COLORADO SPRINGS. Next September, Pope Francis is going to make his first visit to the United States as pontiff, and the primary occasion of his visit is to attend the World Meeting of Families. Because the Church sees the family as a “domestic church” that is at the foundation of society, much attention will be paid to the many issues surrounding the ups and downs of family life that everyone—not just people of faith—experiences.
For decades, Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs has been an ally of the Catholic Church with its may outreaches to build stronger Christian families. Their latest effort, “The Family Project,” is their most ambitious yet and will include a dozen feature-length documentaries and study guides.
The opening documentary of this project, “Irreplaceable,” will screen across the country for one night only on May 6. “Irreplaceable” host Tim Sisarich travels the globe to answer the question: “What is Family?” The film explores the desire to belong that each person has and how that longing is fulfilled in the family.
Focus on the Family recently screened “Irreplaceable” for Bishop Michael Sheridan, Herald staff and the diocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life. Bishop Sheridan called the film “more than a documentary.”
“Does family matter? Does the life-long union of one man and one woman in marriage matter? Do children born and raised by a father and a mother matter? ‘Irreplaceable’ seeks and finds the answers to these questions — questions that are critical for the preservation of our culture and our society,” he said in an official endorsement. “‘Irreplaceable’ is a deeply moving look at marriage and family and the reasons why they must be preserved.”
Below is a conversation with Focus’ director for family formation studies Glenn Stanton, who is also a cowriter of “Irreplaceable” and a member of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Colorado Springs.
THE COLORADO CATHOLIC HERALD: How would you describe the state of the family now, and where does The Family Project engage this?
GLENN STANTON: Few would disagree with the fact that the family has undergone tremendous change in the past four or five decades, perhaps more than all the millennia prior. And only a few think these changes have been good save for those who believe anything that challenges the “mom-dad-and-the-kids” model is a positive development.
These folks are few, but unfortunately influential. Their fruit has spoiled; what we do know, indisputable from the social sciences, is that none of these changes with the form of family — divorce, cohabitation, fatherlessness, sexual expressiveness — have been able to provide personal or community well-being like the married mother/father model does and has. In fact, they each fall far short in dramatic and harmful ways. This is not acceptable for anyone who thinks the “love your neighbor” ethic of sociability is desirable.
So The Family Project, which Focus on the Family has been hard at work on for a few years now, is an effort to carefully and colorfully show what family is given God’s own personal nature as well as his design for humanity. It is captured in looking at God’s story from pre-creation to culmination. We start by examining the most basic needs for every human — intimacy and the need for a sense of significance — and how these are clues to understand both God and his gift of family. And we hope people will learn so much about God, themselves, their neighbors and families from there. We are excited about it.
The big intellectual push these days is that the traditional family is just one of many forms of family. “Irreplaceable” effectively lays out why this is not a healthy view. Why does the traditional family need to be fought for as the model in society?
Indeed, an a la carte approach to family rules the day — take whatever appeals to you, disregard what doesn’t. Nothing except personal desire matters — “to thine own heart be true.” Culturally, this view is absolutely novel and experimental. And “Irreplaceable” tells the story of how dramatic these changes with family have been and the troubling impact they are having on our collective human and social health. It is a film that offers both a stark and educated wake-up call, but also hope, which is further given in The Family Project small group curriculum which is the follow-up to “Irreplaceable.”
The messages given by both projects are essential because we need to know that the “irreplaceableness” of family is first a God-based reality and therefore a sociological and anthropological one. The current and long-term health of any nation, village or people is directly correlated to the health and robustness of its families. It is as sure a natural force as gravity and our recent history is just one bit of evidence among many proving the fact.
The film’s site says: “Each one of us has a desire for significance — a desire to belong. And the family is where those deepest longings are fulfilled.” Can you elaborate on that desire and those deepest longings?
This likeness is no coincidence. The teaching in this project is very influenced in the glorious picture of God and humanity presented to us in the deeply biblical “Theology of the Body.” It starts looking at universal human needs, not because man is the center of all things, but quite the opposite.
