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Notre Dame symposium to explore marriage, family life


The Catholic Church has a rich theology of marriage and family life, one that has been developed to a great extent since the Second Vatican Council.

The ideas that families were created to be communities of love that exist to serve the Church and the world — and not only by bringing forth and raising children — isn’t one many Catholics hear very often, according to organizers of a July 18-21 symposium at the University of Notre Dame.

“If you told most Catholics that there’s not much attention in the Church paid to families, people would say, ‘What?’ Because it’s the singles that get left out,” said Julie Rubio, a professor of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University who will participate in the symposium. “But I’m not sure how much deep reflection we get on what it means to be a family, what it means to be a Catholic family, and is that different than other families?”

Those are some of the questions that will be discussed at the Catholic Family Life Symposium. The event was organized by Greg and Lisa Popcak of the Pastoral Solutions Institute in collaboration with the OSV Institute, Holy Cross Family Ministries and the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame.

The invitation-only gathering is to include more than 30 internationally recognized theologians, including Rubio, along with social scientists and pastoral ministry professionals from the United States, Canada and Australia.

The disconnect between theologians and pastoral ministers “is kind of a problem that’s hidden in plain sight,” Greg Popcak said. “There’s a lot of fairly high-level theology about the Catholic vision of family life, but not much of that has trickled down to the practical level.”

At the same time, Rubio said, theologians like her don’t often hear from people working directly with families to find out what their challenges and experiences are.

The group plans to address four main questions, Popcak said. They are:

  • Are Catholic families called to relate to each other and to the world differently than other families? If so, what does that look like, practically speaking?
  • Most of what is thought of as “Catholic spirituality” is drawn from the monastic and clerical tradition and doesn’t fit into messy family life. What does an authentic, “domestic-church-based spirituality” look like in practice? “If marriage is a sacrament and a vocation, that’s got to mean it’s a path to holiness,” Popcak said. “But what does that look like?”
  • How can families be the primary forges of intentional discipleship and how can the Church empower Catholic parents to raise the next generation of intentional disciples?
  • How can the ministry to family life help families see themselves as the primary outposts of evangelization and positive social change?

New Evangelization engine

Popcak said part of the problem is that the Church hasn’t addressed families as they are.

“The Church has tended to look at families as one monolithic group to minister to,” he said.

But it will have to do a better job if families are to be “the engine of the New Evangelization” as they are called to be. For that to happen, families will have to see themselves not only as people to be ministered to, but as ministers to one another and to the wider Church and society.

“We’ve got good sources, but no one’s ever connected the dots,” Popcak said. “What we are doing is not working. We need to do better.”

Tim Muldoon, a symposium participant and assistant to the vice president university mission and ministry and a faculty member at Boston College, said this isn’t the first effort to bring theologians and pastoral ministers together to talk about family ministry.

He and Rubio were part of a 2006 symposium that addressed similar topics. He and his wife, Sue, a licensed counselor and a pastoral minister at Good Shepherd Parish in Wayland, Massachusetts, both are to participate in the symposium at Notre Dame.

“When it is done well, theology is about what God is doing in the world,” Tim Muldoon said. “It’s about the arc of history.”

When it comes to the theology of families and the role of laypeople, that arc includes Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, who was writing about the laity in the 19th century, The Second Vatican Council, the work of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, he said.

While theologians are trying to see the bigger picture, pastoral ministers are often playing defense by working to help families cope with issues as they arise.


Sue Muldoon said pastoral ministers and those living their vocation in family life can benefit from trying to see the bigger picture. They can make sure their families live with some intentionality.

“How do you live out God’s call in the midst of the chaos?” she said. “Theologians help us to find that vision.”

Sue Muldoon said that, in her pastoral ministry, parenting adults frequently are invited to participate in formation to help them fulfill their role.

“We say it all the time to them, ‘You are the primary catechists of your children,'” she said. “But they either don’t know what that means or they think they are completely unqualified.”

Rubio said that when she has given presentations at parishes about the ethics of family life, it can be a challenge to persuade people to attend. Some of the struggle is because families are busy, but often it’s because people think they will be judged because they don’t have the perfect Catholic family.

“Maybe one parent isn’t Catholic, or there was a divorce, or the kids don’t want to go to church,” she said.

What pastoral ministries and families need to understand is what families are for: being communities of love that are open to new life, that serve the Church and society and are the Church in their homes.

“It’s so much richer than two people staring into each other’s eyes and having date nights,” she said.


To help engender that understanding, Popcak said the symposium plans to produce at least three new initiatives.

  • The launch of the Peyton Institute for Domestic Church Life, a “think/do tank” that will sponsor original research, conduct trainings and produce resources to facilitate the renewal of Catholic family life and a more vibrant domestic-church-based spirituality. The institute wants to work with Catholic families who have raised their children to be Catholic adults, he said, so that it can study what works.
  • The production of a book that will explore the answers participants propose to the four critical questions. The book will be distributed to bishops and family-life ministers in the United States, as well as being made available for sale to the general public.
  • Follow-up conferences and trainings for interested people — including pastors, family-life ministers and parents — to give them the tools they need to facilitate the renewal of Catholic family life and create a revolution in the Catholic approach to family ministry.

The Muldoons said that the need for such a revolution is apparent.

“In a lot of ways living as a Catholic family now makes you more isolated and radical than when it was more common,” Sue Muldoon said.

“Somebody’s got to do something,” Tim Muldoon said. “This is a challenge of our time. My sense is that there’s already some momentum here.”


This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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