At the invitation of Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, the
Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family met in Sacrofano,
Rome, from 17 to 19 October 2002. The participants reflected on the issue of
couples in difficulty from the point of view of pastoral care, according to the
features dealt with in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, n. 77.
Here is a translation of the conclusions of the Plenary Assembly.
The family is the "way of the human person", the place where a human being
becomes acquainted with life and social existence. It remains a place of strong
emotional involvement. It is the place for one's expected recognition as a
person. It ensures the necessary stability to the mission of education. It is
recognized as the ultimate refuge from the danger of marginalization.
Let us not forget that even in the midst of the situations
of family crisis, many families, indeed the majority, live instead in a firm and
faithful union and this is so even in countries where the problem is more acute.
We thank the Lord for the witness of these families.
However, the fragility of the marital bond is a notable feature of the
contemporary world. It spares no continent and is present at every level of
society. It makes society fragile and even jeopardizes the educational task. All
too often it leads to numerous separations as well as to divorce.
One sometimes has the impression that separation and
divorce are considered the only way out of marital crisis. This is part of the
growing "divorce mentality". Difficulties frequently lead to real friction and
conflicts which, in the "new mentality" also lead to separation (advisable
perhaps, in extreme cases), and even to divorce. We will make frequent reference
to these cases and we want to insist on the danger of the spread of the "divorce
mentality", which the Holy Father recently branded in his address to the Roman
Rota (28 January 2002; ORE, 6 February 2002, p. 6). This mentality weakens
spouses and creates a greater risk for their personal frailty. Giving up without
a struggle is becoming far too common, whereas a strong faith might enable them
to overcome even serious difficulties.
In fact, divorce is not just a question of a legal
decision. It is not like a "crisis" that passes away. It leaves a lasting
impression on the partners. It is a problem of a relationship, of relationship
that was destroyed. It will mark every member of the family community for life.
It is a cause of financial, emotional and human impoverishment. This
impoverishment especially affects women and children. Its social costs are
One can realize that there is no proportion between the
motives given for the divorce and the irreparable consequences that come from
II. Reasons for this situation
Different factors contribute to the current increase in divorce, with
elements that vary from country to country. First and foremost is the
surrounding culture, "a world that is becoming ever more secularized", as the
Holy Father said to us (Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical
Council for the Family, n. 2; ORE, 30 October, p. 3). In this culture particular
mention is made of economic difficulties and the break-up of families they
create. One can mention a false concept of freedom, the fear of commitment, the
practice of cohabitation, the "trivialization of sex", as John Paul II describes
it, sexual promiscuity, and life styles, women's fashions, films, TV sitcoms,
etc. They make people harbour doubt about the value of marriage and go so far as
to propagate the idea that the reciprocal gift of spouses until death would be
something impossible. They weaken the family institution and even manage to
discredit it, to the advantage of other pseudo-family "models".
Radical accent on the individual
We are also witnessing the invasion of many areas of human activity by a
radical individualism: economic life, excessive competition, competition in all
fields of human activity, disregard of the marginalized, etc.
This individualism certainly does not encourage generous, faithful and permanent
self-giving. Nor does it foster a solution to the crisis of marriage.
It often happens that States themselves, responsible for
the common good and social coherence, encourage this individualism, enshrining
it in legal expressions such as, for example, in France the "civil pact of
solidarity" (PACS), which is presented, at least implicitly, as an alternative
to marriage. Worse still are the homosexual or lesbian unions, whose members
also demand the right to adopt children. By so doing, they render marriage
precarious in public opinion and contribute to creating problems that they are
incapable of solving. Very often, marriage is no longer considered as a social
good, and its "privatization" paves the way to reducing or even eliminating its
This social ideology of pseudo freedom authorizes the
individual to act primarily for his own pleasure, his own interests, his own
usefulness. The spouses' commitment acquires the air of a mere contract open to
indefinite renegotiation; the word given has no more than a limited value in
time; persons are only responsible to themselves for their actions.
