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Special section: Family Life

At 50, CFM is still alive and risking


Next year the Christian Family Movement will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a “Families of Faith” conference at the University of Notre Dame July 1-4. Although the movement, which once numbered more than 150,000 couples in 52 countries, has shriveled over the past quarter century, it is alive and growing again, said Kay Aitchison of Ames, Iowa.

She and her husband, Gary, have been CFM members for 32 years and co- executive directors of the organization for 13 years. Currently, she said, some 300 CFM groups (with 2,000 member families) exist in 125 U.S. parishes. This represents a significant growth since 1982 when CFM bottomed out with only 1,132 dues-paying member families. A sizable number of CFM groups are growing in other countries, too, Aitchison said.

CFM has changed since the days of its first fervor. Once major attention was placed on societal issues, such as racial justice, the U.S. economy, poverty, world peace and politics. There was a reliance on the papal social encyclicals and a tendency toward a liberal (in those days) interpretation of scripture and theology. With their projects for a just world, CFMers were sometimes accused of delusions of grandeur.

The current, more modest approach, said Aitchison, is directed at integrating Christian values into family and local community life. In some places, CFM groups are militantly pro-life and stress absolute fidelity to the church’s magisterium, but the yearly program book lends itself to a variety of interpretations and projects.

The 1997-’98 book, Seasons of the Heart, was centered around major holiday celebrations and drew inspiration from scores of sources ranging from the gospel to Little Women and from The Catechism of the Catholic Church to Leo Buscaglia. Each section guiding the adult meeting was followed by suggestions for a follow-up “family meeting.”

For the next two years, said Aitchison, the books will be using inquiries from CFM books of the first 25 years. The aim, she said, is to connect the present with the past and to learn how (or if) some of the larger societal issues have changed over the years.

The Christian Family Movement was created in 1949 as a U.S. variation of the Young Christian Workers movement pioneered in Europe in the 1920s by the Belgian priest Joseph Cardijn. He formed cells of young people and used the see-judge-act technique to sensitize them, in the light of the gospel, to economic injustices in the workplace.

Among the first to adapt the method to married couples and their world were Pat and Patty Crowley, then a young Chicago-area couple, who became co- presidents of the U.S. federation. For 15 years they traveled and organized all over the world on behalf of CFM. In 1957 Pope Pius XII awarded them the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal, a kind of ecclesiastical distinguished service cross, during the World Congress of the Laity in Rome.

Patty Crowley, now 85, said she is delighted that CFM is still alive and hopes it may recapture some of its traditional emphasis on social justice. “There’s plenty out there in society for generous couples to tackle,” she said. She was much involved in the anniversary planning and wants former CFMers to contact her (175 E. Delaware, Chicago, IL 60611). A history of the first 25 years, Disturbing the Peace, by Jeffrey Burns, will be published next year by Notre Dame Press in connection with the anniversary.

Why did CFM lose its steam? There are many explanations, all of which may have some measure of truth.

  • The 1960s saw women (always the major force behind CFM groups, according to Aitchison) entering the work force in unprecedented numbers, leaving them less time and energy for other activities.
  • The 1960s also inaugurated an era of introspection and growing cynicism. Enthusiasm for changing society diminished.
  • In addition, after Vatican II, activist Catholics had new options for their activism, such as parish councils, religious education and lay ministries.
  • For many, small faith communities supplied the spiritual enrichment once provided by CFM groups.
  • Then there was the widespread disenchantment with the institutional church stirred by Pope Paul VI’s decision to uphold a ban on all forms of contraception. It was, in fact, a survey of CFM membership that prompted Pat and Patty Crowley, as members of the Papal Birth Control Commission in 1965, to argue for the necessity of change. When it didn’t come, many veteran CFMers felt betrayed.
  • Finally, CFM’s national involvement in Marriage Encounter and its attempt to become an ecumenical movement in the 1970s served to dilute its original thrust; in short, CFM had too many irons in the fire just when the fire was fading.

All that is past history, said Aitchison, who sees signs of new fire for the new millennium in groups like the ones in Arlington Heights, Ill. The national office (314 Sixth St., Ames IA 50010, phone: 515-232-7432) has E-mail: office@cfm.org and a Web page: http://www.cfm.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998