Family as the Domestic Church - Speech to the Tasmanian Parent's Council

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The question of marriage and family is very much in the news at this time. In our society there is the debate about changing the definition of marriage to include same sex couples. This has raised the question of what is marriage – what differentiates marriage from other relationships, and why is it important to retain the current legal definition of marriage (which is based on a Christian understanding). Something which only a decade before was largely uncontroversial is now hotly debated. 

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 new life. Marriage is about parenthood.

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.

The Church must therefore do all that it can to both properly prepare those seeking to be married and provide ongoing support to married couples to strengthen and enrich their marriage relationships. 

Marriage and family life is not easy in contemporary society. Many pressures and challenges confront married couples and families which seek to distract them from what is truly important. 

The Synod of Bishops is currently meeting in Rome is discuss these important issues. In particular the Synod is looking at ways in which the Church can better assist the married couples and families to more fully live their vocation in the modern world. It is also looking at ways in which the Church can better speak to and care for those living in relationships incompatible with Catholic teaching on human sexuality. 

One message that has come through the discussions among the Synod Fathers is 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.

One of the fundamental purposes for stable and loving marriages is the provision of an environment in which children have the best opportunity in life. There can be no replacement for the stability and love that is experienced in a healthy marriage.

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 “the first heralds of faith” (LG #11, see CCC #2223). The home is 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.

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 (Acts 18:8). In our modern world (often hostile to religion), Christian families are extremely important centers of living faith. As such Pope Francis recently reminded us that they are under no only physical but 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.1

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. By choosing to send a child to school one does not hand over their responsibility for child’s education to teachers. Rather, the role of the school is to assist them to fulfil their responsibility as the primary the educators of their children. It is vital, then, that parents are actively engaged with schools in directing the education of their child.

This parent’s council is the embodiment of this understanding in recognising the important role that parents and guardians play in the education of their children.  I encourage you in the work that you do.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Wednesday, 14 October 2015


You can listen to Archbishop Julian's address here