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Pope's visit highlights interfaith challenge of teaching 'ideal' to people whose lives are sometimes
Peter and Laura Socks of Hanover, Pennsylvania, with their children (clockwise from top left) Katie, Annie, Pete, Isaac and Maggie. The couple are traditional Catholics who believe God has described the ideal family, a goal for which they strive. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Peter Socks tries very hard to follow the teachings of his faith.

He's seen others suffer when their lives depart from those teachings. A friend of his sat in the pews for years, relegated to spectator as others took communion from the priest, yearning to take sacrament so badly she felt physical pain, she told Socks, 41, a popular Catholic book blogger on Patheos who also works at a manufacturing plant in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

But his friend was divorced, and the Catholic Church teaches that members may not receive communion if they have divorced and remarried without a church annulment. Her marital ties had been snipped in the secular world, but she had not gotten an annulment from her beloved Catholic Church. She viewed the wine in the sacrament cup as the blood of Jesus Christ, the bread as her Lord's body, the act of communion as a way to draw very near to Him that was out of her grasp. Ultimately, that longing to partake led her to seek a Catholic annulment of her failed marriage.

Catholics have one of the lowest divorce rates, but it's still close to 28 percent of ever-married individuals divorcing. The Georgtown Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate said that's 11 million people, some of them "likely in need of more outreaching and ongoing ministry from the Church," the National Catholic Register said.

In many traditional religious communities, there's often a disconnect between religious teachings on what people should do and what they actually do. The Catholic Church's firm stand on abortion, sexual activity outside of marriage, divorce without an annulment, same-sex sexual activity and artificial contraception can put the church at odds with many of its followers' lives. For example, the Catholic Church bans artificial contraception, but a 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 68 percent of sexually active Catholic women who were not pregnant, post-partum or trying to become pregnant used artificial contraception.

A 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center found that "roughly half or more of U.S. Catholics say that contraceptives, living with a romantic partner outside of marriage and remarrying after a divorce without an annulment are not sin. And about four in 10 (39 percent) say homosexual behavior is not a sin." More recent Pew research notes a church body that is very tolerant of those behaviors in others.

This tension between a church's standard and an individual reality is not unique to Catholicism. Priests and other religious leaders regularly face the challenge of teaching sacred doctrines of the ideal while ministering to people whose lives are often quite far from idyllic. It is a tricky task to set a high standard while meeting individuals in their actual situations, and the risk of disenfranchising those who struggle and could most benefit from guidance is a real concern.

Experts say this challenge is something Pope Francis will address as he visits the United States for the first time in a papal journey set to coincide with the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia Sept. 22-25. The international family-focused conference, held every three years, was created by Pope John Paul II and is sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome, this year with the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The program and events with the pontiff following the conference focus on strengthening families, something Pope Francis has declared of great importance to his visit, which includes stops in New York and Washington, D.C.

"The Church's teachings are what they are for a reason. They are based upon teachings Jesus Christ passed on to the apostles and are the foundation for the Church. When you drift away from those teachings, life can become much more of a struggle," said Socks.

I think the problem with society today is a teaching system that has gone from teaching that to teaching no ones ever wrong. Everybody has their own opinions, everybody has their own answers and no one can tell anyone else whether theyre right or wrong and thats wrong, he said.

Balancing act

The Rev. Thomas Reese has a smile in his voice as he talks about the ideals some Christians carry in their minds regarding the perfect family life. Part of it is Christian theology; part of it is romance novels, where two people who have been destined for one another somehow meet and fall in love and live happily ever after. Reality is a little messier than that, said the Jesuit priest, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.

Many faiths are similar in their expectations of family, especially when it comes to forging happy and successful marriages and parent-child relationships, according to David C. Dollahite, professor of family life at Brigham Young University and a co-leader of The American Families of Faith Project.

Dollahite lists common threads that weave through multiple faith traditions, including some that are far less political than abortion or divorce: teachings emphasizing honesty in relationships; being sexually and emotionally faithful in marriage; being kind to partners and children; being forgiving, patient and loving. Nearly all faiths teach that parents are responsible for their children and should be caring and loving toward them. Most all religions usually share a message about being respectful to the generations that came before, a kind of honor thy father and thy mother, said Dollahite, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Religious leaders are dealing with the fact they have a set of moral and religious values, teachings, standards and ideals that come from scripture, in many cases, or from tradition of the faith, and that many people ultimately believe come from God. So faith leaders understandably believe it important to teach those divine principes of family life as Gods way to be happy, he said.

I think that part of the Christian message is not just calling us to an ideal; its also recognizing that people are weak and sinful and make mistakes and that God still loves us. God has this compassion and mercy towards us. Hes never going to throw us away, The Rev. Reese said. The challenge comes in balancing the ideal, the call of the gospel, with the compassion and love God feels for mankind.

Religious leaders are very well aware that many in their congregations did not grow up in and are not living in family situations that might be considered ideal in other words, happy marriages, positive and constructive parent-child relationships with no addictions or adultery or abuse. All religious leaders are well aware that while teaching the ideal, they are dealing with families in the real world, in the fallen world or the changing and challenging world," said Dollahite.

Across faiths, he added, My experience has been that religious leaders are really good at both trying to hold up ideals inspired by their faith communities and by God and at the same time being understanding and compassionate toward individuals and families that are in less-than-ideal situations. ... They try to promote strong marriages and family while understanding that all humans struggle to live (up to) high ideals and all families fail at times. Some people have been raised in extremely abusive and harmful family situations and are both deeply hurting and deeply wounded.

