giving communion to the divorced.’ … No, the issue is bigger and wider. Today, as we all know, the family is in crisis, it is in crisis worldwide….  Marriage is in crisis, and so the family is in crisis.”

He went on to explain that the original title for these Synods was, “What Jesus Christ brings to contemporary men and women and to the family,” from which we got the final title, “Pastoral Problems of the Family in the Context of the New Evangelization.” “Annulments, all of this,” will be part of the discussion, said the Pope, “but as part of a larger picture.”

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

To help us think about that larger picture, let us think about three things people mean when they speak of “the New Evangelization,” and how those inform a bigger response to the marriage crisis.

New Evangelization Means Reaching People Creatively
By “New Evangelization” many people mean “evangelization using new technologies”—like online magazines. We can take this a step deeper.

The new technologies that most affect faith are probably the ones that give us greater mobility (such as airplanes and super highways) and those that allow mass communications. These technologies present both problems and opportunities.

The problem of mobility is that modern people have no roots. A family rooted to a particular place will have a rich network of relations to support them. They also know that they can’t get away. Today, most of us live in contexts where it is easy to walk away from our support networks, making marriage harder; divorce and other kinds of infidelity, meanwhile, are much easier, since it is easy to walk away and never see someone again. New forms of mobility present a pastoral challenge to the family. Among other things, the Church simply needs to warn people about the dangers of rootlessness.

On the other hand, while mobility allows us to get away, it also allows us to come together. The Church can work on building new communities, and urging people to enter into them. There are some situations that should be fled: the new mobility also means a lot more people feel free to convert to Catholicism, for example. We need to take advantage of mobility to build communities where people can put down roots in healthy soil—and we need to think seriously about what this looks like, in the new, mobile world.

Similarly, new communications make it awfully easy to spread error, from slander to heresy to pornography—not to mention triviality, when unending entertainment leads us to the error of nihilism. The faithful, including priests, need to make much greater efforts to protect themselves from these errors. On the other hand, the expanding marketplace of ideas gives us a place to preach the Gospel. We need to preach the truth about the family, aware that people in today’s world hear many other truths.

New Evangelization Means Re-evangelizing Christians
A second, and deeper meaning of “new evangelization” is the new problem of fallen-away Christians. In some Church documents, new evangelization really means “re-evangelization.” Never before have so many treated Christianity as old news.

People think they know what the Church teaches, and that they can do better without it. New evangelization means responding to this challenge. Part of the new evangelization is a clearer articulation of why the Church defends marriage; what marriage really is; what family is, and why it is good—all in the context of a culture that thinks it already knows what we have to say.

On the flight back to Rome, Pope Francis recalled, “Something Pope Benedict had said about the divorced on three different occasions has been very helpful to me…. [He said there is a need] to study the annulment process; to examine the faith with which people enter marriage; and to make clear that the divorced are not excommunicated.”

In a culture that thinks it knows what the Church teaches, we need to explain the difference between the punishment of excommunication, which the Church chooses to impose, and sin, which is a decision of the sinner. The Church does not punish those who are remarried, she calls them to repentance.

In the context of a fallen-away culture, we need to think seriously about the statement with which Canon Law begins its long discussion about marriage: “a valid marriage contract cannot exist between baptised persons without it being by that very fact a sacrament.” What precisely happens when a baptized couple attempts marriage without faith? Is it a sacrament? Is it any marriage at all? This is a new problem, unfamiliar to the ages of faith.

And how can we prevent this from happening? Never before has the Church had to think seriously about people with no faith wanting a Church wedding. The new evangelization means finding ways to avoid this scandal.

New Evangelization Means Taking Evangelization Seriously
Third, and perhaps most profoundly, “new evangelization” sometimes, especially in the writings of Francis, simply means “renewed energy for evangelization.” The Church is inherently missionary. But she doesn’t always act that way.

Renewed energy for evangelization means realizing that every Christian is called to mission—and made for mission. The clergy have a responsibility to preach, and to defend the integrity of the faith. But the lay faithful too are called to spread the Gospel. They need to be enabled to do that.

During the Year of Faith a layman made available through email, for free, daily readings from the Catechism. The bishops shut him down for copyright infringement. How typical of today’s Church was this? And how does it affect the broader culture if families are prevented from preaching the Gospel of the Family?

Families need to be enabled to live and preach their vocation. Most essentially, this requires priests to do their job as priests: to make available the sacraments and the faith in its integrity. Ironically, serious thought about the pastoral care of the family requires its own mini-synod on priests, under a heading such as “customer service.”

Families cannot live their vocation—and so cannot preach their vocation to others—without daily Mass. Yet in many places there is no Mass on Saturday, no daily Mass at noon, no early Masses or late Masses for people who work. In many parishes, families with children are not welcome. Some cities have daily Mass downtown, where the workers are—but many cities don’t. This is a problem of the pastoral care of families.

Similar things can be said about confession. Why is it so rare to find a parish with daily confession, at times convenient for family people? To live and preach their vocation well, families need the sacraments to be available. If there are structural problems that prevent priests from offering the sacraments, those structural problems need to be seriously addressed: for the good of the family.

Finally, the Church needs to preach the universal call to holiness. Priests and families, the married and the divorced: no one is called to conformity or mediocrity, but to holiness. The demands the Church rightly makes on the divorced make no sense if we continually lower the bar on marriage and the priesthood. The real solution to the family crisis is not to hand out communion to more people. The real solution is evangelization, and holiness.


  • Eric Johnston

    Eric Johnston is a father of five who teaches theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University. His principal work is on Thomas Aquinas’s theology of marriage, as well as related topics in social thought and the theology of nature and grace. He blogs on spiritual theology at

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...