Today is the first official feast day of Pope Saint John Paul II, and I thought it would be appropriate, given that we have just experienced/endured the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, to revisit some of his presentation of what the Church teaches about the family, as expressed in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. Saint John Paul wrote about a great many things, but perhaps his greatest legacy is in the writing he left behind dealing with issues of life (c.f.; Evangelium Vitae) and the family – a body that he rightly recognised as the most fundamental unit of society, the place in which education about ‘first things’ (i.e.; morality, issues of ultimate meaning, the questions of truth and justice) is inculcated in us, and which therefore acts as a ‘domestic church’ (c.f.; Lumen Gentium, 11).
This idea of the family as domestic church – a place where the Faith and central human values are first passed on to us in order to shape our consciences and prepare us to face the world – correlates with the findings of sociologist Mary Eberstadt, who has recognised a proportionality between the decrease in traditional family life and the decline in religious observance (with the former influencing the latter), and must form the basis of any movements the Church makes to engage the wider culture, much of which no longer recognises the traditional model. This is something John Paul recognised, and outlined in the opening of his Apostolic Exhortation:
‘The family in the modern world, as much as and perhaps more than any other institution, has been beset by the many profound and rapid changes that have affected society and culture. Many families are living this situation in fidelity to those values that constitute the foundation of the institution of the family. Others have become uncertain and bewildered over their role or even doubtful and almost unaware of the ultimate meaning and truth of conjugal and family life. Finally, there are others who are hindered by various situations of injustice in the realization of their fundamental rights.
Knowing that marriage and the family constitute one of the most precious of human values, the Church wishes to speak and offer her help to those who are already aware of the value of marriage and the family and seek to live it faithfully, to those who are uncertain and anxious and searching for the truth, and to those who are unjustly impeded from living freely their family lives. Supporting the first, illuminating the second and assisting the others, the Church offers her services to every person who wonders about the destiny of marriage and the family.’
Familiaris Consortio, 1.
These opening lines recognise that there has been a profound change in the domestic lives of many people, whilst also giving due attention to those who have lived in fidelity to traditional values in accordance with the Church’s teaching. A consistent thread within the Exhortation is that not only should the Church give equal care and attention to both groups, resisting the temptation to focus on irregular situations to the detriment of those who have sacrificed much to remain faithful, but that preservation and promulgation of orthodox teaching on the family must always be a priority in any engagement with the wider culture – we must first strengthen our own sense of what we are for before we can offer it as an alternative to or critique of the modern world:
‘The Church is deeply convinced that only by the acceptance of the Gospel are the hopes that man legitimately places in marriage and in the family capable of being fulfilled…
…At a moment of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family, ensuring their full vitality and human and Christian development, and thus contributing to the renewal of society and of the People of God.’
Maintaining the truth about the family is thus not only for the good of individual families, but for the good of society itself. Working to preserve and present positively the truth that lifelong commitments between one man and one woman that are open to life and dedicated to raising children in concert with the inseparable values of Truth and Love, and that are properly ordered to transcendent ends, can only enrich the wider society, providing it with citizens who are well integrated and have learned by example the importance of responsibility and faithfulness, as well as the need to live one’s life in the context of goals wider than one’s own individual concerns.
‘The education of the moral conscience, which makes every human being capable of judging and of discerning the proper ways to achieve self-realization according to his or her original truth, thus becomes a pressing requirement that cannot be renounced…
…To the injustice originating from sin – which has profoundly penetrated the structures of today’s world – and often hindering the family’s full realization of itself and of its fundamental rights, we must all set ourselves in opposition through a conversion of mind and heart, following Christ Crucified by denying our own selfishness: such a conversion cannot fail to have a beneficial and renewing influence even on the structures of society.’
Familaris Consortio is a long and rich document, which I cannot possibly do full justice to here, but these opening paragraphs give a strong sense of what sort of vision Saint John Paul had for the Church’s teaching on the family and the role of the family in the world – just as the Church is to be salt and light to the world, the Christian family, as a ‘domestic church’ is to sow the same sort of seeds, offering an alternative to neighbours and leavening the society at large by its example:
‘…the fruitfulness of conjugal love is not restricted solely to the procreation of children, even understood in its specifically human dimension: it is enlarged and enriched by all those fruits of moral, spiritual and supernatural life which the father and mother are called to hand on to their children, and through the children to the Church and to the world.’