We start by looking at what is common to all people through all times because it’s these that point to whose image we are created in. Any human being can be lavishly cared for with the finest foods, drink, clothes and housing, but if they don’t have access to intimacy and closeness with another human being or a sense of significance in their life and work, they will either actually die or actually go insane.
Think about what prisons do as a last resort to unruly inmates. Think about the Romanian orphans who were never held or talked to. Concentration camps, to break people down, keep them isolated and either don’t give them any work to do or give them meaningless work; move this pile of rocks to over there and then back, day after day. It is absolute torture and has nothing to do with the physicality of the work. People need to know their lives are contributing to something that is helpful to others. And consider that it is in family where every human being starts to receive and learn how to do both of these things. No other social institute can provide them like family does. And this is because God’s fundamental essence is relational as Trinity. And the Trinity dwells in significance eternally. As His image-bearers, we are made in an earthly, physical and spiritual sense for these things.
Who is this film for? Is it mostly for Protestants or a wider group?
That’s an important question. It is both for the believers and those who are interested in learning why our hearts are like they are and why loneliness and a sense of futility hurt so badly. We have created it for Christians to gain a deeper and fuller understanding of their God, His story, and our common faith. But it is also carefully written and created to speak meaningfully to those who have no experience with church, Scripture or Christianity. This initial appeal to universal human needs is so important. It speaks to everyone at their deepest core and starts from there. And we also make great use of classical and modern art in telling the story. Beauty is a powerful and universal language that speaks to each of us in very personal ways.
In what ways can the local diocese embrace this project?
We hope that it will serve as a strong and helpful resource in local catechesis and evangelization which is the work of each diocese, parish and individual Christian. We pray this will be a unique tool in the hands of clergy and laity alike in doing this work in this unique and challenging age. Toward that end, it intentionally features leading Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox and Jewish thinkers and practitioners as experts.
A few years ago, the citizens of Colorado passed an amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Yet they were legislated around by civil union supporters the last couple of years. What words of encouragement do you have for folks who are disheartened by the political attacks to redefine the family?
Goodness, it seems as if any real word of encouragement pales in the face of the absolute steamrolling we’re seeing and experiencing in this radical redefinition of the family today. In fact, the changes we’ve seen in the last few months have been astounding in terms of speed and scope. We have tough days ahead and that should not be missed or dismissed, particularly regarding our convictional and religious freedom as citizens. But two things are sure and I think are related.
One, God is sovereign and His hands are very much on the wheel. We must never forget that all seemed drastically lost on Good Friday, but Sunday came in power. Such is the foundation of Christianity. But second, it is also Satan’s MO to over-reach. His self-absorption cannot prevent it. And we see an extreme over-reaching in the movement to overthrow God’s design for marriage. It boldly denies that the gendered-distinct nature of humanity and family matters in any way. It says that the freedom to disagree with their proposal cannot and should not exist in our democracy.
Proclaim your support for man-woman marriage and you get your business slimmed and attacked just like Chick-Fil-A and hundreds of smaller businesses. Support marriage protection efforts with your time or money and lose your position in the company you started as this recent Mozilla incident (where the CEO resigned over his opposition to same-sex marriage). The belief that children have a right to a mother and father and any speech or action in support of that conviction is viciously branded as “hate-speech.” I think such incivility and extremism will show itself for what it is.
What did you learn in the making of this film and curriculum that changed how you see your own family?
Well, it has been an incredibly rich process and experience for all of us who have worked on the project. Beyond increasing my conviction on how much family matters and why, it gave me a needed kick-in-the-pants to fight for my family and those around me.
And in a very encouraging sense, I learned that the best kinds of families are those who live honestly with their warts, bruises and struggles. This is where God does most of his greatest works in our lives. The worst kinds are those who pretend and want you to believe they have it all together. They are not only living a myth, but a deception. “Perfect Christian families” are oxymoronic. They have no need of Jesus because they have no need for redemption, the very business that Jesus is in.
God’s heart is not for perfect families, but for those limping — if not being carried — along the path of redemption, forgiveness, hope and grace. Who doesn’t need that good news today?