We have entered a time when what we thought was a given in society is now being questioned. I am sure we all presumed that the notion of marriage and family was generally understood and accepted by everyone in our society. We knew that it was not being perfectly realised, but we presumed that everyone accepted the meaning of marriage and family.
This is no longer the case. In the immediate foreground is the question of the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. In our society there is a debate raging about changing the definition of marriage to include same sex couples. The issue, as other issues relating to fundamental aspects of human life, is highly emotive and, particularly those who defend the traditional meaning of marriage, have found themselves subject to sometimes vitriolic attack.
Indeed, the teaching of the Catholic Church has been accused of violating State Anti-Discrimination laws.
This has raised the question of how marriage is actually defined. We now need to reflect more on the question of how marriage is different from other relationships. We have been forced to defend the need to retain the current legal definition of marriage. This definition reflects not just a Christian understanding of marriage as being based in the complementary union of a man and woman but an understanding which has had worldwide cultural support for millennia. Marriage as being a union between a man and a woman makes perfect sense at the biological level. It has been recognised by all major cultures and religions. To many this understanding is a “no brainer”, as the current popular phrase puts it.
Something which only a decade before was completely uncontroversial is now hotly debated: how fast the momentum of social change is now moving.
It is of vital importance that we devote serious reflection on the nature of marriage and family. As Christians we will be challenged as to why we hold to the traditional understanding.
From a Christian perspective marriage has a twofold end, a unitive end which concerns the good and flourishing of the spouses, and a procreative end, which concerns openness to new life. One of the key elements of the marriage relationship is the bringing forth and raising of children. Marriage is about parenthood. Catholic teaching affirms that both “ends” of marriage need to be present to make a marriage truly be what it is meant to be.
Firstly, we need to state that children are not an optional extra to marriage. Couples should not view marriage as solely about themselves.
Of course there will always be couples unable to have their own biological children, despite being open to the possibility of new life. This is a great sadness for the couple, but it also presents a particular invitation to share their nuptial love through the fostering and/or adoption of children.
From the perspective of the child it is important to recognise that social science research overwhelmingly shows that children do best when they are raised by their biological parents who are married in a low conflict familial relationship.
There are of course many situations where a child does not have the opportunity to grow up in a loving relationship between their biological mother and father. In particular, through the death of one parent, separation or divorce. Yet this does not alter the reality that the ideal, or best situation, for children is having the complementary contribution of a biological father and mother.
There is evidently a great challenge before us today, as many in our society have lost sight of the true nature of marriage. The “Me” generation sadly has come to see the sexual union as an end in itself. We know that many now do not see the need for a formal marriage process. A simple cohabitation is seen to satisfy.
Marriage and family life is not easy in contemporary society. The prevailing culture, while still recognising that marriage and family are good things, has shifted to settle for much less. Young people, in the main, no long view marriage as a central goal for their life. They do not prize the procreation of children as the great and noble vocation it is meant to be. And the culture itself attracts people to seek personal fulfilment primarily in their career. The pursuit of material advancement and the enjoyment of having many good experiences is given a higher priority than having a family.
There are so many pressures and challenges that confront married couples and distract them from what is truly important. Striving for a healthy marriage and creating a happy and wholesome family life is no longer the good it once was.
In the midst of these many shadows hanging over marriage and family it is important to celebrate the achievement of families that have committed themselves to the true ideals of marriage and family. This was one message that came through the discussions at the recent Synod on the family. Some Synod Fathers commented that while there are many challenges facing marriage and family today it is also true that there are vast numbers of couples who have embraced the Christian understanding of marriage and family and have lived it faithfully and fruitfully. There are many wonderfully luminous examples of Catholic married life.
This is an important reminder that God’s plan for marriage and family is being realised in modern society. That the ideal is not unattainable.
I would like to comment on one way of seeing marriage and family. The Church speaks of the family as the “domestic church”. In the Acts of the Apostles St Paul said to his jailer after being miraculously released from prison, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household… and he was baptized at once with all of his family… and he rejoiced with all his household that he believed in God.” (Acts 16:32-34)
In instances like this faith becomes a defining feature of the life of the family. This is the case in many families. Thus, the Second Vatican Council presented the idea of the family as the “domestic church” – the body of Christ in the home (Lumen Gentium #11). This concept has its roots in patristic thought, in particular in the writings of St John Chrysostom. In essence what this means is that when the parents fully live out their Christian faith the family itself becomes a small or ‘domestic church’. Family life lived out according to the teaching of Christ, in word and example, becomes living worship of God.
In these "domestic churches" parents are described in the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, as “the first heralds of faith” (LG #11, see CCC #2223). In the Catholic Catechism the home is seen as the first school of the Christian life where all learn love, repeated forgiveness, and prayerful worship”. (CCC 1655-57)
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Famillaris Consortio, Pope St John Paul II emphasised the importance of the family both to the vitality of the Church and the good of society. He stated: “The family, which is founded and given life by love, is a community of persons: of husband and wife, of parents and children, of relatives… [The family’s] inner principle is love. Without love the family cannot live, grow and perfect itself… without love man remains incomprehensible to himself, his life is senseless if love is not revealed in him”. (FC #18)
It is through the family that each of us learns of love. To the extent that the family - the “school of love” as John Paul II also called it - is dysfunctional, so too will be the natural means by which we come experience and understand love. Without that environment in which we experience and practice love, we can never truly understand or be ourselves. Whatever undermines the family therefore, hurts its members and indeed, undermines our whole society.
A key element of the Church’s teaching on the family of course concerns the role of parents. The Church has been particularly concerned to make clear that parents are the first educators of their children. Schools and other institutions cannot replace this role of parents but should only augment what is found in the home. It is important that parents properly understand the nature of this role as first educators and not abrogate this God-given responsibility.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this when it says, “From the beginning, the Church was formed from believers and their whole household." New believers wanted their family to be saved (see Acts 18:8). In our modern world which is often hostile to religion, Christian families are extremely important centers of living faith. As such Pope Francis recently reminded us that they are under not only physical but also spiritual attack. At a recent event he noted that:
Families are the domestic Church, where Jesus grows; he grows in the love of spouses, he grows in the lives of children. That is why the enemy so often attacks the family. The devil does not want the family; he tries to destroy it, to make sure that there is no love there. Married couples are sinners, like us all, but they want to go forward in faith, in fruitfulness, in their children and their children’s faith. May the Lord bless families and strengthen them in this time of crisis when the devil is seeking to destroy them.
In these words the Pope is reminding us of something very important: that marriage today is under spiritual assault. If the devil is successful in destroying family life, he will have achieved a greater success, he will have caused the breakdown of human society.
Our battle for family life is an intense spiritual battle. I fear the devil senses he is on the brink of success. We, however, know that marriage and family is God’s wise plan for human life and that marriage and family are blessed and made holy in the Sacrament of Matrimony. As families embrace the grace of the Sacrament then family life can flourish as places of genuine love and the nurturing of full human life.
Archbishop Julian Porteous
Tuesday, 5 January 2016