NEW YORK — Marriage and family are primary sites of the field hospital Pope Francis envisions for the Catholic Church, according to theologians Julie Hanlon Rubio and Jason King.

In their new edited volume, Sex, Love, Families: Catholic Perspectives, they compile a range of short essays addressing the complexities of family life today, including migration, racism, consumerism, the hook-up culture, and more all with a perspective toward how this affects the call to holiness. 

In an email interview with Crux, Hanlon Rubio and King discuss  how they believe these challenges can be engaged with compassion and love. 

Crux: For starters, who is this volume for? Can lay Catholics without theological training make sense of it? 

Hanlon Rubio and King: In this volume, we were trying to change the Catholic conversation about sex, love, and families. Too often, discussions of these topics narrowly focus on couples, should couples live together, use contraception, get divorced, and so on. This narrowness has been exacerbated by culture wars that have turned these discussions into battle lines and divided people into camps. What was left out was so much recent scholarship that spoke more to people’s experiences in trying to negotiate sex, love, and families but also the ways in which sex, love, and families can embody the commands to love the neighbor and stranger. 

The main audience for the book is students of theology and ethics, but the essays are meant to be accessible to lay Catholics. Those who pick it up will find new and expansive approaches to ethical issues that concern them, including fatherhood, immigration’s impact on families, and infertility.  

This is a volume on sex, love, and families. Given that, how much did Pope Francis’ 2016 exhortation, Amoris Laetitia change the conversation on those issues and how is that reflected in this volume?

A volume like this would not have happened without Pope Francis. His emphasis on the Church as field hospital, accompaniment, and welcome opened up new questions and the synods on the family modeled inclusive, frank conversation. Amoris Laetitia brought this new approach to sex, marriage, and family, with a focus on every day married life and parenting and a call to those who minister in parishes to walk with the diversity of families who show up each Sunday. 

Our volume builds on this model of accompaniment by including essays on how families encounter structural challenges such as poverty, racism, incarceration, as well as ordinary questions like screen time, privilege, and child care. The authors ask what the Catholic tradition has to offer families but they also show that families have wisdom to offer the Church.

You’re both professors on college campuses so perhaps it’s somewhat natural you begin with the hook-up culture. What surprised you from some of the contributions on that topic? 

Hookup culture communicates a narrative about the meaning of sexual activity – pleasure with no commitments. Its dominance in our cultural imagination makes people believe that this is what everyone desires, even though most research indicates most don’t. Given this dissonance, it seemed logical to start with it.  

What is surprising in the hookup essays is the way they connect love and justice, avoiding simple conservative and liberal perspectives. The contributors draw on people’s experiences and found how unhappy they are with hookup culture and how fraught it is with sexual assault. What is missing is a basic sense of justice. Other essays in the book bring a similar attention to justice to sexual relations in dating, marriage, singleness, and gender, and they do so in hopes of more genuinely loving relationships. 

Catholic families look incredibly different today than how they have traditionally looked, been written about, or even portrayed in art – from a rise in single families to mixed marriages to LGBT parenting, etc. – what are some overall takeaways from this volume that are applicable at the parish level? 

We wanted the volume to speak to the questions of the diversity of Catholic families. The issues you mentioned were on our minds, as were “nones” in Catholic families, working parents, blended families, etc. We wanted as many Catholics as possible to be able to see themselves in this book. 

Parish ministers who read the book might notice: (1) We don’t avoid controversy. Most of the major sex and gender issues are covered and the tradition is respectfully engaged. (2) We don’t get stuck in controversy. We provide essays to help Catholics think through questions about living a good life, from raising ethical kids to paying for domestic care. (3) We don’t draw a hard line between family life and social justice. Every major issue treated in Catholic social teaching shapes family life and families are called in CST to contribute to the common good. We imagine that “social justice Catholics” and “family life Catholics” could come together to discuss our book.

This obviously isn’t covered in the book, but how will the global pandemic shift our thinking on sex, love, and families that scholars several generations from now may be writing on any predictions? 

COVID-19 is exposing divisions between families — a major theme in our book. Those most affected by the virus and the economic impact of Shelter in Place are disproportionately poor people of color and other vulnerable populations. We’re seeing families that already lack privilege struggle with unemployment or risky employment, while those who have the luxury of working from home suffer some discomfort but have much more security. 

We think this shift, this necessity of considering social divisions, will keep us from narrowing our focus such that we neglect cultural, economic, and political forces. In Sex, Love, and Families, we brought together thinkers whose approach to sex and love was attentive to these social aspects. Contributors pushed for an expansive understanding of love that could animate people and families, moving us to care for those outside our homes.  Hopefully, this perspective will be durable and useful as we try to go forward in this pandemic.   

Of course, it’s hard to know what will emerge on the other side of social distancing. Will we be more afraid of those outside our homes because we’ve become used to thinking of others as threats to health or will we feel more connected because we’ve become more conscious of how much we depend on each other? Stories of medical personnel working all day and quarantining away from their children read like Catholic teaching on sacrifice for the common good played out in real time. Walking down the street and seeing sidewalks decorated with beautiful artwork, earnest messages of encouragement, and elaborate hopscotches, we see hope that these strange and destructive times are teaching us the reality of interconnection and the inseparability of justice and the home.

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212