Erroneous visions of married life
It must also be noted that many young people form an idealistic or even
erroneous vision of the couple as a living unclouded happiness where their own
wishes will be fulfilled. They can reach a latent conflict between the desire to
be one with the other and the desire to protect their own freedom. A growing
misunderstanding of the beauty of the genuine human couple, and of the richness
of the difference and the complementarity of man and woman leads to a growing
confusion about sexual identity, a confusion which has culminated in the
feminist ideology of what is known as "gender". This confusion complicates the
assumption of roles and the sharing of tasks in the home. It leads to a
renegotiation of these roles as permanent as it is extenuating. Today, moreover,
the conditions created by the professional activity of the husband and wife
reduce the time they spend together and their communication in the family. They
also impoverish the capacity for dialogue between the spouses.
In some countries, unemployment or economic difficulties that oblige one
parent to live abroad are also a danger for the couple. They give priority to
money, sacrificing their life as a couple.
All too often, when the crisis comes, the couple have to
solve it alone. They have no one who can listen to them or enlighten them, which
would perhaps enable them to avoid making an irreversible decision. This
solitude leaves couples closed-in on their problems, especially when families do
not support them, since they no longer see any alternative to separation or
divorce as a solution to their suffering. Instead, this temporary crisis might
have been overcome if the couple had had the support of a human or ecclesial
III. Consequences of divorce on children
Among the problems connected with divorce, there is a particular concern for
the children. They are the first victims of their parents' decisions. It is true
that the idea that separation or divorce are the natural solution to a marriage
crisis is becoming very widespread, and some say that after all it is not such a
bad thing for the children. "A good divorce is better than a bad marriage", they
declare. It is said that children suffer less from a clear cut separation than
from a combative atmosphere between their parents.
Long term negative effect of divorce
On the contrary, in the numerous studies dedicated to this topic, many
experts emphasize that divorce upsets all the family members, profoundly
disturbs the relationship between parents and children in the crucial years in
which the personality is formed, and causes them to lose the symbolic reference
points offered by the family environment. The child has to find his bearings in
new family relationships which cause him upheaval and suffering. For the child,
his/her parents' divorce will be the most important and painful event in the
years of his growth, the event that affects him/her most deeply. The
consequences of divorce on the child are manifold, profound and permanent. Some
will only surface in the long term.
Therefore it is not surprising to note that divorce often
causes such phenomena in children as falling behind at school, the temptation to
crime, drug use, personal instability, relational difficulties, fear of
commitments, professional failure, alienation, as the experts in these matters
prove. Statistics also show that the children of divorced couples have greater
difficulties than others in forming a stable conjugal relationship and that
divorce is more frequent among them. In fact, separation and especially divorce,
cause considerable damage to children and mark them for the rest of their life.
IV. Pastoral action
The Church is certainly not indifferent to the separation or divorce of
married couples, to the destruction of families or to the situations that
divorce creates for children. We are facing the denial of fundamental dimensions
of human nature! In accordance with the expressed wish of the Holy Father ("To
the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the
forces of good, the source of which is found in Christ the Redeemer of man....
What I offer, then, is an invitation: an invitation addressed ... to my Brothers
in the Episcopate, and to priests, religious families and consecrated
persons.... I speak ... to all people of our day, so that they will come to
appreciate the grandeur of the goods of marriage, family and life; so that they
will come to appreciate the great danger which follows when these realities are
not respected, or when the supreme values which lie at the foundation of the
family and of human dignity are disregarded" [John Paul II, Letter to Families,
2 February 1994, n. 23; ORE, 23 February 1994, Insert]), the Pontifical Council
for the Family, joining forces with the Bishops' Conferences, is doing its
utmost to foster a true family culture, a culture of life. In a society that no
longer considers communion of life and stable, faithful and exclusive love
possible, one must restore the value of love, not as happiness and passion, but
as a plan of life, integration and openness.
