According to Pew Research, the marriage rate in the United States is currently hovering at around 50 percent, meaning half of U.S. adults aged 18 and older are married, a steep decline compared to the peak rate of 72 percent in 1960. The fertility rate is also at a 30-year low in the United States, and sits below replacement levels. As of 2014, less than half of children were living in a traditional nuclear home with their married mother and father.
By many measures, marriage and family life today are in crisis, in ways that are perhaps even more pronounced than when John Paul II wrote this letter.
“I think the ‘crisis of concepts’ that John Paul II speaks of is an enormous challenge for the family today,” Sr. John Mary, S.V., of the Sisters of Life, told CNA.
“Who can deny that our age is one marked by a great crisis, which appears above all as a profound ‘crisis of truth?’” John Paul II wrote. “A crisis of truth means, in the first place, a crisis of concepts. Do the words ‘love’, ‘freedom’, ‘sincere gift’, and even ‘person’ and ‘rights of the person’, really convey their essential meaning?” This crisis now seems to be even more profound than when the Pope first wrote these words, Sr. John Mary, S.V., a Sister of Life, told CNA.
“Even more so today than when the Letter to Families was written, modern culture does not recognize the truth of who the human person is, what we are made for, what constitutes a family, what freedom and human rights are,” she said. “So to truly live Christian family life becomes more and more radically countercultural. John Paul II addresses this in the letter by proposing the anthropology that corrects this crisis of concepts and allows for a civilization of love to grow by way of marriage and family,” she noted.
Another major challenge faced by families is the “radical individualism” present in current culture, Sr. John Mary said, which is something else John Paul II addressed in the letter.
According to John Paul II, radical individualism is “based on a faulty notion of freedom and proposes personalism as the antidote,” Sr. John Mary said. “The family is the first place where love is given and received. But if parents do not model authentic, self-giving love to their children, families become groups of persons pursuing their own selfish ends,” she said.
The ‘antidote’: John Paul II’s cure for a sick society
Though John Paul II’s descriptions of these crises and the current state of affairs of marriage and family in the world paint a dark picture, John Paul also provides for families and the Church a way out.
Bill Donaghy is a senior lecturer and content specialist with the Theology of the Body Institute. The mission of the Institute is to educate and train men and women to understand, live, and promote John Paul II’s teachings in his Theology of the Body.
Donaghy told CNA that not only does he consider John Paul II’s Letter to Families the blueprint to how to live a holy life personally as a husband and father, he also considers it the “antidote” to everything that goes against a “civilization of love.”
“Without a doubt in my mind, in the providence of God Who could foresee today’s crisis in marriage and the family, the attempt to redefine marriage and the explosion of gender ideologies that detach our identity from our humanity, St. John Paul II’s thought is the antidote, the cure, the clear truth of who we are and how we are to live as human persons made by Love,” he said.
“I think the vision presented in this letter is actually more relevant now than it was 25 years ago,” he said. “It contains the secret for our joy, the mystical meaning of marriage, the way home for the prodigal sons and daughters who’ve tried everything else to bring us joy and failed to find it.”
For himself, Donaghy said building the “civilization of love” starts in his own home - by treating his wife with love and respect, by spending time with and listening to his children, by modeling sacrificial love. At the parish level, he said the Church must help families by creating space for “real human interaction, conversation, and formation.”
“Again, the 'Letter to Families' is a goldmine of a teaching, a school of love for humanity. But we’ve got to make time and space for it to enter into the everyday dynamics of our own family,” he said.
Staudt too told CNA that the words and teachings of Pope John Paul II on the family have deeply inspired his work in family ministry.
“It really is through John Paul's teachings, the letter and his other teachings...that I've discerned that the way to build Christian culture is through family life,” Staudt, who is also the father of 6, told CNA.
For the Building Family Culture retreats that he leads, Staudt said that he focuses on teaching families how to pray, the importance of which is heavily emphasized by John Paul II in his letter.
“Prayer must become the dominant element of the Year of the Family in the Church: prayer by the family, prayer for the family, and prayer with the family,” John Paul II wrote. “Prayer increases the strength and spiritual unity of the family, helping the family to partake of God's own ‘strength.’”
“I think we take that for granted, that families know how to pray, and I don't think they do. So I think that's the foundation, that's the core, and John Paul does talk a lot about that,” he said. After prayer, he also focuses on how to build a family culture, which includes doing things that form children’s imagination in positive and beautiful ways.
Staudt said he hopes that more in family ministry “wake up” to the urgency of helping families become what John Paul II has called them to be.
“I don't think enough people have woken up to the urgency in supporting family life and really making that a priority in their parishes, their dioceses, in catechesis and in evangelization,” he said.
“John Paul is truly prophetic in pointing us to the fundamental realities of man, woman, human love, family life as crucial for the Church and society at this time, that these are the key issues that we need to face.”
Sr. John Mary and the Sisters of Life say they help build a “civilization of love” through the women they help in crisis pregnancies, the women they counsel after abortions, or the young people who are early on in their journey of faith.
Sr. John May said that because John Paul II was speaking about universal truths of the human person, his words will continue to be relevant for families and the Church throughout time. “John Paul’s Letter to Families explores universal truths: the goodness of the human person, the dignity of marriage, and the very real challenges facing families today,” she said. “Marriage and family are God’s plan to satisfy the universal longings of the human heart, so speaking of them is always timely.”
“We are all called to do something great with our life and our love,” she added. “We are made for love and communion with God and others. John Paul II reminds us of this lofty call, and encourages us that true love is possible.”