The Contribution of Catholicism to Marriage and Family

Peter Holmes addresses the Roundtable on Couple Therapy | Oct 1, 2010

When considering the contribution of Catholicism to marriage and family, particularly to relationship counselling, it is easy to think we are on the defensive. We are gathered here today to talk about how we can provide training, networks and support for good Catholic counsellors who know, respect and professionally uphold the human person, but most of what we have observed about the ‘state of play’ has been negative. Most secular counsellors seem to be negative to Catholic worldview, catholic moral teaching and the ideals we believe every human being properly aspires. Government policies and legislation seem less and less concerned with the dignity of every person and seem more focussed on allowing all sorts of chaos in relationships, families and communities based on a false notion of ‘freedom’. Looked at from this perspective, the picture looks bleak.

Looking at it from another perspective, however, is possible. The growing clamour about marriage and relationships reaching from parish halls to the houses of parliament has raised the issue of what constitutes human happiness in relationships, families and communities. What is it we value and look for in these age old institutions? There is a role for Catholics to help people understand the logical conclusion of various positions on marriage, but the very fact that people are talking, wondering and generally interested in what constitutes a marriage is a magnificent opportunity.

The general discussion on the sad state of modern marriages may seem bleak but, once again, it represents an opportunity to point out where true fulfilment in relationships begins. So many people are desperately unhappy in relationships that hollywood promised them would be a fairytale heaven, and they find it instead to be a kind of bland disappointment or even a kind of suburban hell. They need to know where the real spark that fires a lifelong love comes from.

The lack of training for good Catholic counsellors reveals a great hunger for health workers of all kinds who base their method squarely on a Catholic view of the human person, uniquely created with dignity, wonder, beauty and purpose. People’s frustrations with various practitioners represent a genuine longing to be treated with the dignity that their created state demands.

In short, people in Australian society are desperately hungry for the truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church, even if they are not aware that we have the answers, even if they have been put off by the negative propaganda. Even if we ourselves often fail to live out the truth and fail to find true happiness in our own lives, they still hunger for fulfilment, particularly in relationships.

In this context there is a very grave danger that Catholics be so afraid of the possibility of being misunderstood, that we are not brave enough to attempt to make ourselves understood. There is a danger we will be so paralysed by the fear of being called ‘out-dated’, ‘regressive’ or ‘judgemental’ or ‘homophobic’ that we hide the truth away, until nobody calls us at all. On the other hand, when we do venture out there is a grave danger of us spending so much time and energy combatively debating definitions, engaging in apologetics and responding to the latest name-calling by others in debate that we come across as the bitter reactionaries some have decided we are.

There is a great opportunity before us. Every person at this table brings the ever true, ever new teaching to the world in a way which heals, inspires, equips and enables relationships in a way that no other theory, policy or ideology can. Catholics need to stop apologising for marriage vows, NFP, tribunals and the like. These are overwhelmingly positive contributions to the present situation, resources which I wish I had available back when I was a Protestant minister, but which only the Catholics have to offer. From the pre-marriage counsellors to the tribunal, from the crisis counsellors to the marriage and family offices, the truth of the natural and supernatural gift of marriage and the family that springs from it are desperately needed. Beyond the barrier of propaganda and politics lies a body of ordinary people who are asking, begging, aching for the truth we have been given, to transform their lives into something properly reflecting their human dignity and purpose. It is crucial that we offer a unified, gentle and deliberately positive proposal of the truth which will set people free.

Peter Holmes
Lecturer in Theology, University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney.

Peter has studied at Luther Seminary for six years and engaged in pastoral work in Adelaide and Melbourne, serving as a Lutheran minister in Melbourne. He has also worked with “Centacare – Catholic Family Services” in Melbourne, in the area of Marriage education (on organising committee of Melbourne MARENC in 2001) and served as Executive Secretary of Council for Marriage and Family in Melbourne. He has also studied at the JPII Institute and at Notre Dame University. He spent six years as Manager of Studies at Catholic Adult Education Centre, Sydney (including involvement in the pre-marriage program). He is now a full time Lecturer in Theology at University of Notre Dame, Sydney. Peter is also married with seven children.