Embracing a Preferential Option for the Family

Ministry at the level of the parish is often an attempt to focus chaos and point that energy in the right direction. People and groups approach parish ministers (both clergy and lay pastoral ministers like me) with ideas, energy, financial backing, and credentials on a weekly—even daily—basis. The reality of focusing the energy and effort of the parish is tremendously gratifying yet bewilderingly difficult; it requires a deep friendship with Christ (who is the way, the truth, and the life) and a clear, prophetic vision for the reign he came to teach. Within the beautiful bedlam of parish ministry I have found it important to hold onto certain pastoral values in the midst of all the judgments and decisions about which directions to point energy (both mine and others) and asserting priorities ahead of other items which may very well be good too.

One such value that is particularly helpful in focusing pastoral care at parishes is what I’ve come to call the “preferential option for families.” The wording preferential option is borrowed explicitly from Latin American liberation theology, which provides the immensely helpful evangelical value of the preferential option for the poor. The preferential option for the poor, as written about in liberation theology and elsewhere, is a guiding principle for Christians which seeks to assert (or more specifically re-assert) the gospel value of love and care of the poor and vulnerable to its rightful place of centrality within a lived experience of discipleship. The preferential option for the family is by no means an attempt to supplant the option for the poor.[1] The preferential option for families is simply a way of organizing and judging the ministry of a parish (or diocese, other organization, or person) which seeks to place (or re-assert) the family as the central focus of evangelization.

Why Families?

Our Church tends to gush at length about the importance of family in one's formation as a disciple of Christ. The family’s importance is well evident to the living out of a Christian life that is fulfilling, joyful, and loving. The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the underlying thought for why the Church emphasizes the importance of a thriving love of a family, noting that the family is “the original cell of social life” (CCC §2207). Its importance in the life of a person is not only the place of the heart of evangelization, it is simply anthropological. Humans come from families and live in families. The Catechism mentions that in addition to being the core means of creating human community, the family also carries within it an unrepeatable dignity and the task of evangelization. It is the “domestic church” and a “community of faith, hope, and charity” (CCC §2204). In the Catechism (and many other places), the family is lifted up as a special arena in which virtue is taught, where love has an occasion to be incarnated in a personal way, and where the Good News is proclaimed through lullabies, prayer before meals, laughter, and hugs and kisses.[2] It is not an exaggeration to say that for the Church writ large, the family is invaluable and a sphere of great importance for disciples, from the very young to the very old alike.

The inter-relating of the Persons of the Trinity is often compared to a familial love; moreover, Jesus Christ lived the entirety of his life in deep relationship with his earthly family. Through God’s very nature and Christ’s life story, we see the family as invaluable as a place of conveying God’s love to each other on a human level but in a heightened Christian manner as well.[3] Because the family is the way in which we humans organize ourselves, and because it is the original and life-long inter-relationship to which one belongs, it makes sense to organize efforts of evangelization and community-building on the family. The preferential option for the family is a way of organizing energy already present at parishes. It attempts to aid in building parish structures which both support family life and organically reflect the domestic church as a healthy model for parish life. This is both a human value and an evangelizing value.

Evangelizing Families vs. Evangelizing Individuals

While the Church’s doctrine denounces individualism often and fiercely, the efforts of the local Church (at a diocesan and parish level) quite frequently fall into that trap. Western society has tended to be virulently individualistic.[4] The tendency has been to build up the individual at the expense of the community, including the parish and family. In a frenzied leap from childhood to “independence,” young people leave their families to eke out financial self-sustainability. This is expected. The result is a rupturing of the familial bonds, as well as responsibility turned inward on one’s self and only one’s self. The fracturing of the “original cell,” as the Church calls it, results in painful isolation, financial distress on many, and an unhealthy—even inhuman—society.

With the prophetic stance of the Church on the beauty and irreplaceability of the family, it is perplexing that so many of our evangelizing efforts focus on the individual or group. At a diocesan level, the local Church tends to focus on groups: Hispanic ministry, immigrants, or college campus ministry, for example. At a parish level, very often the separating of people by age (or grade) mirrors society’s tendency to fracture, rather than the Church’s energies toward communion. Faith formation programs are generally divided by grade in schools. Parishes also tend to have programs for youth, young adults, seniors, men’s groups, women’s groups, etc. The building of the community of believers is established by the grouping of people of the same age or same sex.[5] All this is happening while the Church consistently proclaims that the society is built with the family as its core building block, not the individual.

A preferential option for the family is a switch in thought. It asks the Catholic minister to evaluate efforts of evangelization and creatively critique them when they focus on individuals instead of families. This shakes us up, wakes us up, and constitutes something different from what is done outside the milieu of the parish. In a society that puts each child from a family in a different classroom, adults engaged with other adults, and the elderly in homes living with only other elderly people, a preferential option for the family asserts that we all belong together. Religious instruction can and perhaps should whenever possible mirror the domestic church. Our faith comes alive when we hear the struggles and depth of the spirit of an elderly person. Likewise, teaching children prayers and the basics of friendship with Christ are joyfully life-giving.

