The Domestic Church’
Report on Conversations by AAIF (The American Association of Interchurch Families) for IFIN (Interchurch Families International Network) Research- / Study-Group
Conversations among AAIF couples in the United States during late Summer and Fall 2007 offer a unique perspective on the topic of “the Domestic Church.”
This report attempts: (1) to summarize; and (2) to offer a synthesis of various comments, critiques, and responses to the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on the family as “domestic church” (especially in its contemporary articulation by Pope John Paul II).
Two key comments that were frequently remarked include:
- “The domestic church” is primarily intended to describe (define?) Catholic families in which the spouses are both Catholic.
- The term “the domestic church” may have some resonance with interchurch families vis-à-vis their realization that both the “nuclear family” and the “extended ‘family” are where Christians learn, absorb, and practice the fundamentals of life and faith.
Other insightful points of discussion included the following:
1. One participant recalled hearing on that very day the NRP (National Public Radio) feature which reported that “the family that eats together becomes a successful family.” It echoes the familiar axiom, “The family that prays together stays together.” What is paramount is the realization that sharing ideas, talking about faith (ranging from statistics to various studies) does take place in our families. Another participant reported that one of her M.A. program teachers asked student to “journal” how different members of the extended family taught her stewardship and related values that touch upon social justice. It proved to be an important exercise in a personal history of tracing influences from the extended “family of origin”—which included various ecumenical dimensions because of “mixed marriage” and interchurch elements.
2. Several groups reported how the Jewish Sabbath Dinner has parallels in Christian families’ observance of the Sunday dinner. One remarked how the ritual preparation of the family’s bread for Sunday dinner had grown into a natural occasion to discuss faith. Another person commented upon the Sunday dinner tradition in the Protestant South of the U.S.A. Other ethnic traditions for Sunday dinner were recollected. One person identified the especially strong tradition of all the married children (now adults) gathering at the home of Italian parents every Sunday for dinner. It was remembered by this person as a key experience of “the church of their home-of-origin” and a grace for their family experience. Another participant reported that the daily dinner table was where he picked up “social ideas” and “values” in his home; the same happened in his interchurch family’s experience because both he and his wife grew up in such homes. Others remarked how even in extended family gatherings they distinctly remember how an Aunt or Uncle would narrate family stories which proved to be the source of shared history and shared identity.
3. One interchurch spouse pointed out how the discovery of “similarities” in both churches of an interchurch family affords the best example of Christian Unity—it becomes especially poignant (and ironic!) because what they find absent in both their churches becomes visible and self-evident in their home: harmony, support, and mutual loving.
4. At another extreme, one group reported at length that in the U.S.A. the use of the term “domestic church” is highly problematic. First, the word “domestic” in American parlance does not immediately connote a “warm” or necessarily “familial” context. We “domesticate” pets; we hire “domestics” to clean house, to do laundry, and to cook meals. There was a consensus in this group that “domestic church” as an image / metaphor did not communicate anything “visual” or immediately identifiable in our context of the U.S.A. culture.
5. Taking another direction, a woman from another group pointed out that we need to think of the family as “church”—but not in an institutional sense. Her group agreed that interchurch families experience a distinct sense of “unity” in their home that is different from the church-as-institution. Ecumenical couples (and their children) do talk about religion, morality, and God in the setting of their home in ways that are different from how these are discussed in the institutional church, Sunday school, or parochial school.
6. The beauty of an interchurch family was described in terms of the Protestant spouse coming to understand the “foreign” Roman Catholic Church, and vice versa. Significant “learning” of this kind takes place in interchurch families. The question of the religious identity of children is frequently raised, however. Why is it that people jump to the conclusion that these children are merely “generic” Christians? Several expressed disappointment that many unfairly label interchurch children this way (especially clergy and hierarchy / church leaders, and some religious educators).
7. One woman insisted that (all) children in our church / parochial schools need to think “what is a domestic church”? Children need to be asked, “Who passed on to you Christian values?” It may be something as simple as a recollection of who taught them to pray? What prayers? Which family member (grand-parent, an aunt or uncle) taught them to hold hands when praying together a table blessing or the Lord’s Prayer? We likewise need to take more initiative along these lines when children prepare for Confirmation (in the U.S.A., around the 8th grade or age 14-15 years). Children are starting to frame their own religious thoughts / reflections around family. In church-related high schools, the retreat programs confirm that many such young people identify as “I was raised Roman Catholic / Episcopalian, etc. but I don’t go to church.” This mirrors the sociological surveys in which many young Americans self-identity as “spiritual” but not “religious.” Several parents admitted that our young people’s Sunday athletic events (soccer, football, lacrosse, field hockey) conflict with church schedules. It may be fair to say, all agreed, that in the U.S.A. families are “over-programmed” and there are multiple distractions in teenager’s lives: Sunday athletic events, the mall / consumer culture, cinemas, etc. Yet these are the same youth who respond to spirituality and some church events because they want and need the nurture.
8. One interchurch parent described how interchurch families “go through stages” when they do not, in fact, go to their churches. “We give ourselves permission,” she said. Sometimes when there are these very immediate and real “conflicts” in the schedule, we don’t even discuss the matter,” she confessed, “because the demands are really extraordinary in the lives of our children.” In an equally honest remark, an interchurch father replied to the question, “Do interchurch children / teens claim a ‘connection’ with the Church?” He keenly described it, “The kids are not worried about it!” They don’t want to get caught up in a particular church’s rules or exclusive values. Instead, they are happy when the 2 churches of their family manifest mutual support and invite them to be involved. This man went on to say that the “gift of interchurch families” is their perception of “overwhelming similarities” in their 2 churches; they resist the common tendency to focus on “differences.” In the end, such children and teens remark that their experience in 2 such churches is healthier than that of most peers who must deal with a single church that resists ecumenical realities. They are pleased that they could go to either church without asking anybody “permission.” A related comment reminded us that these young peoples’ participation in the church needs to be seen from the perspective of a long-term spiritual journey. While fewer of the young (including interchurch teens) go to church, this person said, they identity with a “sacramentality of life” instead of identifying church as a matter of “accomplishment.” Because their diets consist of “fast foods” they face a counter-cultural challenge to return to the churches’ sense of “slow food,” i.e., to recover a sacramental ‘eating’ at the Eucharist.
9. A final topic that addresses interchurch families (and, remotely, “the domestic church”): How is ‘handing-on-the-faith’ and parenting (by both same-church and interchurch couples) affected by parents’ “nostalgia” about their own religious identity? One Roman Catholic-Protestant couple reflected on their son’s marriage to a Roman Catholic. Because his wife was Catholic, he now participated exclusively in the Roman Catholic Church. Was this interchurch son neglecting his Protestant identity—which was half of the reality of his upbringing? Another couple (Roman Catholic-Episcopalian) remarked that their daughter writes to the Episcopalian pastor because this is a person who is also a parent. She writes to discuss the identity of her unborn daughter. It would be hard to do that in the same way with a Catholic priest, who is neither a spouse nor a parent. This discussion proved very insightful and participants thought it worthy of future discussion. One woman, herself the daughter of an early interchurch marriage, recollected that she had gotten into touch with her Catholic roots when she and her husband purchased a farm—and she retrieved an emphasis on “simplicity” at the farm. She suggested there are similar ways that we can retrieve and identify with various dimensions of our interchurch genealogy. This could prove to be another frontier—exploring the sense of the multi-generational interchurch family as “the domestic church” with a marbling of traditions, religious identities, and values.
George A. Kilcourse, Jr.
Professor of Theology
Louisville, KY 40205