Last month I blogged about Pope Francis’s remarks against the idea of a “self-referential” Church. The Church, the Pope believes, must reach beyond itself, must seek to bring the Gospel to those on the outside. This way of thinking, I observed, is consistent with the Second Vatican Council and with the concerns of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
This warning against self-referentiality, it seems to me, is fruitful not only for the Church as a whole, but also for its members: persons and families. Self-referentiality is unacceptable for the Church because its mission is love, and love seeks to reach beyond itself in generosity. But this is also the mission of each member of the Church, so the warning against self-referentiality applies equally here.
A young man and woman fall in love. They must guard against the self-referentiality of that love. That is, they must ensure that the love is not just a form of self-gratification, but is actually concerned with the well-being of the other person. A relationship in which one is concerned only with the joy one receives from the other person does not even deserve to be called love.
Say the young man and woman decide to marry. Now they are bound together in a formally recognized love, one that is ratified and elevated by a sacrament. Although this love is good in itself, they misuse it if they treat it merely as an end it itself. Married love must not be merely self-referential. It should look beyond itself, should reach generously beyond itself to the generation and nurturing of new life. Marital love avoids self-referentiality, or it ascends to the level of real love, when it is open to children.
So now, if all goes well, this man and woman are the parents of children, perhaps of many children. Any parent can tell you that this work is joyful but arduous. Nurturing children, seeing to their daily needs as well as providing for their long-term development, is taxing. It can be mentally and physically exhausting. Parents are often observed to be pretty tired at the end of the day.
Given these demands, it would be easy for the family’s love to become self-referential. But this is precisely the thing against which Pope Francis has warned us. The Church, he says, is not to be self-referential. But it is common for Catholics to view the family as the domestic Church. So the domestic Church, too, must eschew self-referentiality. The love of the family must overflow the family. Parents must train their children not just to be good brothers and sisters, but also to be good friends, good citizens, good members of the parish, friends of the poor. The family will be expressing its love most perfectly when that love is not just turned in on the family itself but turned outward to the service of others.
And by doing this the love of the family will achieve proper referentiality, will orient itself to God himself, who is the end to which the love of the Church and the family is supposed to refer.
Self-referentiality, Francis warns us, is barren. But his warning against self-referentiality is fruitful insofar as it helps us to think about the proper aims of the Church and of our own ordinary activities.