6.3.7 Cahill’s assessment of CST on family life

Back to 6.3.6

Unit 6 Contents



We now turn to a reading that is in the electronic Module Reader.  This comes from chapter 4 in Lisa Sowle Cahill’s book, Family: A Christian Social Perspective.  Cahill is a prominent American moral theologian who has written several books and many articles across a wide range of topics.  Here is some information about her.


Reading (2pp)

At website of Boston College, Massachusetts (where Cahill has worked since 1976): Profile of Lisa Sowle Cahill


An article in 2011 in Commonweal, an American Catholic magazine, looked at Cahill’s career.  It was headed ‘No Labels, Please: Lisa Sowle Cahill’s Middle Way’.  This was to put across that she has managed to combine over a long period an unusual combination of both real loyalty to, and serious critique of, the Church’s official teaching.  She has thereby avoided being categorized easily as conservative or liberal, right wing or left wing.1

This article describes the background to her book, Family, as follows.

An… effort to bridge personal and social ethics appears in Family: A Christian Social Perspective (2000).  Cahill says her idea for the book originated in a series of meetings she attended in New York, sponsored in part by the Institute for American Values.  By her account, there was too much talk of the need to “re-stigmatize” out-of-wedlock births, too much hand wringing over the personal moral failings of those who fall outside traditional family norms.  The discussion led her to pose a simple but vital question: What is a Christian family?  In her book she approached the question in part by examining biblical sources that shine light on first-century Christian families.  She found that the primary allegiance of early Christians was not to the patriarchal family but to the Christian community – reconceived as “the new family.”  Christian commitment had the effect of transcending the ties of biological kinship.

Cahill examined other sources, including recent Catholic social teaching upholding the family as a “domestic church” that inculcates generosity and solidarity.  She concluded that the Christian family is not modelled by the particular structure of the modern nuclear family, “focused inward on the welfare of its own members.”  Rather, it is formed by concern for those outside the boundaries of biological kinship… “The Christian family defines family values as care for others, especially the poor,” she wrote.  “It appreciates that truly Christian families are not always the most socially acceptable or prestigious ones.”  Such values highlight “compassionate action” and “personal commitment to… mercy and justice.”  Family values, in her view, are social values.  (William Bole, ‘No Labels, Please: Lisa Sowle Cahill’s Middle Way’, Commonweal, 14th Jan. 2011)

This excerpt summarises very briefly some of what chapters 1-3 in the book contain.  These survey teaching on family from the very beginning of church history, in the ministry of Jesus, through to the early modern period.


Optional reading  (12pp)

If you wish to read more about Cahill, I recommend the article from which that excerpt comes.  At the Commonweal website it is accessible to subscribers only.  However it can be accessed in the following two ways:

In Commonweal on Contemporary Theologians, an e-book published by Commonweal, available at amazon.co.uk here, for £2.65 (Apr. 2014)

At www.highbeam.com here, if you subscribe to a 7-day free trial.


The reading from Cahill will help to put Familiaris Consortio in historical context because she summarises what earlier CST statements have said about family life (pp. 86-89).

Cahill is writing in the US context, but there is little in the reading that relates to that country exclusively.  (The final two sections of the chapter, from p.99, are not part of the reading as they relate to US public policy debate in the 1990s and have little relevance to this unit.)

As you will see, Cahill discusses both the ‘domestic church’ metaphor and perspectives in CST on the role of women.  In an Exercise after the reading you will be asked to summarize what she sees as the strengths and weaknesses of the idea of family as ‘domestic church’.  As you read, have this question in mind.

To avoid confusion, be aware that she refers to Familiaris Consortio by an English title, On the Family.


Reading (16pp)

In electronic Module Reader: Lisa Sowle Cahill, Family: A Christian Social Perspective, from chapter 4, ‘Domestic Church: Families and the Common Good’, pp. 85-99




In light of your reading from FC, do you find that Cahill discusses its position fairly (see esp. pp. 85 and 90-91)?

What is new to you in Cahill’s chapter?




Looking through the reading again, make a list of what Cahill sees as the strengths and weaknesses of the metaphor of family as ‘domestic church’?





That reading from Cahill brings us to the end of the ‘theological reflection’ stage of the pastoral spiral in this unit.  In studying natural law, subsidiarity and how they help to form Catholic teaching on family life, you have read from both CST primary texts and from secondary literature, notably Hochschild and Cahill.

So we move to the fourth stage of the cycle.  What does all of this mean for us in practice?  The last section in the reading from Cahill begins to get into this.  Referring back positively to earlier Catholic experience of extensive social engagement, she writes about what is needed now:

Today all families, including poor families, need institutions through which they can become political and economic agents and not merely recipients of services.  For example, families can and should take an active role to pursue their right to a living wage, decent housing and good education for their children. The church can and should help supply practical access to families and local communities seeking greater social participation. (pp. 97-98)

This is a good cue for the final part of the unit.


End of 6.3.7



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  1. On the last screen I said that Cahill’s perspective may be described as Christian feminist.  For her own take on this designation, see ‘On Being A Catholic Feminist’, Santa Clara Lecture, April 27, 2003, accessible (Aug. 2011) at: http://www.scu.edu/ic/publications/upload/scl-0304-cahill.pdf