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Family and Faith Take Center Stage at World Meeting of Families

September 8, 2015

Greg and Lisa Popcak are presenting a workshop at the World Meeting of Families—“See How They Love One Another: The Family and the Faith." Ave Maria Press recently asked the Popcaks about Pope Francis’s visit, faith and family, same-sex marriage, and the effects of popular culture on our kids. Here’s what they had to say:

Ave Maria Press: Pope Francis will make his first visit to the United States as part of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Do you think the timing of his visit is meant to be a message to Americans? What family issues will Pope Francis likely address while he is in the United States?

Greg and Lisa Popcak: I think it is a message for all people but, of course, America is the cultural trendsetter for the world. Culturally speaking, for better or worse, as America goes, the world follows.  Pope Francis has been quite clear about some of his agenda items for the family. Most specifically, he has consistently reminded parents to spend time with their children, to slow down, to reassert the priority of family relationships over work and extracurricular activities and to pray together. 

People have suggested that this pope is less interested in the hot-button culture war issues of abortion, contraception, gay marriage, etc., but his strong comments in opposition to these issues suggest otherwise.  Rather, I think the fact that he is not emphasizing these concerns speaks to the fact that there are more foundational issues at play—namely, the loss of meaningful connection between couples and within families.

Q: A Pew research poll conducted just after the election of Pope Francis found that 76 percent of U.S. Catholics say the church should permit birth control; 54 percent of U.S. Catholics favor same-sex marriage; and 33 percent say homosexual behavior is a sin. What do these statistics say about U.S. Catholics today and what is the impact on the family? Do you think Pope Francis’s visit will have an impact on attitudes about those issues?

A: It says that the Church has done a terrible job articulating its vision of family life. The Church leadership has assumed that “the kids are alright.” That family life is functioning “just fine” in general. Because of this, they have largely failed at articulating a coherent vision or mission statement for families, focusing, instead, on simply listing—but not really even explaining—the “do nots.” They think that because people show up on Sunday that they both understand and support the mission of the Church, but as Sherry Weddell’s research has shown, only about 3 percent of Catholics really get it. The fact that so many Catholics aren’t on board with the Church’s vision of family life is just a symptom of the deeper problem that the vast majority of Catholics have been sacramentalized, but fewer have been actually catechized, and fewer still have been evangelized. 

I hope that Pope Francis’s visit will have a positive impact. I believe that this is what he is attempting to accomplish with the Synod on the Family, but making systemic change is terrifically hard.

Q:  What role does faith play in a strong marriage?

A: Research on marital satisfaction and stability consistently shows that “shared meaning” is a critical component in a couple’s happiness and ability to weather the storms of life. Compared to couples who think that marriage is just about them, husbands and wives who believe their relationship serves a greater purpose or higher cause are more able to overcome the challenges that life throws at them.

Additionally, having a strong, shared faith has been shown to increase marital satisfaction because it enables couples to draw deeper meaning out of the events of their life and experience connection on deeper levels with each other.

Q: How does popular culture affect marriages?

A: The reality is that popular culture doesn’t just affect marriage. It defines it. It tells couples what they have a right to expect from their relationships, how they should behave toward each other, and how to know whether the relationship is good or not and whether it’s worth holding onto or not. That’s what I meant when I said above that the Church leadership has failed to articulate a coherent, compelling vision of marriage and family life. They have let popular culture define these terms and now, we’re playing catch-up and trying to keep the whole thing from falling in on itself after the fact. As far as rank-and-file Catholics are concerned, popular culture is the magisterial authority on marriage and family life, not the Church. This is largely because, for decades, bishops and pastors have accepted and even encouraged this dynamic.

Q: What kind of influence does popular culture have our children’s faith? What can we do to counteract the negative influence of popular culture in our lives?

A: Interestingly, research shows that popular culture doesn’t have to have a negative impact on faith development at all. More than anything else, if children experience the faith as the source of the warmth in their family and if fathers take the lead in faith formation, then the children will own the faith. But that’s critical. If children don’t see that the faith is making a practical difference in their family life, that their family isn’t actively striving to be more committed, loving, and joyful than the families of their non-believing friends, then they will come to see their parent and their parent’s faith as hypocritical and they will defer to the wider culture to tell them how to live and have relationships.

Q: According to a new Pew study about the changing religious landscape in the U.S., the share of the Catholic population in this country has dropped from 23.9 percent to 20.8 percent between 2007 and 2014. Nearly one in five adults who were raised as Christians or in another religion now say they have no affiliation. What are the most important things parents can do to help our children understand, accept, and live out their Catholic faith throughout their lives? What can we do beginning at birth to establish a strong Catholic foundation in our children’s lives?

A: Researchers have found that secure attachment is absolutely critical for healthy faith development.  Psychologically speaking, parents are the face of God to their children—especially in the first five years of life.  The willingness of a parents to respond to their children’s needs generously, promptly, and consistently directly predicts their children’s ability to see God as a trustworthy, benevolent, and credible influence in their lives. By the way, responding generously, promptly, and consistently to children’s needs doesn’t mean spoiling them.  It means modeling the kind of generosity you expect from them in return and, as they get older, teaching them that just as you continually work for their good, they need to look for ways to contribute to the well being of the family and the order and joy of the household as well.

Of course, what makes all this possible is the fact that, as Catholic families, we’re trying to live out the generous, servant leadership of Jesus Christ himself. When our children can see the impact of this kind of mutually generous family life, and see that the source of this is the family’s desire to follow Christ’s example—which we learn more about when we go to church and do church-related activities—faith doesn’t seem so much like some boring, grown-up hobby that they can’t wait to abandon.

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