Formation for pastoral care of marriages
This demands specific pastoral attention, with the involvement of priests
and laity. Pastoral care requires a concentration of reflection and formation at
the parochial and diocesan levels. Pastoral care will be prepared by a
satisfactory formation of future priests in the seminary.
Three aspects of this pastoral action can be
— to prevent;
— to accompany;
— to reconcile and to start over again.
a) One must insist on the prevention of these situations,
hence on the prevention of separation and divorce in themselves. Certainly, this
prevention passes through a full, thorough and extensive preparation for
marriage, as the Pontifical Council stresses in the document it has dedicated to
this topic, observing the teaching of Familiaris consortio, n. 66 (Pontifical
Council for the Family, Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage, 13 May 1996).
This preparation must be remote, close to the event and immediate. The remote
preparation begins in childhood, in the home where the children are born, where
they are opened to affection and love, following their parents' example.
Prayer in the family is of great importance. If it is true
that many families have given up prayer, it is also true and encouraging that
many others have freshly taken up the habit of praying for their future and for
the future marriages of their children, putting everything in the hands of the
Lord of the Covenant. Indeed, as the Holy Father recalls, "the family that prays
together stays together" (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, n. 41).
Human and affective formation of young people
Children and young people need a human and affective formation which shapes
their personality, their responsibility, their sense of fidelity and initiative.
They need to be taught about their sexuality which, to be valid and fully human,
must find its place in the process of the discovery of the capacity for love,
impressed by God on the human heart. This is a formation for responsible love,
guided by the Word of God and by reason. From this point of view it is never too
much to recommend vigilance, when it is a question of choosing educational
material destined for the young. What they have to use today is often offensive
and dangerous, and creates a "mentality" which does not promote a mature
Catechesis must not neglect to present in a positive light
the human values of friendship, mutual help, loyalty, the promise to be kept,
and love. It must not hesitate to be appealing when it is a question of
presenting the beauty of Christian marriage and the importance of the virtue of
human sexuality, chastity (Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and
Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family, n.
16-25, 8 December 1995).
Parish formation of the young
In the period between the sacrament of Confirmation and the sacrament of
Marriage, in the schedule of youth activities, parishes should organize special
catecheses on the themes of commitment in marriage, in the family and for life.
The preparation for marriage of engaged couples must
include an increased insistance on the definitive commitment they will be making
before God and men. It is on these lines that it will be possible to place an
emphasis on the promise to be kept and their responsibility for their own
actions. Psychologists, educators or Christian couples should help young people
discover genuine love in themselves, with all that this implies in the way of
feeling, attachment, passion and also reason. By underlining these points, the
Church will make her message on responsible parenthood understood and better
received. During this preparation, special formation has to be given to children
who come from broken homes.
Ongoing support of newly-weds
b) It is desirable that the married couples who accompany the engaged
couples in their immediate preparation for marriage, will continue to follow
them in the first years of their union to help them face tensions and
misunderstandings before they degenerate into a crisis. Couples who have
benefited from this kind of support will in turn be able to offer it to others.
Preventive pastoral care demands that throughout their
married life, couples be offered possibilities and opportunities to go back in
spirit to the beginning for their reflection and inspiration. This guidance
should take such forms as encounters with other families, recollection, retreats
or other meetings. Parishes and apostolic movements must be able to ensure they
Holy Family Feast, chance for prayer and meeting with
Much should be made of the Feast of the Holy Family or of other celebrations
in which couples meet, to offer them the opportunity to renew their marriage
vows publicly in church; and to encourage husbands and wives to take the time
and the necessary means to deepen the dialogue between them, so that their
communication becomes a communion of hearts.
