Pope Francis has been preaching on marriage and family for a year, describing in increasingly vivid terms a global threat to what he has called "human ecology."
"We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable," he said last fall, at the Vatican's Humanum Conference on marriage.
"The crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection."
In his historic address to the U.S. Congress, the pope concluded with this same point: "I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family."
As a result, he warned, many young people are growing up "disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. … We might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family."
Ironically, while the world's attention was locked on Pope Francis during his U.S. visit, the event that brought him here -- The World Meeting of Families -- unfolded quietly in Philadelphia with 20,000 people in attendance, drawing little media attention.
There were some hot topics discussed during its many sessions. Gay, lesbian and transgender Catholics critical of church doctrines, for example, protested that they could not respond to the "Homosexuality in the Family" session, which featured a celibate gay Catholic who supports Catholic teachings on sex. There were presentations on divorce, interfaith marriages, the trauma of infertility, online threats to children and a host of other subjects. In one session, one of the 12 apostles atop the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hierarchy shared "techniques of family unity" practiced by Mormons.
In the final keynote session, a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor -- invited to speak by Pope Francis -- shared the stage with the Franciscan friar who leads the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, while serving as one of the pope's key American advisors.
Responding to the pope's words to Congress, the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, shared a handwritten list of current threats to modern families.
"Materialism is idolized, immorality is glamorized, truth is minimized, sin is normalized, divorce is rationalized and abortion is legalized. In TV and movies, crime is sensationalized, drugs are legitimized, comedy is vulgarized and sex is trivialized," he said, reading from a notecard. "In movies, the Bible is fictionalized, churches are satirized, God is marginalized and Christians are demonized. … The elderly are dehumanized, the sick are euthanized, the poor are victimized, the mentally ill are ostracized, immigrants are stigmatized and children are tranquilized.
"Then I wrote, our families now live in a world where manners are uncivilized, speech is vulgarized, education is secularized, advertising is sensualized and everything is commercialized. Unfortunately, Christians, you and I, we are often disorganized and we are demoralized, our faith is compartmentalized and our witness it compromised."
In response, Warren and Cardinal Sean O'Malley stressed that church must learn to be positive while celebrating strong marriages and families, offering future generations a chance to learn wisdom and skills from those whose faith has been proven by fire.
"Our task is to turn consumers into disciples and disciple-makers. We need to prepare men and women who witness to the faith, and not send people into the witness protection program," said O'Malley.
In real life, he added, the way "most of us become real Christians is by looking over someone else's shoulder, emulating an admired older member of our family or parish, saying yes and taking up a way of life that was made real and accessible through the witness of someone else. We learn to be disciples the way we learn to speak a language, by living in a community that speaks that language."