The Hope of the Family:

A Dialogue with Cardinal Gerhard Müller

Ignatius Press, October 2014

86 pages, $10.95 (paperback)

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In a culture ever more secular, with less space for believers and less regard for religion, the Catholic Church faces a problem of perception. We aren’t largely known for the Church’s charity, her rich intellectual life or the beautiful expressions of the faith across history.

Today, the Church is characterized most often not by who we are or what we do, but by what we oppose. We’re painted as the enemies of progress, of equality, of tolerance. We’re misperceived as bigots, misogynists and hypocrites. To be Catholic, at least in the United States, is to suffer calumny — or at least to suffer the reality of being deeply misunderstood.

We shouldn’t be surprised that our stand for the truth about marriage, about health care, about sexuality or about abortion leads to these kinds of consequences. The Church stands for truths inconvenient to a world bent on pleasure and profit and in a culture with troubling notions of equality, freedom and humanity itself.

“If the world hates you,” says Jesus Christ, “realize that it hated me first.”

The question, for all of us, is how Catholics should respond to the world’s misperceptions — how we might go about addressing our “image problem.”

The answer is not to accommodate the prevailing cultural mores. The Church will not succeed in bringing the world to Jesus Christ by reshaping itself in the image of secular humanism. We will not be pastoral by mitigating truth; we will not be evangelical by denying doctrine.

What we will be, if we abandon reality in order to be well-liked, is a Church of sycophants and sophists. And we will be unsuccessful.

Refashioning the ancient teachings of the Church to fit the fashions or fads of contemporary moral judgment will make the Church unattractive — unrespectable, really — and devoid of the integrity and authority that draws people to Christ.

Instead, in a world where the Church is known for what she opposes, our call is to proclaim the beauty of the Christian vision for life.

Of course, we need to oppose the threatening reach of secularism — vigorously. But we also need to robustly demonstrate the beauty of what the Church believes, so that the consequences of our moral and social teaching are understood in the context of a positive, holy and joyous way of life.

In short, we must be witnesses not only of what we oppose, but also — and even more enthusiastically — of the joy we experience in the Christian life.

The Church soon begins  the synod on the family, an Oct. 5-19 meeting at the Vatican of bishops from across the world who are discussing the meaning of family life in the contemporary world.

Accommodation to secular culture has been the dominant media theme surrounding the meeting. Will the Church change her teaching, her pastoral practice, her disciplines or processes? Will the Church endorse new ideas about family life? Or will she oppose the “progressive” march of Western culture?

Many of these questions are unreasonable — silly, really.

The purpose of the synod is not to change the Church’s teachings. The purpose is to understand family life more clearly, to support it more faithfully and to present it more robustly, more persuasively and more enthusiastically. The purpose of the synod is to witness to the rich beauty of Christian family life.

As a blueprint for this witness, the Church needs to look no further than Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s book The Hope of the Family. Cardinal Müller is the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — an expert and authority on the doctrinal teachings of the faith. He is also a pastor — for 10 years, he served as bishop of Regensburg, a beautiful Bavarian diocese that is a repository of Catholic life and culture.

In Hope of the Family, Cardinal Müller draws from his experience and insight to point to the needs of contemporary families, their role in the life of the Church and the beauty and richness they can offer to the world.

The book is written as an interview, in a style similar to Pope Benedict XVI’s famous Ratzinger Report. And it might be seen as a complement to that book — like the Ratzinger Report, Hope of the Family provides the honest and insightful evaluations of a thoughtful disciple of Jesus Christ.

As a matter of timing, the book is important. Published in anticipation of the synod, Hope of the Family offers a valuable resource for parents, pastors and for the bishops at the synod.

In substance, the book addresses several major topics. On the matter of doctrine, Cardinal Müller defends the unchanging teaching of the Church in a way that is palatable and persuasive. The faith, he says, cannot be “transformed into a new, politically correct civil religion, reduced to a few goals that are tolerated by the rest of society.”

With regard to culture, Cardinal Müller identifies the loneliness families face, the radical individualism and prevailing “throwaway culture,” which leads to isolation, disorientation, divorce and depravity. “Only,” he says, “when one individual opens himself to another is he capable of successfully forming with that person a new reality that transcends the individual.”

And as a solution, Cardinal Müller proposes that families make time to relate to one another, to their parishes and communities and to God — by favoring conversation and prayer and openness over competition and consumption. He says that “Christian families, true domestic churches, must be integrated … into the universal Church through the parishes or through the movements that are associated with them.”

The solution the cardinal proposes seems simple. But families know that choosing communion with each other is not simple. It requires sacrifice. And, above all else, it requires prayer. The family provides hope for the renewal of culture, says Cardinal Müller, if the family is rooted in Jesus Christ.

As the archbishop of Krakow, Pope St. John Paul II, then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, was known for staying with Catholic families in every town he visited. At times, he’d stay with families for weeks. He did this because he believed, as he wrote in his 1994 “Letter to Families,” that “the family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love.”

St. John Paul II was right. Families are placed at the center of the battle our culture faces — a battle to rebuild a civilization of love.

The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family may help families to live their holy vocations. And The Hope of the Family reminds us all that, in our families, all of us can come to know ourselves, can come to know Jesus Christ and can become the heroic witnesses our world needs.

Bishop James Conley heads the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.