Archbishop Paglia: We Are in a ‘De-Familied’ Society

The president of the Pontifical Council for the Family discusses the ongoing synod on the family in Rome.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia (photo: CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia heads the Pontifical Council for the Family, established in 1981 by Pope John Paul II.

In this Oct. 2 interview with the Register, the 69-year-old archbishop discussed his hopes for the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that opened Sunday and runs until Oct. 19.


What are your hopes and expectations for the synod?

The hopes and expectations are bound to the questions that are in play. In my opinion, I would say that, in history, for the first time, the identity itself of that “trinomial” — marriage, family and life — which is the great gift of God for creation on the seventh day, is being torn apart for the first time in history. There are many ways to have a family, many ways to have children, even in the laboratory or in the uteruses of other women, etc.

Each of us, in a sort of delirium of omnipotence, now recomposes this unity in a way pleasing to himself. Indeed, it is, today, homo homini Deus (man is God for man). Now, this is the fundamental knot. Why? Because from this tearing apart and arbitrary rebuilding we are going towards a society “de-familied” and therefore weaker and less solid. [The theologian Richard] Baumann would say liquid. In this context, the one who wins is not “us,” but “I.”


What must the Church, through the synod, do to redress this?

This challenge, which we have before us today, the Church has to confront head-on. And in my opinion, the whole of society has to confront it. In this sense, I expect from the synod a new impulse for the family as the leaven of a more inclusive society. In this sense, we have enormous problems before us. The problem, for example, of the demographic crash, the problem of the decrease in birth rates — in the United States, the percentage [decrease] is enormous. This is accompanied by a cultural justification: that it is beautiful to be a woman but not a mother.

There is the problem of the numerical growth of “families” composed of a single person. In the United States, almost 50% of adults now live alone. There is a high percentage of families with an only child. What does this mean? It means that the future is cut in half. It means that the economy and attention to the future is weaker. It means that the crisis of society is grave, because the pyramid is turned upside down: many elderly and few young people. To this is added the crisis of relationships between the generations.

Old people become excluded. The years of life are increased, but also the years of abandonment. Juvenile delinquency increases. In American jails, in the juvenile prisons of America, 75% of youths are from families without fathers. You understand that these are enormous problems. Then there are many other problems.


What do you think are the principal reasons for these problems?

The “virus” that provokes this, this contagion — this kind of Ebola — is an absolutus, a boundless individualism. An Italian sociologist speaks of “ego-latry” — worship of the ego. We have all become English because it is the only language in which “I” is written in capital letters. And this capital letter is the virus, because it is put in the place of God. And, above all, on this altar of the ego — and here we are speaking as the French philosopher [Gilles] Lipovetsky says — is the “second individualist revolution.” That is, this time, individualism bends institutions to itself, starting with the first, the family.

For this reason, today, I might get married not so much to build a future together. Instead, I think that, until I’m well off, I won’t get married. I get married to satisfy a personal desire. If this desire is not proportionate, there’s no problem. If children are a burden, I won’t do it. This also takes place within the family, within a city. If a group disturbs me, I make them go away.

If Catalonia, for example, feels impoverished by the parliament in Madrid, it separates itself [from Spain]. So this virus of individualism is being transferred from the ego to groups, to citizens, to nations and to groups of nations. The first victim of this virus is the family, the first place where everything begins.


Do you think that this lurch towards a kind of ultra-individualism represents a failure of the Church over the last 50 years?

I think that there is no doubt that the family has to make a great examination of conscience. In the life of many Christians, there has been an individualist regression. Ratzinger — Benedict XVI — in the encyclical Spe Salvi, asks: How was it possible in contemporary Christianity for persons to think that they are able to save their souls individually? Whereas it says in the Gospel and the Councils that either we save ourselves as a people or we are all lost.

There is no doubt that one of the problems today is religious individualism. And this is an examination of conscience that must be done. I am convinced that there was a collapse towards a romantic love that has forgotten the profound undertakings which the family has to take upon itself for the guardianship of creation and human affairs. God entrusted to Adam and Eve the safeguarding of creation and of growing and multiplying. This understanding was too heavy with respect to the exaltation of romanticism, of “love.”


But do you think the error of the modern Church is that its focus seems to always be more on the person and not on God, that it is more about community and the person than it is about God?

No. The problem, the focus, is always on the ego, which is put in the place of God, losing also, therefore, the sense of communitas. Maybe one should say there’s a loss in the sense of the Christian communitas, and this communitas is unthinkable without God. Therefore, it is not true that too much thought has been given to the world or the horizontal [aspect of faith]. No! Thought was not given enough to the horizontal because, if one thinks of the horizontal, people would have thought more of the poor, of the weak. They would have imitated Jesus, who was with the poor. Therefore, too much thought has been given to ourselves and our personal feelings. This is the point. And this goes reclothed with an evangelical sensibility, which requires us to recognize God and neighbor.

Individualism is the pair of scissors that cuts and lacerates. I believe that, for this reason, one has to recover the profound dimension of the mission of the family — that it builds a society, and it’s not easy.


Some argue that artificial contraception is a bigger reason than many think. What is your view?

I believe that it is important to confront problems like that which you mention. I’d add also the problem of the divorced and remarried, etc.


It’s all connected.

No doubt. It is connected. And Paul VI already exhorted us to be attentive to a dimension and a responsibility that he called fatherhood, a responsible fatherhood: Therefore, not to be, so to say, abstract, but also conscious of the responsibility of putting children into the world.

In this way, the subject of the divorced and remarried and access to Communion is important, but it requires, above all, a pastoral approach and not to make this into a “category.”. We have before us not a single category of divorced and remarried. We now have thousands of families with problems, some ruined, others with wounds, some bleeding, and this we have to discover with a pastoral practice that is near to them, generous, patient, continual. For these wounded families, we should be trying to rise them up in some way.

We should not be like that priest in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, who looks and passes by. We have to stop and ask ourselves: What is the oil, the wine? How do we accompany them? This is what here, today, the divorced-and-remarried families have need of, above all. It is not necessary to change the doctrine.


But the concern is not to change the doctrine, but that changing pastoral practice, changing the discipline, will make it seem that the doctrine has changed.

No. It is an erroneous perception. Keep in mind that it is indispensable to heal the wounds provoked not only by the marital separation, but also by other things, for example, abortion, wars, abandoned elderly, procedures of euthanasia. But having reflected over all of this, I am convinced that by [accommodating] the doctrine with a merciful perspective, one can arrive at a solution that’s not abstract and rule-based, but bound to particular situations. Neither is it thinkable nor desirable, in my opinion, to believe that an abstract norm resolves the concrete problems of these families.


Here we come to another concern, which is that the Church, by changing the discipline, will seem to be lowering the bar when it comes to the family and marriage.

No. I want to raise it even higher. We sin with pastoral minimalism. We ask too little. I have to ask more of families.


To be more attentive?

Yes, and with much more missionary determination. We need to work much harder to create an inclusive society. To reduce the divorced and remarried to a simple question means putting it on a completely erroneous level, completely erroneous. I am much more ambitious. Often, we ask too little. Often, one gives in too easily to psychological confusions or a romantic love.


Do you hope this synod will produce many different activities and proposals?

I believe that this synod ought to do two things: first, give a new impulse to the Christian family; and a new energy to help the Christian community be a more energetic leaven of familiarity in society.

Society must be more familial, more fraternal, more united. The United States must be more fraternal. And we have to help people to discover themselves as one family of God. This is the great challenge of today in a world that is individualist, that is falling apart, that is fragmented.


And it is not too late?

Nothing is impossible for God.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.