In the field of psychology, which I have studied a bit, there is a theory about human behavior called “script theory” which postulates that many of our behaviors fall into certain predictable patterns—as though we were acting them out from a script. Within a family, the members take on different “roles” and may act according to previous behavior patterns. When the “scripts” of the family members are affirming and peaceful, they promote healthy family relationships. For example, a habit of greeting family members as they return home from work or school and asking about their day, listening attentively, promotes emotional intimacy.
However, because our behavioral scripts are, in some way, inherited through our experiences, someone who has not witnessed certain positive interactions in childhood may not have a script for those positive interactions later in life. Now, of course that doesn’t mean that we can’t develop new scripts after childhood, although learning them early helps tremendously. While parents indirectly train their children to disagree respectfully and work out a difference of opinion peacefully, they also offer others who witness the interaction a new script for handling disagreements. By witnessing, internalizing, and utilizing a respectful script, the person who was a witness, no matter how old they are, can begin to heal their own relationships.
I’ve found this to be true in my own life, and a source of tremendous hope. Spending time with other families, particularly those from my home parish, has given me a number of new scripts that I might not have gained otherwise. I can see how a mom handles a toddler’s emotional outburst, how a sibling consoles his brother in pain, how a couple subtly shows tender affection, or how they communicate frustration in a way that leads to a solution instead of blame. Simply by living everyday moments faithfully, they witness Christ to me and give me new “scripts” that reflect the Word of God. As Pope Francis said, “The Christian family is missionary: it announces the love of God to the world,” (Twitter, Dec. 28, 2014)
Additionally, counselors and therapists can use this theory to help people develop scripts even beyond what they have personally witnessed. A client whose behavior patterns are not helping to improve their relationships and situations can be encouraged to think creatively about what different behavioral choices they can make. Likewise, when we are open to him, the Holy Spirit can inspire and move us spontaneously to love more generously and selflessly. In practicing virtue, we develop scripts for ourselves that tend toward the good. In prayer we can call on the Lord to help us recognize those scripts that don’t reflect His Word and ask for the grace to receive new ones so that we can love as He loves us.
Many of my friends who grew up in nominally Catholic households have lamented to me that their family home lacked the richness of the faith that they later came to know through their own practice and study. They went to Mass and Sunday school as kids, maybe said grace before meals or a little bedtime prayer, but otherwise their families didn’t live in a distinctively Catholic way. In hindsight, these young adults consider themselves impoverished by an upbringing that was essentially secular, and they intend for their own marriages and families to have a deeply Catholic character. They prioritize the sacraments, strong catechesis, spiritual and corporal works of mercy, awareness of the liturgical calendar, balancing penance and celebration, and hospitality. Living those things out seems like a daunting task because they are not inheriting a tradition from their families so much as trying to create a new one in the wake of a cultural shift that undermines their efforts.
In the ninth chapter of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis offers us some ideas about what Catholic family life can look like. He cites Vatican II, saying that lay spirituality “will take its particular character from the circumstances of… married and family life,” (313). He says, “The spirituality of family love is made up of thousands of small but real gestures,” (315). Through the next several paragraphs he specifically mentions family prayer, supporting one another, caring for one another, showing mercy, giving complete attention to others, and welcoming those outside the family with hospitality. These suggestions are not simply lifestyle choices, take ‘em or leave ‘em. Rather, these concrete actions reflect the life of Christ himself who is present in the family through the grace given to every baptized person and especially through the real graces of the sacrament of marriage.
With all this talk about marriage and family, it might be tempting for those of us who are unmarried to ignore the Church’s advice because it seems irrelevant to this moment in our lives. However, even as a single person, the Pope’s words about marriage are meaningful because they help me to prepare my heart for the marriage the Lord wants for me, instead of the woefully inadequate “Hollywood” version that has been so culturally ingrained. It is tempting to imagine that finding a spouse will tie up all the loose ends in my life and, like the movies, the credits will roll and we’ll live happily ever after. But the Pope warns us all that spouses need “a certain ‘disillusionment’ with regard to one another,” (320) and I think the same can be said of those who are looking for a spouse. I can’t expect another person to fulfill me completely. I am taking to heart his note about “spiritual realism” and the warning that “one spouse not presume that the other can completely satisfy his or her needs,” (320) which is a message that is desperately needed by those of us immersed in popular culture. Additionally, the “small but real gestures” that characterize the spirituality of the family can be practiced by anyone anywhere. For example, we are all called to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, but “feed the hungry” takes on a new urgency when “the hungry” is a distraught 2-year-old tugging on your shirt. Likewise, to “bear wrongs patiently” is practically a heroic virtue when you have to bear the wrong of a sibling who has no remorse and will likely wrong you again. Within our families we have abundant opportunities to practice the virtues that sanctify us and open us to deeper union with the Lord.
