Steven Smith, a law professor at the University of San Diego, reminds us that the arguments that came before the Supreme Court last month were not about “marriage equality,” but instead address a fundamental issue: “what marriage is.” Intimately connected with marriage is the definition of the family.
Throughout his writings, Blessed John Paul II addressed this question as part of his explanation of the married vocation. In his Letter to Families, John Paul boldly claims, “The original model of the family must be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery of his life” (no. 6). What is viewed as a development of doctrine in the thought of John Paul finds its roots in the creation of the human person in the image of God. From the beginning, God declares: “Let us create man in our image, after our likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). The communion of persons, expressed by man and woman in the unity of marriage, unveils the mystery of God as a Trinity of Persons.
Marriage and the family reveal the depths of God’s love. In a homily in 1979, John Paul explains “our God in his deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since he has in himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love.” The human family has been entrusted with the mission to make the mystery of the divine “family” present in the world. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Christian family is a communion of persons, sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit” (no. 2205). The current debates about marriage and family concern the natural union between man and woman as husband and wife. At the same time, the decisions of the Supreme Court could also undermine a Christian’s ability to perceive and to appreciate the clarity of the Church’s fundamental doctrine: belief in One God who is Three Divine Persons.
If the family is a “sign and image” of the Trinitarian communion, a redefinition of the family obscures the revelation of this mystery in the world. There is no greater threat to our human existence than to separate us from the source of love with whom we are called to enter into a relationship of communion. The Catechism affirms God’s identity as love: “God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange” (no. 221). We are called to live as a communion of persons, mirroring the “we” relationship of the Trinity. Instead, modern culture has pushed the idea that we are called to live as an isolated autonomous “I.”
In such an “I”-solated society, every individual must care for his or her own “rights” over and above the needs of other people. This type of selfishness drowns out the authentic self-giving of love. A loveless civilization will ultimately turn to the deadly combination of power and the will of the majority, which is guided by no other principle other than shortsighted material “progress.”
At the very beginning of his pontificate during the inauguration of the Bishops Assembly for Latin America (CELAM), John Paul II prophetically declared, “In the future, evangelization will depend largely on the domestic Church.” Now, more than ever, the domestic Church must take up the task of engaging in the new evangelization. John Paul explains the evangelizing mission of the family in Familiaris Consortio (hereafter as FC):
The Christian family builds up the Kingdom of God in history through the everyday realities that concern and distinguish its states of life: it is thus in the love between husband and wife and between members of family – a love lived out in all its extraordinary richness of values and demands: totality, oneness, fidelity and fruitfulness – that the Christian family’s participation in the prophetic, priestly and kingly mission of Jesus Christ and of his Church finds expression and realization (no. 50).
The love of the family is to be characterized by “totality, oneness, fidelity and fruitfulness.” Public opinion has shifted in its understanding of marriage because the traditional family has not made these aspects, which are the hallmark of authentic love, clear to the broader culture.
All Christians need to do some soul searching to determine why traditional marriage and the family are being displaced by the “new normal.” Christian families need to keep marching for the true identity of marriage as a sign of the self-giving love of the Trinity. In order for this to happen, married couples need to embrace and appreciate love as self-gift for the sake of their beloved spouse, and parents need to instill this same appreciation within their children. The family must seek to be the “school of love” that they are called to be.
Families must once again reclaim their vocation as the “domestic Church” by forming every member within their family in the life of virtue, a regular and consistent reception of the sacraments (especially Holy Communion and Confession), and daily prayer.
As the primary school of love and all virtues, the family is “the first and vital cell of society” (FC, 43). The family accomplishes the heroic work of establishing a culture of life and love “by making possible a life that is properly speaking human, in particular by guarding and transmitting virtues and ‘values’” (FC, 43). The life of virtue compels families to dedicate themselves to charitable works “especially in favor of the poor” or simply for the benefit of those less fortunate who cannot be reached by the welfare of the State (FC, 44).
The family and the State have complementary roles in “defending and fostering the good of each and every human being” (FC, 45). The State has the responsibility of serving the family by ensuring that families have the “economic, social, educational, political and cultural assistance” to exercise their mission of love in the midst of the world (FC, 45). A society which truly promotes the good of the human person and authentic love is guaranteed first and foremost by virtuous families.
Regardless of the outcome that we await from the Supreme Court in June, the fight for the definition of marriage and the family has been underway for a long time. The time is long overdue for Christians to proclaim the truth about marriage and the family in charity. This proclamation of the Gospel clearly begins in the home.