The Church and the family are thus called to be effective signs to the world, and neither of them can do this if, in an attempt to reach out to the diverse ways of living in modern life, they compromise those basic values which constitute the very form of what they are meant to be offering as an alternative. An engagement with the world which compromised any aspect of the traditional family model would, in the long run, not help anyone – by weakening the very resources of what the Church is offering to the world, the latter would thereby be left to its own devices and simply continue in the ways it has become accustomed to. If the Church truly believes that it has an alternative vision which is capable of transforming the current situation, then to compromise those resources and leave the world so bereft would not be a loving or merciful thing at all:
‘To the extent in which the Christian family accepts the Gospel and matures in faith, it becomes an evangelizing community. Let us listen again to Paul VI: “The family, like the Church, ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates. In a family which is conscious of this mission, all the members evangelize and are evangelized. The parents not only communicate the Gospel to their children, but from their children they can themselves receive the same Gospel as deeply lived by them. And such a family becomes the evangelizer of many other families, and of the neighbourhood of which it forms part.”’
It is thus incumbent upon the Church not only to present her teaching with clarity and consistency, that Christian families may be able to better form new generations in the task of evangelising the culture, but also to provide sound and continual pastoral care, so that faith is nourished and sustained, and also that families are accompanied by the Church during periods of difficulty. Again, priority must be given to those families who are faithfully living out the virtues of the Gospel – not as some sort of reward for their faithfulness, but because those who do commit themselves to evangelical living are the foundation and future of that continual mission to spread the light of Christ throughout the surrounding culture.
However, once this is appreciated, due care must also be provided to those in irregular situations, and after addressing the situations of those in difficult circumstances (e.g.; migrant families) and those in mixed marriages, Saint John Paul goes on to examine those who are living outside of the regular framework (e.g.; those in trial marriages, ‘free unions’, and the divorced and remarried). In all these cases, he combines a pastor’s concern for the difficulty of the particular situations and the problem of reconciling them with Church teaching, with an insistence on the impossibility of compromising the truth:
‘The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned, and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life, in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation. But above all there must be a campaign of prevention, by fostering the sense of fidelity in the whole moral and religious training of the young, instructing them concerning the conditions and structures that favour such fidelity, without which there is no true freedom; they must be helped to reach spiritual maturity and enabled to understand the rich human and supernatural reality of marriage as a sacrament.’
In his conclusion to the Exhortation, Saint John Paul summarises the essence of what all our present discussions about marriage and the family, both in the Church and in society at large, revolve around – namely that there is such a thing as truth, as the right way for humanity, that at its heart it involves love, and also that true love always involves and requires sacrifice:
‘The Church knows the path by which the family can reach the heart of the deepest truth about itself. The Church has learned this path at the school of Christ and the school of history interpreted in the light of the Spirit. She does not impose it but she feels an urgent need to propose it to everyone without fear and indeed with great confidence and hope, although she knows that the Good News includes the subject of the Cross. But it is through the Cross that the family can attain the fullness of its being and the perfection of its love.’
It is a loss of this sense of sacrifice that is at the root of so many of our problems today – we speak much of love, but only as a feeling; and in a culture of instant gratification have taught ourselves that we have a right to happiness which must be realised without any effort on our part. What Saint John Paul II’s teaching reminds us is that we can never truly find our way to lasting happiness without renouncing the clamouring desires of the self. We want Christ without the Cross, and it is part of the Church’s role in the world to tell us not so much that this is not allowed, but that it is simply not possible – true love always involves the via crucis.
John Paul’s teaching on the family is fundamentally rooted in this truth, and his presentation of the positive vision of the family that the Church offers shows us that the only way in which families can be domestic churches (i.e.; to be seeds of light and life to the surrounding culture) is by creating stable environments where the cruciform love of Christ is central to all other aspects of that environment. The only way to counter the currents of selfishness and atomisation that are so prevalent in our culture is to shape future generations of people who know in their heart that true love is always in service to the truth, and always involves true compassion – the suffering with and for the other.
The creation of families rooted in this love is the only means by which the mercy our culture so desperately needs can be effectively and consistently delivered to it, and the only way in which such families can be both created and sustained is if the Church is vigilant in preserving its teachings in all their fullness, that she might present them in all their beauty to the society at large. In a spiritual desert, it is no good for anybody if the only source of living water itself becomes dried up – this is something that Saint John Paul II saw with great clarity, and why he saw the preservation of the splendour of truth as a necessary precursor for the conveying of divine mercy to a wounded world. He also saw that in a world as wounded as ours, the rescue operation that Christ has entrusted to His Church must start from the ground up – that is, it must start with the family.