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Beyond “Irregular” Families (Anna Floerke Scheid)

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This is the sixth and last post in Political Theology Today’s symposium on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, on marriage and the family. The first five posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

The Church calls my current nuclear family “regular,” and my family-of-origin “irregular.”

Last summer most of the news from the Synod on the Family focused on the issue of whether or not divorced Catholics who were remarried without an annulment could receive Holy Communion. There are about 4.5 million Catholics in the U.S. who are in this position, and certainly it is a crucial pastoral issue. My oldest child received his first communion just a few weeks ago, and it certainly would have been painful not to share fully in that beautiful sacrament by receiving communion myself, as many Catholic parents who are remarried without an annulment are directed to do. I’m blessed to be a part of this “regular” nuclear family.

Nevertheless, as I took in the news last summer about the Synod, I was reflecting less on my nuclear family (me, my spouse, our kids), and more on my family-of-origin. We are not exactly what Amoris Laetitia calls a blended family, which I take to be two already constituted nuclear families who experience divorce, or the death of spouses, and “blend” together to form a new family. No, my family of origin has its own complex, if not unique story: a marriage with children that ended in divorce, remarriages, and the birth of additional children (technically my “half-siblings,” though our family has never used that terminology and we prefer instead just to acknowledge each other as “siblings”: beloved sisters and brothers); and eventually the annulment of my parents’ 18 year-long marriage. So, yes, we are certainly what the Church, including Pope Francis, calls “irregular.”

For me as a child, my parents’ annulment was just another painful moment in a situation already fraught with sorrow. Divorce was an excruciating experience. The “declaration of nullity” stating that my parents’ marriage had never been valid was confusing, and distressing. We were a highly active Catholic family, contributing to the life of our parish and attending the parish school. All my friends were Catholic. All my neighbors were Catholic. Most of my social and cultural life was Catholic. And now, the Catholic Church, my extended family, was saying that my parents’ marriage had never really existed, had never really been a valid marriage.

At the time, and for years thereafter, I suspected that if my Church no longer recognized my parents’ marriage, then that made me a bastard child in their eyes…and since all my friends and relations were also Catholic, maybe I was a bastard child in their eyes too. All those people who I went to Church with on Sundays. All those kids from other parish schools that my basketball team played against, that I went to middle-school dances with, all the CCD kids who were confirmed in the same liturgy with me. Did they all know my parents had never had a “valid marriage”?

If I’m honest, even with all my theological training, and even though I know intellectually that my Church isn’t saying that my parents’ annulment means that I am a bastard child, it still stings. If I dwell on it too much, it still feels a little bit like my Church betrayed me right when I needed them most; right in the middle of one of the most difficult periods in my life.

So as the news from the Synod rolled in, focusing on divorce, annulment, communion – often in terms of “speeding up, streamlining the annulment process,” I couldn’t help but wonder if we were missing something, if we were failing to discuss some really important issues around how children of divorced and remarried parents experience this process. My own family might have avoided added sorrow if annulments just weren’t necessary for my parents who wanted to receive communion, even though they had fallen in love with and married new spouses. I understand now the theological coherence of these teachings, and the way that the Church understands, theologically, the sacrament of marriage, but as a child experiencing the process, it was all part of the same wound.

When my parents divorced, when they remarried, when my sisters (“half-sisters”) were born, my family became “irregular” in the eyes of the Church. Even the annulment couldn’t help this. We’re still “irregular” today.

Pope Francis is nothing if not pastoral, so when he uses the word “irregular” to describe families, it is always just as I use it here in quotation marks: “irregular.” I suspect, loving pastor that he is, that Pope Francis already knows that the word “irregular” might be a hurtful descriptor of the families of millions of Catholics who fall short of what he repeatedly admits is the ideal of an enduring marriage between one man and one woman. Calling so many families “irregular” echoes (and perhaps generates?) the stigma that I experienced given my family’s history of divorce and remarriage. Being called “irregular” makes me feel a bit like a leper. Pope Francis, self-sacrificial and unconditionally loving like Jesus, reaches out to the lepers, but I’m still feeling the leprosy. “Irregular” – even mitigated by quotation marks – makes me inferior and lesser than all those regular families. My “irregularity” marks me. And not just in my imagination: I once dated a man whose parents encouraged him to break up with me because my parents were divorced. They thought that lessened my capacity to make a firm commitment to a relationship; as though their extended family could catch divorce from mine; as though there were a gene for it that had been transmitted from my mother and father to their children.

