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.”

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

  • publiusnj

    Of course: “the divorced are not excommunicated.” Those who remarry after Divorce, while their first spouse lives, though, commit Adultery every time they engage in sexual congress with their “second spouse.” Even if they go to Confession and make a good confession of the intercourse as Adultery and are forgiven, should they again engage in congress with the second spouse while the first spouse lives, they again commit Adultery. Christ taught that plainly and His One, Holy Catholic and Apostyolic Church must continue to teach that.

    • ForChristAlone

      except that the “second” spouse is no spouse at all

      • publiusnj

        I used a term that enables anyone to follow my analysis, but I do agree that the term is incorrect. That is why I used quotes around the term when I first used it.

        • ForChristAlone

          ah yes…just as we read those who throw around the word “marriage” to cover a multitude of sins.

  • JC

    Without the discussion of artificial birth control, and its destruction of the possibility of Sanctifying grace ocupying a critical place in the human soul, the synod will be a waste of time. The Church needs to, again tell the hard truth about sin and it’s consequences. We can’t talk around the damaging affects of artificial birth control on souls, families, societies and governments. We need Sanctifying Grace to enter heaven. Mary let the children know at Fatima that more souls were going to Hell for sins of impurity than for any other sin. That was in 1917!!!

  • Charles

    > 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…Similar things can be said about confession.


  • DE-173

    “In many parishes, families with children are not welcome. ”

    A recipe for their deserved demise.

  • ForChristAlone

    We should begin by lay men and women identifying orthodox priests and signing petitions to the Papal Nuncio in Washington that he be named bishop. Only if we get truly orthodox bishops will the changes that are needed come about.

    Next, we need orthodox bishops to return to the practice of sending regular letters teaching the fullness of the truths of the faith to parishes. The bishop should require that these letters (sent at least on a quarterly basis) should be read at EVERY Mass by the pastor. The faithful need to hear the unvarnished truths of the faith from their bishop. They will not get it from listening to their priests.

    Lastly, any disobedient pastors who refuse to read the bishop’s pastoral teachings from the pulpit, needs to be warned and, if necessary, removed from his pastorship.

    • DE-173

      I’d like to refer just ONE disobedient priest to his Bishop as a start.

      • slainte

        Would that you and Hombre could sit and have tea together…oh the fireworks that would entail. : -)

        • DE-173

          I rather enjoy tea, but I suspect he’s more into inhalants.

          • slainte

            No doubt about it…you were referring to Hombre… 🙂

            • DE-173

              Actually there’s others as well.

        • ForChristAlone

          I’ll pass for now, slainte. I’ve just about had my fill of the priests of the 1965-1985 generation (apologies to the good ones who managed to get through the debris unscathed).

  • MamaK

    My husband and I were talking about the problem of re-evangelization just a few days ago. It was spurred by my observation of how difficult it was to live a fully Catholic life in our local parish. Daily mass is mid-morning, only convenient for the retired or elderly. There is no mass on the priest’s “day-off” or when he attends frequent diocese meetings and functions. There is no morning mass on Saturday. Confessions are for an hour, once a week. The priest does not live “on campus” so it is hard to find him in an emergency (especially on his day off). He lets committees make a lot of decisions, which means nothing ever gets done. Despite this. I believe our pastor is a good, faithful and devout man, but he is caught in this clerical structure of mediocrity and the parish as a business. I don’t want to be one of the rootless mobile, but I’m beginning to feel strongly that we should move for the benefit of our children’s sacramental life.

    • mikidiki

      Wow! Do we go to the same parish church? No, our parishes must be “twinned”! Do you have a band, folk music, guitars, fiddles, tambourines, clapping of certain announcements, floral tributes during Mass for the organist, parishioners exchanging lip on lip kisses at the Sign of Peace, in a Novus Ordo Missae? It is no wonder the Church is in crisis.

    • Emily

      Perhaps you could schedule a confession if you can’t make it to the Saturday confession? Or go to a neighboring parish for confession if they have more hours? Also, perhaps you mean nothing bad, but really, priests absolutely need a day off. They not only have parish responsibilities, but usually a few more at the diocesan level as well. They are all working so hard! We shouldn’t begrudge them one day to rest. Even God thought that was a good idea. 🙂

  • publiusnj

    The issue that goes to the heart of the Catholic Religion in this article is the question of Divorce-Remarriage that was the subject of the Pope’s press response. He did not say that there will be no change on that issue; he merely said that the Synod’s business would be wider than that issue. Should the Church adopt a rule inconsistent with the Tradition of the Church and the clear teaching of Christ in Mark 10:3-12, there would be a true scandal. I am praying for the Pope and the Synod.