Our faith is lived in community and community is made up of persons of all ages. The turn to the individual is a rather new development in human history. In Church history, one need not look further than our Scriptures and early Christian documents to see that, at least in antiquity, entire families were evangelized.[6] The preferential option for the family is also a method of evangelizing society at large. Evangelizing families is indeed an evangelizing value in itself, because to focus on a family rather than an individual is to interrupt the assertion of individualism.

Stumbling Blocks and Hopes

Evaluating evangelization along the line of a preferential option for the family requires a general shift in mindset. New questions arise along with some very real and confounding challenges. How might a preferential option for families look at a parish?

This new mindset affects everything from Mass times (what are the easiest for families with little kids?) to environment (might it be possible to have a couple rocking chairs for parents of infants?). It is a challenge to pose to all departments within parish ministry. I have focused above largely on faith formation, but how might an option for families contribute to music at Mass? Could a family lead the music or participate as cantors? What might a multi-generational choir sound like? To be clear: a multi-generational choir will likely sound worse than a choir of well-practiced adults; it will be less cute than a children’s choir. But there is a pastoral value in the sharing between adults and children, children and adults. Does that value override the value of having excellent liturgical music? Perhaps; maybe; sometimes. These are questions of discernment which are guided, though not answered, by a preferential option for families.

The pastoral care within a parish is affected by this guiding principle as it responds to individualism. Much of the isolation and loneliness that a parish must counter is a response to the extreme individualism present in society. The remedy, however, is perhaps not individuals accompanying individuals, but rather the extension of family bonds. Families certainly need not be strict with their boundaries. By and large most visits done to nursing homes in the name of a parish are done by retired adults. But it would be a welcome joy to have a family with children take Communion to a homebound parishioner. The faith of all involved is deepened through such encounters. Through the lens of a preferential option for the family, experiences of struggle such as unemployment, grief, raising a child with special needs, infertility, care for an elderly relative, or the birth of a child all rightly are seen as moments and aspects of the life of a family rather than of an individual within the family. Likewise the joy of parenting, holidays, graduation, weddings, first Communions, quinceañeras, and so much more are also shared through mutual familial accompaniment within the parish setting.

There are also areas of clashing values in the area of church employment. As society tends to exalt the individual, very often public policy exerts that value. Thus the counter-cultural nature of a preferential option for the family may take on a radical component. In the United States, health insurance is tied to one’s employer. The employer provides insurance to an individual and their family. This structure may very well, however, stymy a preferential option for the family. Parents of young children at a diocesan and parish level too often are required to work long hours in order to garner benefits. The preferential option for families pushes us to think creatively about the possibility of parents sharing a position, giving benefits to people who work less than full time, and defining family in a broader manner than the nuclear relationships.

A Thriving Love

The preferential option for the family is an attempt to refocus the pastoral attention of the local church. For the extent of Christian history, the Church has extoled the value of the family and its centrality in the faith experience of all disciples and the Church writ large. The parish and the domestic church are more than simply two tools for evangelization in the lives of children. Indeed they support each other mutually and may very well benefit from mirroring each other structurally. The preferential option for the family urges the Catholic minister to gauge all of his or her efforts at evangelization through programs, structures, or pastoral care, and assess whether the core centrality of the family is being supported. The tendency today is toward a compartmentalized individualism in evangelization. But when families evangelize other families and parishes mirror and harness that energy, a thriving love will carry the efforts toward a deepening faith shared in the community believers.

Featured Photo: Arkansas Shutterbug; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

[1] The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is a value central to the Gospel. It is not possible to imagine a Christian disciple that does not incorporate that into the core of their lived spirituality. The preferential option for the family can be practiced alongside the option for the poor, even focus the evangelical value further, but a robust understanding of a preferential option for the family is not possible without an already central preferential option for the poor.

[2] Pope Francis is very insightful in his lifting up of the family as a privileged place of instruction in virtue and love. At the fore, certainly, is what he calls “ecological education.” See Laudato Si’, §§213 and 227.

[3] It must certainly be noted that this is a reference to a healthy, loving family. It pains the heart to know recognize the realities of a world in which many children and adults feel deep pain and shame from their familial relationships.

[4] There remain pockets in the world of peoples who remain or are returning to a communitarian way of organizing.

[5] I hope not to come across as too critical of this method of evangelizing. The good efforts of so many good catechists are bearing fruit. I simply hope to infuse some creativity and critique into the system.

[6] See Acts 16 where Paul and Silas preach the Good News to a guard who is then baptized along with his whole family.


Tom Eggleston

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