But of course, “regular” when it comes to families is a myth, at least in the U.S. where ­over 40 percent of adults, an estimated 100 million people, have a step-relationship in their extended families. The divorce rate, while mercifully declining, is nevertheless still around 40%. And not to belabor the statistics, but about half of couples cohabit before marriage, and over half of all children in the U.S. live in non-traditional families, including millions living in single-parent households. This suggests that a binary of family life – in which families that fit the traditional ideal fall into one category, and all other families collectively fall into another – is over-simplified. It reminds me of another topic near and dear to Pope Francis’ heart: eco-theology and ethics. Eco-theologian Sallie McFague rejects the binary that humans imagine to exist between ourselves and all other animals: humans on the right, the rest of the animal kingdom – monkeys and peacocks, giraffes and jellyfish– on the left. For McFague this is a symptom of human pride – a belief that we humans are worthy of utter distinction from all other animals, who broach no worthwhile distinctions among themselves. The binary presumes only two categories, one of which is superior to the other.

Like the diversity, individuality, and complexity of the animal kingdom, human family-making turns out to be highly complex and diverse. A binary of “regular” and “irregular” families fails to capture this diversity, or to recognize the potential value in the families deemed “irregular.” Pope Francis himself points to that value. He offers an edifying and beautiful framework for thinking about love between married spouses that can easily be extended to families, regardless of how they are constituted.

In a section of Amoris Laetitia entitled “Love in Marriage,” Pope Francis exegetes the famous passage on love from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. Even a glance at a few of these remarks illustrates how they provide a fruitful framework, not only for love between spouses, but for all families – nuclear and extended – regardless of how complex and messy they may seem.

Love is patient. It emphasizes “restraint,” and mercy as a form of power. Patience does not “mean letting ourselves be constantly mistreated” (92), but helps us to refrain from bitterness and vengeance. Without patience, “our families will become battlegrounds” (92). Let us extend Francis’ notion of patience beyond spouses. For example, what if the Church were to encourage step-children to exercise patience with their step-parents?

Love is kind. It is “ever ready to be of assistance” (93). What if the Church encouraged step-parents to embody loving kindness to their step-children? To be ready to assist them, spiritually, emotionally, financially, as responsible parents in their step-children’s lives?

Love is not jealous or boastful. It “inspires a sincere esteem for every human being and the recognition of his or her own right to happiness” (96). What if the Church taught siblings and step-siblings to rejoice in one another’s accomplishments; to avoid judgmentalism and odious comparisons amongst themselves? What if step-parents were encouraged to love step-children without jealously and resentment?

Love is not rude. It is generous. Pope Francis reminds us that love involves basic “courtesy” “trust” and “respect” (99). “Loving kindness builds bonds, cultivates relationships…In this way, it grows ever stronger,” and offers a sense of belonging (100). Love “transcend[s] and overflows the demands of justice” and “enables us to give freely and fully” (102). What if the Church called all members of so-called “irregular” families in their specificity and in their diversity of roles– parents, step-parents, children, step-children, siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings, step-grandparents, and step-grandchildren – to show basic courtesy and respect toward one another? What if the many members of these millions of average, messy families were encouraged by the Church to say to one another, “You belong. This is your family. I am yours, and you are mine.”

“It is not enough” says Pope Francis, “to show generic concern for the family in pastoral planning” (201). It is my hope that we who are Church can take seriously this admonition – generic concern must be replaced, as Amoris Laetitia, already begins to do, with specific concern for specific families in the midst of their lived experiences. The specificity of our relationships is important. Families are not only husbands, wives, parents, children, and siblings. Very often they also include ex-wives and ex-husbands, step-moms, and step-dads, step-sons and step-daughters, half-sisters, and half-brothers…and then, as time marches on, step-grandchildren and step-grandparents. Catholics need a Church that actively includes and ministers to these relationships in their diverse specificity.

Pope Francis expresses the desire that all families have for love and mercy. My own experience of being a part of an “irregular” extended family and a “regular” nuclear family reaffirms that the need for love and mercy is common to both experiences. The Church is well-equipped to help families understand familial love, and to teach the values of mercy, patience, generosity, and kindness so that all of us can devote ourselves in that love to whatever kind of family in which we find ourselves.

Anna Floerke Scheid is Associate Professor of Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. She teaches and researches in the area of Christian social ethics with particular attention to issues of violent conflict and peacebuilding, as well as racial justice and African theologies of inculturation. She is the author of Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation, (Lexington Books, 2015), and her essays and articles appear in Horizons, the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, and Teaching Theology and Religion.

One Comment

  1. This is not an issue of marriage – it is an issue of the Eucharist: who are we to use the most sacred gift to bludgeon people whose marriage has died? Jesus did not exclude the “sinners” from his table; he welcomed them. Purity codes have no place in our Church.

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