Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA – W.H. Shumard family, circa 1955

A few days ago the Vatican published a working paper “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization“. This paper results from international consultations stemming from Pope Francis’ convocation of an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to treat the topic: The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.

The discussion document reflects the current catholic (and Catholic) concerns over pastoral issues like increasing frequency of cohabitation, blended families, divorce and remarriage, gay marriage… The document has been welcomed not least because of its desire to base the discussion on Scripture and in a concern for mission. Despite the perception of Pope Francis (who in a sense commissioned the document) as a radical theologian my first impression of the document (after sharing in the two reasons for welcoming it mentioned above) is sadness that it is not “radical” – that is it fails to return to reexamine the biblical roots of Christian teaching about family.

Indeed the section on “God’s Plan for Marriage and the Family” sadly fails to ask what the Scriptures teach about “family” but rather presumes an answer to that question by beginning and basing everything on marriage. Whilst biblical teaching about marriage is undoubtedly (as the document understands) founded on Genesis 2, that is not true for biblical teaching about family. The assumption that marriage + children produced by that marriage = family is a modern Western assumption that was not shared by the authors of Scripture.

As I explained briefly in my paper for the NZ Christian Network (in 2006 ) “Families in the Bible” there is no word or expression in either biblical Hebrew or Greek for the nuclear family. Indeed the words and phrases which get translated “family” in both Testaments refer to something broader (in the present including a wider range of relatives, uncles, aunts, cousins etc. not just mother, father and their children) and deeper (including ancestors and perhaps descendants e.g. “David’s family”). The exercise of looking for the word “family” in English Bibles, and then examining the Hebrew and Greek expressions thus translated, makes it abundantly clear that the writers of Scripture had no conception of (or at least had no interest in talking about)  nuclear families. When Scripture talks about family it is always the extended family that is in view. Any talk of nuclear families is a modern overlay on the Bible.

Beyond that, once we examine the families that the Bible actually describes, we soon discover that they are not merely extended, they are messy. Blended families are not a new phenomenon, just look at the Patriarchs.

Going beyond this Scripture does not anywhere present an image of an ideal family as an exemplar to copy, indeed I suspect all the families in the Bible are presented as broken (composing as they do a broken sinful world). On the other hand, it does present a series of virtues which ought to be shown in family life. The centre and heart of this cluster of virtues is hesed that faithful loving loyalty that God shows to us and which is also modeled by Ruth, Boaz, Tamar and other biblical heroes of the family.

By thus starting from the “modern world”, understood to mean the Westernised world, and importing its ideas onto Scripture while silencing Scripture’s own teaching, this discussion document does a disservice to the catholic (in the sense of “everywhere”) Church. By this rejection of Scripture it risks merely reinforcing the individualistic “modern” Western tendencies that it somewhat timidly criticises.