At the recent annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, I had the opportunity to be the author at a Breakfast with an Author table with seven other SCE members who foolishly committed to join me for food and conversation at 7:15AM on the last day of the conference.
The topic of our discussion was my recent book, Family Ethics: Practices for Christians. In the book, I present arguments for five practices (sex, eating, tithing, service, and prayer) that could allow families to live out the social mission given to them in Catholic Social Teaching, particularly John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio. Families, I contend, can contribute to the social justice mission of the church, not by sacrificing everything like the heroes and saints of our tradition, but by embracing practices of resistance in the home that have the power to transform society from the ground up. For instance, by living more simply and giving a percentage of their income away to the very poor or eating more simply in order to avoid unnecessary environmental damage, families can make a difference.
The questions that arose in our conversation were both pastoral and academic.
On the pastoral side, those working in parishes reported that in adult study groups, the theology of the body was the most popular topic. How, we wondered, can we bring into parishes a broader theological vision of a Christian family? Could a vision like mine really appeal across the liberal-conservative divide? Would “liberals” read the chapters on sex and prayer? Would “conservatives” find the emphasis on giving money to the poor and eating ethically tangential to family life?
On the academic side, Charlie Camosy asked why this book had not been written sooner. It’s a great question, especially since I try to show that Catholic Social Teaching has always emphasized the role of families in upholding and transforming the social order. But historically, ethical writing on marriage and family has concentrated on sexual morality, which was then very separate from social ethics. The few social ethicists who did focus attention on the potential of parishes and families were considered naive. Most ethicists put their energy into analyzing laws and social structures. Families were excused from responsibility for social justice and their everyday moral dilemmas received little sustained attention.
Today, however, there are more married theologians than ever before, and they see both the promise and the peril of family life. Younger generations of theologians are not convinced that working for political change is always realistic. In the face of intractable problems, it can sometimes seem more practical to change what you can, beginning in your own community. Younger theologians, like many on this blog, are also less likely to divide up along liberal-conservative lines, or to separate sexual ethics and social ethics. A broad family ethic seems more necessary to many, especially in the face of so much family dysfunction.
I came away grateful to be in conversation with so many people, both at this breakfast and throughout the conference, who care deeply about practicing their faith.