Pope Francis gave a beautiful sermon to Catholic bishops during a stop in Philadelphia during his recent visit to the United States. He extolled the beauty of family life and Christianity’s mission to help people find joy through family.
For the Church, the family is … the joyous confirmation of God’s blessing upon the masterpiece of creation. Every day, all over the world, the Church can rejoice in the Lord’s gift of so many families who, even amid difficult trials, remain faithful to their promises and keep the faith! … Our ministry needs to deepen the covenant between the Church and the family.
There is so much good in his address that you should just read the whole thing. (You can find it here.)
But I was concerned when I read about his admonishment of Christianity:
We need to invest our energies not so much in rehearsing the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family. … A Christianity which “does” little in practice, while incessantly “explaining” its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced. I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle.
Now, when I first read that statement, I thought, “Yes! He has a point! We need to do more!” We can always do better.
But when I read the statement again I thought, “No! He missed the point! We already do so much!”
Of course, the Pope was speaking to the pastors of his church. He is their leader, so he probably knows more about his church’s needs than a Mormon in Virginia. But I do know that the Catholic church, and so many branches of the Christian faith, cannot honestly be categorized as institutions that “do little in practice” other than explain their teachings. Perhaps Pope Francis intended this as a warning against the potential for this problem in the future, but in Christianity I see a force with powerful momentum and little tendency to slow down in doing good for families.
I could not count all the things that Christians do to encourage and enable people to choose family life — partly because I do not know all these things. But I know churches are very much in the trenches providing adoption services, marital counseling, financial assistance, marriage preparation courses, classes and books on successful marriage, and more. Churches run homeless shelter and soup kitchens to help families during difficult times. Much of what I learn in church is about how I can be a better husband and father, or at least try to be.
Why, then, would the Pope imply to Catholic bishops (and all Christians who listen) that Christianity has a problem with explaining teachings more than doing something in practice?
Think about Jerry Falwell, the Baptist preacher who founded Liberty University, the Moral Majority, and Thomas Road Baptist Church.
What did he do for the institution of the family?
At first, you probably think about Sunday sermons or perhaps political engagement against abortion and homosexuality.
But I think of a barber I met several years ago who told me about his conversion to Christianity at Thomas Road Baptist Church here in Lynchburg. He then told me about how he and his wife had divorced. But Falwell came to each of them individually and provided counseling and encouragement until they were ready to marry each other again. The man told me of at least one other couple who’d had the same experience.
Critics of Christianity like to portray the faith as a commercial conglomerate that works to elect Republicans, shout at women on their way into abortion clinics, throw stones at gay people, and form long lines around Chik-fil-A.
They don’t like to stop and think about all the good that Christianity does.
I spend more than 160 hours a year in church and church-like settings listening to sermons, Sunday School classes, and more. In my experience, even in a culturally conservative church, most of the hot-button topics that Christianity’s critics deride rarely come up. I usually only hear the word “abortion” in church a few times a year, and it’s usually a topic for a few seconds or a couple of minutes at a time. Same-sex marriage used to only come up once in a blue moon, and when it did come up it was because it was a public issue.
Meanwhile, I’ve heard talks and discussions about countless other topics: repentance, faith, the atonement of Jesus Christ, service, missionary work, marriage, parenthood, New Year’s Resolutions, humility, finding joy in life, and more.
I won’t pretend that Christians cannot do better. Perhaps we do sometimes spend too much energy explaining how good our beliefs are rather than using our beliefs to bless others. Maybe we are at risk of doing less and talking more if not for the warning of a respected leader.
But we, and our critics, would do well to take note of all the good that we do and that we can do.
Perhaps even the Pope could use that reminder.