Julie Hanlon RUBIO, Family Ethics: Practices for Christians. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2010. Pp. 260. ISBN 978-1-58901-639-2.
Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD, 21727

Julie Hanlon Rubio’s new volume, building on her previous work (A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family, 2003), acknowledges that “the task of being Christian in a secular, postmodern world is difficult, and if parishes offer more of what the culture provides and fail to challenge parishioners to shape their lives differently from their neighbors’, few Christian families will be able to tackle this on their own” (201). Her book begins with three chapters that survey “resources” to name this task, and then turns to five “practices” through which the difficult task can be carried out – having sex, eating, tithing, serving, and praying. Rubio positions her work as a work in Catholic social ethics, which is responsive to the challenge of scripture and “Catholic radicalism,” but is concerned that its focus on “saints and heroes” makes its ideals out of reach for ordinary families (3-4). In proposing alternatives, she seeks to help form more active and reflective families who embody Pope John Paul II’s ideals of “communion” both within the family and in the wider world.

What is the genre of this text? In contrasting her own method of “focusing on the ordinary” with the approach of “Catholic radicalism,” she suggests that “rigorous analysis” is needed, an analysis arising from “serious attention to social science and moral casuistry” (9). And this combination is what she offers throughout the book, with the broad notion of “practices” as a means of organizing reflection, and in particular keeping the analysis from becoming a set of abstract claims.

But I would suggest she is doing more than simply adding social science and careful casuistry. For example, she avoids broad social-science analyses that point to family decline or to family transformation; rather, her interest is naming more clearly what actually goes on in present-day American culture, on a micro level. This type of social science keeps the approach from being dominated by anecdotal evidence for this or that tendency, and yet also avoids flipping over into unsustainable cultural generalizations. Also, the “casuistry” here is notably different (not just in content) from the work of someone like Germain Grisez, who looks carefully at specific cases or dilemmas with very precise tools. Rubio’s approach is focused rather on avoiding either easy answers or easy escapes from particular problems. Her chapter on eating, for example, shows familiarity with the many debates about how to “eat justly,” and she both defends these, but also calls into question some supposed “food rules” (e.g. food miles, 146-151). It is often inspired by preconciliar casuistry, which she compliments its attention to sins that were “ordinary” (2), but she also pays attention to works of social analysis produced by the preconciliar church, a church less preoccupied with “technical analysis of sexual sins” (2).

Thus, while inspired by casuistry and social science, I think her approach is best characterized as “normative cultural renarration,” an approach one also sees in the post-1991 editions of one of her favorite books, John Kavanaugh’s Following Christ in a Consumer Society. The book also fits well with the work of Florence Caffrey Bourg and David Matzko McCarthy. Rubio repeatedly characterizes her approach as “countercultural,” and begins with the assumption that “something is wrong” (9) with the “more private, romantic, individualistic view of American middle-class culture” on marriage and family (16). Instead, she renarrates key, existing common components of family life through “the richly personal and social Christian vision” (16), which is meant to enhance their intentionality and thicken their practice. I call this approach “renarration” because (to her immense credit) Rubio’s five practices are ones that are present, even if in distorted or limited forms, in most families. Couples have sex, families try to eat together, households try to support charities and do some community service, and prayer at least is attempted. Here, Rubio suggests that the way we do these practices, as well as a further awareness of how they are misshapen by the culture and re-shaped in Catholic contexts, is key to realizing the Christian vision of the family. She is trying to intentionalize these ordinary activities, in ways that are consistent with the cultivation of Catholic identity, in terms of both the internal goods of married life and the vocation of marriage to church and society.

