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Charles C. CamosyJuly 28, 2023
A close-up of a Catholic wedding ceremony, focusing on the hands of the bride, groom and priest.Falling marriage rates are a global emergency. The church cannot fully address this emergency if it is afflicted by ideological division. (iStock/BONDART)

Quick, what is your best guess as to which papal document decries the results “of an insufficient sense of social justice, of a selfish accumulation of material goods, and finally of a culpable failure to undertake those initiatives and responsibilities which would raise the standard of living of peoples and their children” and, in light of this, insists that there “must be no relaxation in the programs of mutual aid between all the branches of the great human family”?

Seems pretty progressive, right? I mean, it even uses the term “social justice” explicitly and invokes the need for programs of mutual aid.

Believe it or not, these quotes come from “Humanae Vitae”—an encyclical identified primarily with the church’s traditional teaching on birth control and being open to welcoming the gift of children in a marriage—and may in fact be on the chopping block if some Catholics get their way.

There are many reasons for Catholics to reject the idolatry of a left/right, progressive/conservative, blue/red vision of ethics and politics.

Let’s play again. Guess which papal document said this: “Respecting a child’s dignity means affirming his or her need and natural right to have a mother and a father. We are speaking not simply of the love of father and mother as individuals, but also of their mutual love, perceived as the source of one’s life and the solid foundation of the family. Without this, a child could become a mere plaything.”

Got to be something from a more “traditional” pope, right? Nah. This is a quote from Pope Francis in “Amoris Laetitia,” a document that has been criticized as too progressive by some Catholic intellectuals.

There are many reasons for Catholics to reject the idolatry of a left/right, progressive/conservative, blue/red vision of ethics and politics, and America has been perhaps the most significant leader in pushing back against it. Whether we are talking about abortion, care for the elderly and disabled, just war and just policing, or a host of other issues—that wildly simplistic way of visioning the good has no chance of encompassing both the conserving and the liberating traditions present at the same time in the moral vision of the Catholic Church.

That wildly simplistic way of visioning the good has no chance of encompassing both the conserving and the liberating traditions of the Catholic Church.

And so it is with the “traditional family vs. social justice” binary, which sometimes shows up in the very structures of the institutional church, as when we imagine a hard break between the “family life” and “human concerns” committees and offices in parishes and dioceses. Sometimes, if we are honest, groups of Catholics even define themselves by their opposition to Catholics “on the other side” of this particular antagonistic binary.

Happily, much is happening to resist this way of envisioning the church. Even the institutional structures are being re-visioned and re-organized to incorporate the fullness of a Catholic vision of the good that is hyper-resistant to the idolatry of secular right/left politics. I experienced this reality firsthand when I led a workshop on resisting polarization for the California Catholic Conference and saw it happening in real time: family life and social justice leaders working together on common goals and on areas of common concern for their dioceses.

These leaders have the data behind them to support and energize their efforts. Are you a Catholic who believes in traditional families? A central reason for having this view, as an authentic Catholic, presumably comes from the fact that the traditional family is best for economically vulnerable populations, especially women and children. Are you a Catholic who believes in social justice? Then presumably you will be pulled toward supporting the traditional family, which study after endless study confirms must be at the center of anti-poverty efforts. (This is especially true if one has a special focus on vulnerable people of color.)

CNBC recently reported that almost 90 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where the marriage rate is falling.

Despite all this evidence, however, the trends in this regard are not good. In fact, they are terrible. CNBC recently reported that almost 90 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where the marriage rate is falling. This is no longer just a cultural emergency in the consumerist, individualist West—which has been pushing (both explicitly and structurally) against marriage for decades—but is now a global emergency.

And it is a global emergency that threatens vulnerable women and children the most. Anybody got an idea about a global organization to which we could appeal to try to address this emergency with a vision of the good that is just as committed to the traditional family as it is to social justice?

Catholics, let’s get on this. Let us put aside political idolatry and work as different members of the same body of Christ, unified in our diversity, to uphold the traditional family and support vulnerable women and children. Together and at the same time. This represents the fullness of a Catholic vision of the good that we must engage, not only because of our faithfulness to our tradition, but because the signs of the times are practically begging for it.

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