Marriage And Family
By Bishop Charles C. Thompson
Tue January 29, 2013
Among the seven key themes of Catholic Social Teaching is the Call to Family, Community and Participation. According to the tenets of this theme, inherent to the life and dignity of the human person is the fact that human beings are not only sacred but also social in nature. Thus, various aspects of society—economics, politics, law and policy—directly affect human dignity and the capacity of individual growth in community. Central among the various social institutions for assuring such dignity and capacity for growth are Marriage and Family.
The fourth annual observance of National Marriage Week is slated for Feb. 7-14 of this year. During this particular week, we will also celebrate World Marriage Day (Feb. 10) and Valentine's Day (February 14). It has been suggested that Friday, Feb. 8, be set aside as "a day of fasting and abstinence for the particular intention of a greater reverence for the gift of marriage and family in our nation" as well as "for the healing of those suffering from troubled or broken marriages, especially children." This special week provides us with the unique opportunity to celebrate the gift and blessing of marriage, as well to affirm and support engaged and married couples, especially within the context of the Year of Faith. Various resources have been made available to parishes in support of this special observance.
Among the 58 propositions that emerged from the most recent Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, held in October 2012, marriage and family figured quite prominently. The Church has long taught that family, especially with marriage as its hallmark, provides the very fabric of stability in society. Proposition 48 reads as follows: "Established by the sacrament of matrimony, the Christian family as the domestic Church is the locus and first agent in the giving of life and love, the transmission of faith and the formation of the human person according to the values of the gospel." This invaluable role of the Christian family on both the individual and society is irreplaceable by any other social institution.
In reference to marriage as revealed in God's plans through Sacred Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides us with the following definition of matrimony; "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament." [#1601]
There is a great deal to "unpack" in this particular teaching of marriage as provided by the Church, understood to be in accordance with the divine plan of creation. During the last several years, there has been somewhat of a paradigm shift in how truth or justice are understood. The frame of reference seems to have shifted from the notion of what is right based on divine truth to what is fair based on human reason. While holding firmly to the belief that all persons are created in the image of God from the very moment of conception, maintaining that sacred imprint until natural death, Church teaching remains firm in the understanding of marriage as a divine institution involving one man and one woman. While not every married couple is able to have children, the Church teaches sexual relations between husband and wife must be open to the possibility of the procreation and education of children as an essential element of their matrimonial covenant. The notion of marriage necessarily involving a "partnership of the whole of life" and being "ordered toward the good of spouses" emphasizes the equal dignity shared by husband and wife. The grace supplied by a matrimonial covenant involving two baptized persons raises that particular marriage to a special sacramental dignity. The Church's teaching on the dignity of marriage does not stand in contrast to its teaching on the dignity of persons and sacredness of human life. On the contrary, these teachings, involving two of the key themes of Catholic Social Justice, are meant to be complementary. Of course, for those who are determined to understand justice and truth according to the notion of fairness based on human reason, rather than an understanding based on discernment in accordance with the divine plan of creation, the complementary aspect of these themes or teachings may be difficult to appreciate. I once saw a sign on the classroom door to a science lab which read as follows: "Truth is not determined by majority opinion."
I recall the results of a survey, several years ago, regarding why people leave or join the Catholic Church. The number one reason for joining was also the number one reason for leaving; namely, "the Church's strong teaching on marriage."
Stemming from this understanding of marriage, Church teaching gives rise to the notion of the family as a domestic church. Intricate to this particular understanding of the sacredness of family life is the need for a Christ-centered appreciation for Jesus' presence in one's familial home and relationships. The ultimate value of the home is discovered not so much in the type of dwelling (e.g. house, condo, trailer, apartment, etc.) as in the family system within the walls of that dwelling. Regardless of its shape or size, the Christ-centered or Christ-based family is one that takes seriously the universal call to holiness. In such a family or home, the first school of learning is realized. Here is where children learn about love, understanding, acceptance, right and wrong, forgiveness, self-respect and respect for others. Such learning provides a foundation for the values that shape a person's decision-making and actions throughout the course of that person's life. There is no other social institution on earth that can provide an equal replacement for the family. Church teachings on marriage and family can be simultaneously beautiful and difficult to embrace at times.
When driving around from place to place, particularly in rural areas, my imagination is often captured by some run-down or abandoned house. I find myself contemplating on what sort of family life was experienced in the prime of that home. I wonder about what joys, sadness, laughter, hurts, excitement or fears were experienced among those living together in that place. Did they share meals together, pray together, celebrate any special customs or endure any great hardships in that home? Were they happy as a family? How did they resolve conflict or disagreements? Was the home free of abuse and dysfunctional behavior? Does the house hold fond memories or deep secrets for those who dwelled within its walls? Did Jesus have a special place of honor within the home? What values were learned, nurtured and cultivated within that particular family system? Finally, where are those family members today? What mark has the family life experienced in that particular home left on society? Obviously, you get a sense of how my mind works while riding alone in my car.
The observance of National Marriage Week provides the unique occasion to reflect on the need for a renewed appreciation for the dignity of marriage and the sacredness of family in our society. While celebrating those who model such dignity and sacredness, let us keep in mind those who are struggling to hold their marriages and/or families together. We also need to keep in prayer those who are experiencing loneliness (whether in or outside marriage), separation, divorce, abuse, brokenness, betrayal or lack of family. We must always remain sensitive and respectful toward our brothers and sisters of same-sex attraction. Human beings are social by nature. Every person needs to love and be loved. Despite whatever difficulties one may encounter with the Church's teaching on marriage and family, may it never cause any of us to lose sight of the beauty inherent in such teaching. In a special way, I take this opportunity to express my deepest admiration for those parents and grandparents who take seriously their unequivocal role of instilling the Catholic faith in their children and grandchildren. In many ways, the future of the Church, most notably in terms of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, greatly depends upon your great efforts of evangelization within the home.
As we continue to mark this special Year of Faith with greater commitment to study, reflection and prayer, let us be especially mindful of the U.S. Bishops' "Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage & Family, and Religious Liberty." At the heart of all we are about, united as one holy family of God, may we remain Christ-centered in every fabric of our lives and relationships.