Religion is about helping flawed individuals become whole and healed through devotion to God, Dollahite said. Thats what pastors and rabbis and priests and bishops do work with flawed people and flawed couples and flawed families and help them draw upon the teachings and the practices and the beliefs and the community itself to try to progress and do better.

When Father John Norman of St. Vincent De Paul Parish in Salt Lake City talks about church teachings on family, he describes a young bride and groom on their wedding day, scrubbed up and full of hope, promises and expectation. Over-the-moon in love, they are sure they will keep every vow as they walk through life together.

The Salt Lake priest knows, however, that the coming years of living those vows together must make room for missteps, for compassion and for forgiveness.

Ideals are a call to strive always to do better, said The Rev. Norman. He uses a metaphor about family to explain the relationship between God and man: A parent expects a lot of his children, but deals with things that happen because of the human condition. For example, the parent tells a daughter to avoid sexual promiscuity, but the girl becomes pregnant. "Other things kick in, like compassion and love and support and providing a wonderful life for that child," he said. The standard that was set is not compromised. "But the relationship isn't ended" because the child fell short, he said. "That's the dilemma in the arena of faith."

He said the child who veered from teaching has choice, too. "The child that disappoints his parents could run away and never contact them again. But that would not be a good decision nor what the parent wants."

A tolerant people

In preparation for the Popes historic visit to America, Pew Research Center surveyed the public about different kinds of family arrangements, asking whether each was acceptable and as good as other family formations; acceptable and not as good as other family formations; or not acceptable. The study included traditional married couples, cohabitating couples, single parents, same-sex parents and divorced parents.

Pew released the findings in a report titled U.S. Catholics Open to Non-Traditional Families. Catholic responses to the survey look a lot like the public as a whole, said Pew senior researcher Jessica Martinez. Looking at subcategories of different religions, they found that Catholics tend to be somewhat more accepting of different family arrangements than white evangelical Protestants and not as accepting as those who are unaffiliated with religion, she said.

The most acceptable family arrangement to U.S. Catholics was a married mother and father, with 94 percent finding it acceptable, followed by a single parent (87 percent), unmarried parents living together (84 percent), divorced parents (83 percent) and same-sex parents (66 percent).

About half of Catholic respondents said a single parent raising children is acceptable but not as good as some other family structures, Martinez said; slightly more say the same of divorced parents.

Twenty-seven percent deemed same-sex parenting unacceptable, higher than in any other category, but a lower figure than in the past. Support of same-sex marriage has trended upward in recent years with people from all groups becoming more likely to say same-sex marriage should be legal. The various groups might start at a different point, but almost everybody has moved upward in a more accepting direction, said Martinez.

Meeting the real

Pope Francis spoke of the aspirational aspect of family life in June on a visit to Ecuador later broadcast on Vatican radio, recounting the story of Christ turning the water into wine at a wedding. When the drink ran out, Mary asked Jesus to fix it.

She teaches us to put our families in Gods hands, to pray, to kindle the hope which shows us that our concerns are also Gods concerns, the Pope said. Such supplication always lifts us out of our worries and concerns. He called family the best social capital, and said it cannot be replaced by other institutions.

Everyone falls short of the ideal, Pope Francis told the world from Ecuador. It is for those who feel broken that God puts out his best wares.

The idea that a moment of crisis is the time to introduce a churchs teaching on family life and explore the gap" between the perfect family and one's own is unrealistic, said Helen Alvar, professor of law at George Mason University and a consulter to the Pontifical Council for the Laity in the Catholic Church. She suggests people who do not have a belief formed through previous exposure to church teachings about family and marriage will probably not see church or its leaders as a resource in times of personal troubles.

They wont see what a church has to offer, wont be able to see it in a favorable light. They are more apt to see it in a light presented by the surrounding culture, which is lots of lines drawn in the sand vs. family life as a call to encounter Christ and live out your vocation, Alvar said.

A time crunch challenges religious leaders in their call to minister to the hurting. Life is increasingly complex, even as the number of priests, for example, has shrunk. Many pastors face increased demands like running schools and following a growing list of rules. It's hard to find time to forge meaningful relationships and offer good advice to families who are in pain, she said.

It is a challenge to provide context so people understand that presentation of an idealized family life is a call to encounter God vs. a set of rules designed to exclude you, Alvar said.

When faced with families in crisis, The Rev. Reese said, a spiritual leaders first words should be that God loves them, not a list of rules. By the time a person comes to a minister, theyre in pain. As Pope Francis says, the church is supposed to be a field hospital that cares for the wounded, embraces people and binds up their injuries.

A hospital is a place to try to stop the bleeding. Thats the first step for faith leaders, too, he said.

You reach out and try and help the person whos wounded and care for them and show compassion and humanity. I think thats what Pope Francis is calling us to, said The Rev. Reese. He noted that Jesus called people to high ideals, but was only angered by the Pharisees, who were hypocrites. He forgave sinners and tried to change their path.

Being merciful in ministry is sometimes seen incorrectly as changing doctrine, Alvar said. Pope Francis recently issued statements streamlining the processes for annulment and forgiveness of abortion within the Catholic Church. Neither represents a doctrinal change, Alvar said.

One of the interesting things noted on both abortion and annulment is (Pope Francis) is putting the priest or bishop in closer contact with the flock. This is all stressing clergy as pastors vs. the role of clergy as a middleman or clergy as an administrator," she said.

His statements on abortion came during declaration of a "Holy Year of Mercy." It is, the Pope wrote, "the time to listen to the cry of innocent people who are deprived of their property, their dignity, their feelings, and even their very lives. To stick to the way of evil will only leave one deluded and sad. True life is something entirely different. God never tires of reaching out to us. He is always ready to listen, as I am too, along with my brother bishops and priests.