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Preparing People for Family in the Philippine Context

Getting married in the Catholic Church requires some form of marriage preparation seminar. Here in the Philippines, it is often a one day event called a pre-Cana seminar, where couples discuss various topics on building a life and home together, the goal of which is to help ready the couple for both the joys and challenges of starting a new life together. I recently went through one in preparation for my own marriage, which made me reflect on what couples need to prepare as they begin their own families.

In theory, the seminar is an important part of understanding what it means to get married and to commit to someone for life, what this entails, especially in becoming a family that is part of one’s local community. In practice, what is often emphasized are do’s and don’ts of sex, especially on artificial contraception, and other issues that the church rejects, such as divorce.

In particular, the part on family at the marriage preparation seminar needs more attention, given its role in people’s lives. When the seminar reaches the topic of family, the family is thought of as a unit and as an important part of the church, yes, but without necessarily connecting the family to wider society. The lack of this connection and further understanding of the implications of what it means for a family to be a domestic church has contributed to an “anarchy of families” where family-based oligarchies contribute to a corrupt nation-state.[1] Families become the too narrowly defined understanding of community and other—caring for community and other becomes reduced to just caring for one’s family. The very strong familial ties and “family first” culture in the Philippines is weaponized against others, becoming another form of individualism where one only cares for one’s family’s gains, to the detriment of others and society.

Linking family and the common good is thus a crucial aspect in discussing the family as local church during marriage preparation. Julie Rubio discusses how the “Catholic ideal can help families embrace the challenge of building loving relationships among members and humanizing the world…in this model of family life, justice and love are connected. The love among parents and children flows outward into social, communal, and political commitments.”[2] These social, communal, and political commitments are often forgotten in the contemporary context of Filipino families; such commitments are mostly reduced to charitable actions, ignoring the justice dimension that is much needed in the country. It thus becomes easy for a family to join outreach activities and offer donations to victims of natural calamities, but at the same time vote for corrupt officials during elections season, without reflecting on the connections between charity and justice, and their effect on the local community and national society.

This understanding of family as important to the local church and as the domestic church in the marriage preparation seminar also needs to be further expounded on given that many Filipino families often have members (usually the parents) who are overseas workers, as Filipinos are forced to look for work abroad to pay for their family’s living expenses. Maintaining family relationships and intimate connections across countries in different timezones requires much work and effort: Gemma Cruz talks about how temporary labor migration as seen in the overseas Filipino workers has profound implications on family dynamics, where children may not recognize or trust their parents, where parents may try to overcompensate this through material gifts, or where assumptions of complementarity result in overly burdened women taking on both work at home and in their careers.[3] All these implications are important to consider in preparing the couple for their future life together, where kinship bonds and roles are not the traditional ways they are understood, but rather are often transformed depending on the needs of the family, both immediate and extended. Cruz, citing Heyer, notes that “the realities that migrant…family members endure contest idealized family values and dominant forms of Christian family ethics. A more constructive Christian family ethic needs to be grounded in a profoundly relational anthropology, covenantal love, and the social mission of the family in such a way that families become schools of deeper humanity.”[4]

Becoming a family in the Filipino context of migration and the need for social justice challenges parishes and other institutions to more adequately prepare couples for the life ahead. As Cruz and Heyer both argue, the Christian family ethic that is discussed at marriage preparation seminars requires deepening in how family members connect to each other, as well as how families themselves connect to other families, forming a part of the church and wider society. Rather than reducing one’s care towards one’s own blood relatives alone, the outward flowing of love and justice from the family is meant to get families to think of both charity and justice, and caring for those who go beyond our traditional in-groups and kinship groups. The marriage preparation seminar ought to also take seriously the reality of the many overseas Filipino workers that have altered the family dynamics of many Filipino households, and that the usual discussion on raising children as if the parents were always present is, while ideal, not always doable. Reflecting on the realities Cruz raises, as well as their implications, can prepare the couple with more realistic ideas on how to raise their family, given the Philippine context.

[1] For more on the concept of an “anarchy of families”, see Alfred W. McCoy, ed., An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines, 1st edition (Madison, Wisconsin, USA: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009). An example here is of the Villar family, who have used their power in government to enrich their family businesses, especially in real estate, which have had negative impacts on the farming sector. Aries Rufo, “How Villar Built Business Empire with Deceit, Corruption: Ex-Lawyer,” ABS-CBN News, April 24, 2010,

[2] Julie Hanlon Rubio, “What is Family For?” in A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family, New York, Paulist Press, 2003, 184.

[3] Gemma Tulud Cruz, “It Takes A Global Village: Families in the Age of Migration,” in Sex, Love and Families: Catholic Perspectives, Jason King and Julie Hanlon Rubio, Eds., Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2020. 211-222.

[4] Cruz, “It Takes A Global Village,” quoting Kristin Heyer, “Familismo across the Americas: En Route to a Liberating Christian Family Ethics” in Living (With)out Borders. 121-131.