Some people feel Pope Francis isn’t doing enough or changing anything with the synod.

Others are worried he’s going too far in one direction.

Julie Hanlon RubioJulie Hanlon Rubio, associate professor of Christian ethics at St. Louis University, would like to argue that with the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which met on topics related to the family and evangelization in October 2014, and which will share the conclusions of the synod after its second meeting this fall, Pope Francis is doing something really significant.

“I think of it as a new moment where the church is doing a lot of listening, where we’re offering a lot of mercy, we’re talking a lot about humility, and we’re also calling people to think about the beauty of the faith and to the essentials of the faith, to a discipleship. …” she told the Catholic Herald during an interview April 16, when she was in Milwaukee to present the sixth annual Saint Francis de Sales Seminary Lecture in Christian Ethics, “Ministry to Families in Light of the Synod.” “It should inspire us to think about the ministry that we’re doing, in those terms of listening, mercy, humiliation, discipleship.”

She also sees opportunity.

“I know a lot of focus has gone to some controversial issues, and some of those are important to address, but there’s also a real need just to talk about what marriage is and why it matters,” she said.

Work combines passion for social justice, family

Hanlon Rubio, who has been married to her husband, Marty, for almost 23 years, and is mother to three sons, ages 17, 19 and 20, has written several books and given many presentations on marriage and family. Much of her research focuses on sex, gender and family ethics.Tourists Tave Teloye and his children Alan and Juliet prepare lentil packets for earthquake victims May 1 at Assumption Catholic Church in Lalitpur, Nepal. Julie Hanlon Rubio, associate professor of Christian ethics at St. Louis University, suggests that families get more involved in service that brings them into contact with people who are poor and disadvantaged. (CNS photo/Anto Akkara)

“What drew me to want to write about marriage and family was that I was excited to get married and to have a family, but … my passion was really for the social justice side of the church as well and I wanted to see if we could bring those things together more, because it seemed like two separate conversations and that didn’t make much sense to me because I mean there’s one Christian ethic, right? We’re all called to all of this, so that’s where my dissertation started,” she said of her dissertation, “A Catholic Social Ethic of Family.”

Her experience growing up Catholic and getting involved in social justice issues with her family’s faith community helped shape her view of the church.

Hanlon Rubio was 7 years old when her family moved to Tampa, Florida, where they attended a parish until her parents left to join what she described as a small base community of families who met for Mass in their homes, the park and on the beach for Easter Sunday.

“I think what I got from that was church was community. It was never boring, there was good music and good friends, and people were engaged in each other’s lives and also engaged in the community,” she said.

The people she saw worshipping together were involved in social justice issues together – everything from protesting nuclear war to boycotting grapes.

Hanlon Rubio remembers standing alongside her mother and father, a civil rights lawyer, boycotting grapes and protesting at the local grocery store that sold them when Catholic labor leader and pacifist Cesar Chavez called for the boycott to draw attention to the plight of agricultural workers and to place economic pressure on their employers. 

Those experiences connected church with social justice causes for Hanlon Rubio, something that has influenced the way she raised her own family, and has impacted her work.

Ministry, service part of her life

Hanlon Rubio earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale University in 1987. While she wasn’t a theology major, she was involved in campus ministry and pro-life work. Even after college, she went to Washington, D.C., and worked in a shelter for pregnant women because she wanted to do service while discerning her next step. She considered careers in political science, social work and campus ministry, before discovering her interest in theology – she earned her Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, in 1991, and doctorate in religion and social ethics from the University of Southern California in 1995. She has been teaching at St. Louis University, where she also attends Mass at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church, since 1999.

Hanlon Rubio and her husband, who teaches at a Sacred Heart School in St. Louis, raised their kids similarly, taking them along to do service work at the Catholic Worker, for example.

They tried to make the dinner table a place where they discussed issues bigger than them.

“I think that they do have a sense that the world is a place that they want to engage and that their life is not just about their own successes,” Hanlon Rubio said.

Moral guidance for mundane dilemmas

Her family adopted disciplines she talks about in her book, “Family Ethics: Practices for Christians,” which answers how Christians can find moral guidance for the mundane dilemmas they face in their daily lives and how an ethics of the family can be applied to areas like sex, money, eating, spirituality and service.

Hanlon Rubio looks critically, for example, at how families serve. Her sense is that while families are very involved in service, it’s mostly middle-class families serving middle-class families through involvement in school, scouts, work clubs and organizations.

“But it’s kind of insular,” she said, explaining it tends to be disconnected, like collecting presents at Christmas or food for Thanksgiving.

