The past week produced a plethora of Pope Francis-related headlines as he held a historic meeting with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, met with the faithful in Mexico and weighed in on the United States' presidential race.

Going relatively unnoticed in most media coverage of the pontiff were the contents of the joint declaration signed by the pope and Patriarch Kirill, who met in Havana, Cuba, and took a step toward reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

The lack of attention paid to the declaration on political and social issues is unfortunate, according to Catholic and Orthodox Christian experts, because the document details the leaders' views on issues that affect their respective flocks like faith-based violence in the Middle East, religious freedom and interfaith cooperation.

It also reaffirms the pope's commitment to Catholic families, which will likely be the largest part of his legacy, said Helen Alvaré, who teaches at George Mason School of Law and has served as a Vatican spokeswoman.

"The pope makes headlines for his comments on immigration, poverty and whether or not he will change church teachings on contraception or same-sex marriage," she said. "But he has spoken about the family so continuously. There is evidence that this is a pope for the family in a truly historical sense."

The declaration

In 30 short sections, the joint declaration covers quite a bit of ground, transitioning from expressing concern for a rise in religiously motivated violence to affirming the value of religious freedom to asserting the importance of family relationships.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill share their commitment to healing historical divides between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics in order to work together to serve the faith groups suffering from persecution in the Middle East.

"Interreligious dialogue is indispensable in our disturbing times. Differences in the understanding of religious truths must not impede people of different faiths to live in peace and harmony," they wrote.

The declaration then details the variety of obstacles standing in the way of religious flourishing around the world, such as a lack of religious freedom protections, extreme poverty and misallocation of natural resources.

At section 19, the pope and patriarch shift their focus to family life, describing the developments that have weakened the institution of marriage.

"We are concerned about the crisis in the family in many countries," they wrote. "Orthodox and Catholics share the same conception of family, and are called to witness that it is a path of holiness."

They add, "Marriage is a school of love and faithfulness. We regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union."

Marriage and family life is also degraded by the sinful support of abortion, medically assisted suicide and biomedical reproduction technology, they write.

The declaration ends with a call for God's support in their ongoing work to spread the Gospel and protect the faithful, as well as gratitude for each participant's willingness to attend the long-awaited meeting.

For centuries, leaders of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches had avoided meeting because of disagreements about the status of the pope and suspicions that leaders from the opposite camp were trying to poach converts. Catholics leaders have been pushing for a meeting since the church recommitted to ecumenism in the 1960s, and most observers believe it finally happened this month because of shared concerns over religious violence in the Middle East.

Exploring the significance

Although the sections on marriage and family life might strike observers as unusual in a document about war and politics, their inclusion signals how affected the pope is by social trends that appear to weaken traditional marriage, Alvaré said.

Like religious freedom violations, the pope views issues complicating family life as "a genuine crisis," she said.

Father Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter and, like Pope Francis, is a Jesuit priest, noted that the pope might actually view addressing religiously motivated violence as part of his mission to serve Catholic families. The pope's commitment to improving family life doesn't end with addressing divorce, same-sex relationships and cohabitation before marriage.

"It's not just moral issues. It's also (the struggles) of families in poverty," he said. "How do you have a family life in a refugee camp or in the middle of a war? Or when parents have to leave their children behind to go to another country to earn money to feed them? These are the kind of things Pope Francis is concerned about."

Aristotle Papanikolaou, co-director and co-founder of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, wrote in an email that Patriarch Kirill shares these concerns. Although Orthodox Christians and Catholic leaders disagree on the role of the pope, the two faith groups generally hold the same views on religious freedom and sexual ethics.

"This declaration was not revolutionary on the issue of the family," Papanikolaou said.

Like many commentators, he said the fact that Patriarch Kirill agreed to meet with Pope Francis was more revolutionary than the content of the joint declaration, noting that the Eastern Orthodox leader likely wanted to set an example for the members of his church who view the pope as an enemy.

"The fact that he met with the pope, even under these restricted conditions, does signal an attempt on his part to resist the more extreme elements in the church," Papanikolaou said.

Like Patriarch Kirill, Pope Francis could send a message to members of his church by agreeing to the meeting and co-signing the declaration, Father Reese said. He affirmed the Catholic Church's commitment to ecumenism furthered his efforts to protect religious minorities in the Middle East and gave his message on the primacy of family life another big stage.

Looking forward

As early as March, Pope Francis will release an apostolic exhortation on family life, summarizing conclusions drawn by bishops at the two synods he has hosted — one in October 2014 another last October — and discussing the issues church leaders should prioritize in order to best serve Catholic families.

Like the pope's joint declaration with Patriarch Kirill, this forthcoming document is expected to address a wide range of topics, including poverty, abortion, same-sex marriage and, most notably, whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive communion.

Father Reese, who has made measured predictions about the apostolic exhortation in his column, noted that by addressing family life in the joint declaration, the pope reaffirmed his commitment to Catholic families and reminded us that his efforts to serve them go far beyond tackling hot-button topics like divorce.

"Like poverty, immigration, peace and the environment, family is one of those issues that Pope Francis keeps coming back to," Father Reese said, noting, however, that it's difficult to determine whether the pope or patriarch's camp argued for the reference to the family to appear in the joint declaration.

Similarly, Alvaré said Pope Francis endows the family with a large amount of social and theological significance. To him, the bond between a man and a woman and their children can lead to a stronger relationship with God.

Although the pope has repeatedly called for priests to meet people in all situations with mercy, he also continually presents, both in public addresses and statements like the joint declaration, the traditional family as a privileged place to love and worship, Alvaré noted.

"He wants to bring everyone to an encounter with Jesus Christ," and he believes this happens best when the institution of marriage is strong, she said.

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