But where does the vision come from? What is “normative” for the renarration? “The genius of Catholic teaching on the family is its refusal to limit families by telling them to simply focus on themselves,” she writes (30). This description follows immediately from one of many anlysis of the teachings of Pope John Paul II. While “theology of the body” is not in evidence here, the late pope’s social commitments, above all to solidarity, and the fact that he urges families to realize this solidarity both internally and externally, play a very important role in the normative vision. The pope’s vision is paired with an appreciation for liturgy (at least initially – this emphasis seems less obvious in the application chapters), as well as an opening interest in scripture. One might see these themes as already developed in Rubio’s previous book. The general idea, however, is one of developing this vision of social commitment in a way that is both “challenging” (i.e. it’s really different from the dominant culture), yet also “realistic” (i.e. it’s not dumpster diving with the Catholic Workers). The radical position, as well as the approach that assumes there is little wrong with middle-class suburbia, are both vastly oversimplified views – and essentially offer no traction at meeting and engaging people where they live.

What is NOT normative for her vision is the kind of pious couplehood exemplified in conservative Catholic and evangelical family theology. While Rubio would undoubtedly praise families for some aspects of their commitment to Catholic marriage, her book makes clear that private family piety is quite inadequate for Catholic families. Moreover, these glossy images ignore many realities of the contemporary church: her book including an intriguing (though not fully integrated?) chapter on “nonideal families,” and her chapter on prayer spends significant time talking about the problems and realities of interfaith marriages. Her chapter on the practice of sex makes it ONE of a series of practices, and it offers real praise to couples who practice NFP, without assuming that this one practice is definitive for Catholic sex in marriage. Rather than “defend the family” from the ravages of the culture, she assumes that families are called to enact their communion in ways that resist and change the culture. The discourse avoids becoming mired in flashpoint issues of political culture wars. Indeed, the book is striking in its avoidance of any reference to policy issues whatsoever. Even the focus on solidarity with the poor pays attention to not which political party one supports, but instead where one donates one’s money and what kind of service one should be doing. The book is strongly normative, but without being about establishing norms. It insists that “small decisions matter,” while recognizing that “recommendations…are flexible and open to adaptation” (243).

By doing so, Rubio outlines the thickest and most accessible vision yet of Catholic family life in contemporary America. If there is any weakness in the book, it is its focus on upper-middle and upper-class families. While there are nods in the direction of single parents and the like, the milieu is that of the upwardly-mobile, responsible, productive, two-income suburban household – where “busyness” (a constant theme throughout the book) is the norm. It is certainly the case that Rubio’s practices are applicable to families of any class or culture, though their current situations may be different. The problem here is that the fundamental problems of family stability, mutual respect, income, and the like – these problems are not problems. As recent work by Andrew Cherlin and Bradford Wilcox illustrate, it is in upper-middle class contexts where contemporary marriage and family life remains fundamentally sound in many ways – and is ripe for Rubio’s push for further development! However, in other contexts, family life may be fraught with much more serious problems. I myself would be quick to emphasize that a significant part of these problems have to do with (a) income segregation, (b) various forms of cultural segregation, and (c) the increasingly fragile and deadening character of low-class work. That is to say, the problems of the poorer, less educated family have a great deal to do with the isolating choices of upper-middle class families. Rubio’s book could do more to bring this out, but also to acknowledge that the appeal of disciplined, romantic idealizations of the family in some Catholic and Evangelical literature are attempts to manage an increasingly chaotic cultural frame in lower-class life, a chaos significantly different than the scheduled frenzy of the wealthy.

Rubio’s book should gain a very wide audience, for its significance goes beyond advancing the conversation in marriage and family ethics. The book is also suggestive of a way forward for Catholicism generally, one that advances on the light-weight accomodationism of liberals and the unfailing political severity and legalism of conservatives. How so? By an actual retrieval of some of the best work done in early 20th century Catholicism. Instead of simply rejecting anything “pre-Vatican II” or inventing some supposed set of free-floating pieties that will “return” us to those days, Rubio actually seeks out the “nuanced” and “rigorous analysis” of the literature of that time. In it, she finds both the counterculturalism she desires and the realism she needs. Her work here is suggestive for moral theologians a caricature of the evils of “the moral manuals” may overlook much of value that was unfortunately lost amidst the politics of the postconciliar Church.


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