When my friends describe what they hope to give their families they usually have specific ideas about praying the rosary as a family or being involved in ongoing community service and the like. However, they usually find a way to express that what they mean when they describe various devotions and practices is that they want their whole lives to be ordered toward the mystery of God’s love. The specific actions are expressions of a real desire to know, love, and serve the Lord. Pope Francis says that “spirituality becomes incarnate in the communion of the family,” (316). As Jesus’ day-to-day life was ordered to the will of the Father, so too the family is called to live their daily lives for Him.
Growing up with three brothers, I remember a lot of forced apologies being exchanged back and forth between us. My parents would make us say the words before we were actually ready to apologize for (or forgive) whatever nastiness was inflicted that day. But however hurt or angry we were at the moment, there was never a question in our minds about whether we loved one another. We belonged to each other and wouldn’t have had it any other way. Being family and loving one another went hand-in-hand.
Love sees beyond what is broken, rude, selfish, or mean in the other person’s action and reaches out a hand to heal the relationship. By making my brothers and me practice forgiveness in the everyday offenses of life, my parents were leading us to understand mercy: it makes things right between us.
Throughout the Old Testament we see a cycle of betrayal and mercy played out between Israel and the Lord. Over and over, Israel abandons God for their own desires, but the Lord continually draws her back to himself because he chose her and he is faithful to the covenant he made. In the book of Hosea in particular, the relationship of a married couple is used to reveal the steadfastness of God’s love for Israel. No matter what she does, He remains faithful.
A sacramental marriage helps those who witness it to understand God’s fidelity to his people. Indissolubility is a gift of mercy, because it makes the relationship of the couple true to what love is: a complete gift of oneself that can’t be taken back. A person in love does not promise their beloved the next three years; they promise forever! “The gift of indissolubility means that despite the vicissitudes and suffering that come with human failure and sin, the sacramental marriage bond remains an abiding source of mercy, forgiveness, and healing.” To deny the indissolubility of marriage would be an affront against the sacrament of marriage because it would deny the reality of grace and its power to heal and perfect a person.
I came across a beautiful reflection about marriage recently on a blog site. A woman was reflecting on her experience of learning to have mercy on her husband who was struggling with clinical depression. She said, “Through mercy, God taught me to love my husband as we all deserve to be loved—with a love devoid of self, thinking only of the good of the other person.” While her husband was sick, she, “picked up his cross for him, as Jesus does for us, and bore his malaise and withdrawal in loving silence.” By showing mercy rather than demanding justice, the couple was able to maintain peace and goodwill during his illness. Mercy itself is not a cure for depression, but it helped this couple to preserve their relationship in a difficult time. The wife realized that she needed to be kind and selfless, and not seek justice but rather have mercy, and finally when she did that she found, “I no longer cared about justice.”
It can be said of the practice of reconciliation that it “washes away small offenses, but it also protects from great offenses. Pardon confers a habitus of communion.” Mercy towards siblings, in my case, and a husband in the case of the blog contributor is an expression of a disposition toward communion. It is a desire to be united to the other person, even after they have hurt you. A married couple that frequently seeks and offers mercy reinforces their “togetherness” or communion so that when serious trials arise they have already practiced drawing towards one another. The indissoluble bond of marriage not only calls a couple to be merciful toward each other, but indissolubility also reveals God’s own mercy, because when he binds two people together in the sacrament, he gives them the graces they need to live it out.
 There is a new concept about marriage out there these days called a “wed-lease,” which turns marriage into something more like a business contract: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-high-divorce-rate-means-its-time-to-try-wedleases/2013/08/04/f2221c1c-f89e-11e2-b018-5b8251f0c56e_story.html. This is not true to what love is.
 “Ode to Feminine Genius: A Merciful Woman.” Catholic Sistas. Aug. 28, 2014. http://www.catholicsistas.com/2014/08/ode-feminine-genius-merciful-woman/
 Laffitte, J.(2015). The Choice of the Family. New York: Image, p. 143.
Written by the Spring Intern in the Promotion and Defense of Marriage Secretariat.