In this preventive pastoral approach, one must foster all
that can reinforce cohesion and communication in the family. It is necessary to
develop a true spirituality of marriage, as the Holy Father has pointed out
("Prayer increases the strength and spiritual unity of the family, helping the
family to partake of God's own 'strength'.... This 'visitation' of the Holy
Spirit gives rise to the inner strength of families, as well as the power
capable of uniting them in love and truth" [Letter to Families, n. 4]).
c) In times of crises, all of the abovementioned means can
help solve the sources of tension. They will enable the spouses to return to the
starting point of their love, to relativize the stress of the moment and to
overcome crises. Within themselves they possess the energies of the grace of
marriage. These energies only wait to be reawakened and guided. It is here that
an encounter with a mentor, a "spiritual director", a help network, a couple
whose witness is an example or even a welcoming community can play an essential
As often happens in these cases, a crisis overcome can be
the starting point of a new phase in the life of a couple. The Christian
community must strive to make available to couples welcoming places where they
may find people they can talk to in difficult moments.
In addition to the support of the Christian community,
centres for marriage counselling should provide their professional expertise and
wisdom. They must also have had a solid Christian training.
Successful marital commitment
d) The success of married life is "a commitment" that requires time, energy,
carefulness and perseverance. The celebration of marriages is a favourable
opportunity to proclaim this good news to all the wedding guests (Familiaris
consortio, nn. 67-68). Wedding anniversaries and other celebrations that gather
all the generations of a family should give them a strong experience of living
together important moments.
Bishops, in their teaching, must remind married couples of
the grace of the sacrament of marriage. They will know how to encourage them in
their commitment to fidelity, in their concern to give themselves to one another
and to invite them to mutual forgiveness. They must recall to both parents their
responsibility for their children, reminding them that their children's
happiness must have a central place in their lives. They will prudently point
out to them that separation and divorce destroy a way of life without doing away
with responsibility, since parents continue to be responsible for their children
after their separation.
Formation of children from broken homes
e) The emotional upheaval suffered by children of separated couples who
suddenly find themselves with a single parent or in a "new" family, poses a
challenge for bishops, catechists, teachers and all who are responsible for the
young. The number of these children is growing constantly. Despite their
capacity for adaptation, the children often suffer and find it difficult to
trust others. Educators must help them. It is not a question of replacing their
parents but of collaborating with them. It is a matter of enabling their
children to express themselves, to rediscover their confidence and to learn
forgiveness. This can be done in the context of their family life, of friends'
homes, of movements for children and youth, of Christian guidance teams and on
the occasion of catechesis.
In all our thoughts on couples in difficulty, the problems of couples, the
fragility of the institution of marriage, and the remedies for it, one topic
constantly recurs and, in a certain way, constitutes the conclusion of our
resolutions: the importance of the family, of the Christian family, as a
testimony, model and support for all those for whom the problem of separation
arises. This is what the Holy Father said today: "How important it is to foster
family support for couples, especially young couples, by families who are
spiritually and morally solid. It is a fruitful and necessary apostolate at this
time in history" (Address to the 15th Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council
for the Family, 18 October 2002, n. 8; ORE 30 October 2002, p. 3) ("The richness
of the sacramental life, in the life of the family ... is undoubtedly the best
antidote for confronting and overcoming obstacles and tensions" ibid., n. 2).
The Lord shows patience, confidence in difficulties
The Lord teaches us hope, patience and confidence in difficulties. He does
not despair of the human person's inner energies, of his capacity for
correction. After his example, we too should count on the person because we
count on God; we should count on the family because it comes from God. As the
Holy Father has recalled so beautifully in the Message he addressed to our
Assembly: "There is no difficult situation that cannot be adequately confronted
when one cultivates a genuine atmosphere of Christian life. Love itself, wounded
by sin, is still a redeemed love" (ibid.).
We present these conclusions in the firm conviction that
the problems couples are facing today, which weaken their union, have a true
solution in the return to the solidity of the Christian family, a place of
mutual trust, of reciprocal giving, of respect for freedom and of a training for
social life. For this reason, we have confidence in the witness of those
radiant, joyful homes that draw their energy from the sacrament of Marriage.