  • DE-173

    In other news, four Bishops found time to lend the weight of their office to comments on Massachusetts gun control.

    Note the use of the word “adjustments”. It’s the same sort of disingenuous linguistic engineering used when politicians propose some spending and call it “investing”.

    The left will waive this letter about, and continue the assault on the Church.

  • Elle Miller

    I would respectfully be interested in the views of what the Pope also said: priestly celibacy, while a gift of the Church is not a dogma, thus the door is open for discussion on a merging of vocations (married and a priest?). Our parish has a Lutheran-convert priest who petitioned Rome (and it was obviously accepted and his family came with him). Or our brothers in the Byzantine Rite. Seems to me that the Synods of the future may be life-changing and altering. And I wish the article would have discussed annulments; our diocese alone has granted 233 the past calendar year, meaning that options are available for those who wish to remain in faith and good standing within the eyes of the Church.

  • FranR

    These items: “what is meant by ‘New Evangelism’,” bypass the most important (IMHO) group — our priests and bishops! Virtually all of the (spoiled)fruits of the “old evangelism” are directly the responsibility of that group. Similar to the program that came after the great revelation of priestly misconduct — the zero-tolerance response has been primarily directed at the laity — precisely the people who had complained about clerical abuses for so long and were so long ignored! Depending upon poorly equipped and poorly prepared shepherds does not bode well for producing good fruit from whatever is defined as “new” evangelism.

  • Bro- Rob

    Good article but failed to mention the most important point: the “new evangelisation” is actually a NEW GOSPEL itself! Where Jesus is no longer the Divine Merciful judge of our sins who died that we might repent and be forgiven. He is just this “new” and UNIVERSAL BEING OF LOVE who reaches out to hug and embrace everyone regardless…and even if you reject Him you can be saved and go to heaven, just by doing good…even if you’re a pervert or gay or whatever…and we are not to judge because Jesus does not judge. THIS is the real “new evangelisation” …which is a completely new – and FALSE – góspel entirely. This is the biggest issue involved and he failed to even mention it. Just you wait and see…they are going to split this church right down the middle and destroy it before too long…just by insisting on all these new doctrines which they falsely claim is the true interpretation.

  • Pingback: Green Shoots in Irish Church after 20-Yr Winter -

  • bill b

    This combox means what I always opined…THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR EVANGELIZATION. To everything there is a time and a season….Who said that?….God in Ecclesiastes.
    We need internal sorting out and consolidation prior to going forth…like a century of that process. Over 40% of laity in a poll in Camden N.J. diocese stated that Christ committed little sins while on earth. Do you want them preaching that door to door? A very recent poll had half of weekly Mass goers supporting gay marriage. Do you want them spreading that door to door? Fill in your issue and guess the stats on it. The “new evangelization” thus makes no logical sense. Why is it on everyone’s lips? It distracted people from the sex abuse period which underwent no self examination of the hierarchy of ITSELF and its privilege of non transparency and its diocesan press which warned no parents of molestations by clergy etc. You need an ecumenical council just to examine the power issues that led to this disgrace. You ain’t getting one. You’re getting the new evangelization instead. We’ve used distraction like a magician uses it….to get you to look over there instead of over here. The new evangelization started decades ago but it got renewed life from being needed as a distraction.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Perhaps we should look to the example of the first Evangelisation, as recorded in Acts.

    It focuses on six topics:
    1. The Age of Fulfilment has dawned, the “latter days” foretold by the prophets.
    2. This has taken place through the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
    3. By virtue of the resurrection, Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God as Messianic head of the new Israel.
    4. The Holy Spirit in the church is the sign of Christ’s present power and glory.
    5. The Messianic Age will reach its consummation in the return of Christ.
    6. An appeal is made for repentance with the offer of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.

    Perhaps, we should start preaching that

  • cpsho

    Evangelization means the Great Commission. Folks get out there and preach the Good News of the Lord Jesus

  • bonaventure

    When Francis said that the Synod will be about more than the divorced-remarried, the liberals are hoping and praying (but can a liberal pray?) that it will turn out to be about that and contraception and abortion and homosexual “marriage,” etc. Of course, liberals hope that it will be in favor of all the above.

    Oh, how disappointed they will be. And then how hateful and violent they will become…