“What I would like to see families be able to do more is be involved in service which is more bringing them into contact with people who are poor, and it’s hard to pull that off, and there aren’t as many opportunities,” she said.

Families benefit from service outings

She tried creating opportunities for her kids by organizing outings to the zoo and other places in St. Louis where her children, kids from other youth groups or churches and kids from the Catholic Worker could talk, laugh and interact.

To Hanlon Rubio, that was more impactful than gathering cans for a food drive, though they have their purpose, too, she said.

“I would love to see us think together about how we could have more kinds of service opportunities for families, and not just members of families. …” she said. “I was trying to do that on my own with no support, but I think it could be done better and that could be really a transformative kind of thing, because my sense is that I think college students and others who have done service trips, immersion trips, years of service, know just how profound those experiences of really building relationships with people who are poor and marginalized can be, and I would like to see our families having more experiences like that.” 

Hanlon Rubio said parishes could help facilitate these types of opportunities by looking around their communities, and consider having a local sister parish.

“As much as I understand and value the idea of sister parishes in Central America, I wonder about sister parishes closer to home where we could have more involvement,” she said. “I think those things are possible.”

In another chapter, Hanlon Rubio talks about reviving the idea of tithing as a family practice, explaining it not only supports the church, but is also a valued support for the poor.

She encourages families to think about giving a percentage of income to the church, and to other organizations, targeting those charities or opportunities where money benefits the people who are poor.

“Because most of our charitable giving doesn’t go to people who are really poor, especially not to people who are really poor in the developing world, and it tends to be more emergency or that kind of giving versus developmental giving, so I ask families to think about how can they make room in their budget for this, because the studies that I’ve seen say that when you give a percentage, when you say a percentage, you give more,” she said. “It’s a kind of discipline that you adopt.”

Though any ethic needs to have room for flexibility, too, Hanlon Rubio added.

“Like when you’re paying college tuition or private school tuition that gets harder, but we try to make sacrifices and keep that going but then also share with our children, ‘It’s not that we couldn’t afford to buy you x, but we aren’t going to be. We choose not to because we want our family to also be about giving to people who don’t have very much,’” she said.

That thought process can be used to make everyday decisions like whether to purchase or rent a tuxedo for prom – that decision seems easy to a family considering just their experiences, but their decision may look different after spending time with a family that has much less, she said.

“How can we use the experience that we have in walking with other people then, to help us rethink our decisions about how to spend our money and making that a family thing?” she said.

Thinking about how to spend money and time as a family was important to Hanlon Rubio and her husband while raising their kids, from limiting their involvement in sports to choosing to make a charitable contribution to a school fundraiser rather than invest time in it.

Parishes help provide balance

Parishes can help families balance life, church involvement, jobs and other commitments that stretch their time thin, as well as help people understand the importance of a lifelong marriage bond.

“I feel like Pope Francis has given this big opportunity now because I think one of the great things he’s done is saying, ‘OK, we need to focus on ourselves first – what is the church? Is the church being church?’” she said. “And so I think then that opens up parishes to say are parishes being the parishes, and where are our priorities? And I think these can be great discussions where we’re thinking about, ‘OK, where are we asking people to put their time? What are we giving them opportunities to do? Do we have places where they can come and be with other couples and talk about these struggles and think about what do we really want to be doing and how can we do more of that?’”

Programs on marriage enrichment and education exist, but the church may also need new models that work and keep married couples talking to each other about the beauty and the struggles, according to Hanlon Rubio.

She said, culturally, we do well at falling-in-love stories, but harder to find are movies of marriage over time that don’t involve affairs and divorce.

“We say these things about how marriage is for life and it’s a sacrament and it’s a covenant and all these things, and we have this language but somehow I don’t think we tell the stories and we don’t talk about the challenges, and because the cultural narrative is so focused on finding ‘the one’ and romance and feeling all of that, that doesn’t set people up well for maintaining commitments over and time,” she said. “Even social science is telling us that it’s really not so important to find ‘the one’; what’s really important is being the one and working on that relationship and understanding that there will be challenges that will necessitate growth, and being up for that.”

Date nights and keeping the spark alive are important, but helping couples see and understand what it is that people who have been married for 10, 20 or 50 years have, and what it takes to get there is what will help lifelong marriage win, she said.

“What’s better about being in that relationship for the long haul and what does that love look like versus the love at the beginning?” she said. “If we can do a better job of talking about that, then I think we’ll have succeeded in those, evangelization of the family, that the synod is about.”