Marriage and Family: The Fundamental Unit of Society

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Until very recently in our post-modern culture, marriage between one man and one woman, which naturally leads to family life, was considered the fundamental unit of society, on both the natural and divine levels. As Catholics, we know this to be true from Sacred Scripture (cf. Genesis 2:23-24), but this belief about the importance of marriage did not only come from the Catholic Church, for it was held even by pagans for centuries before the time of Christ. As Cicero writes in De Officiis (On Duties), “The first fellowship exists within marriage itself, and the next with one’s children…Indeed, that is the principle of a city and the seed-bed, as it were, of a political community” (54). Thus, as a natural institution that allowed for the procreation of children, marriage was considered the “principle,” or foundation, of the political community, and without it, the society would fall apart.

We see a similar sentiment emphasized in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum novarum (1891). He writes, “We have the family, the ‘society’ of a man’s house—a society very small, one must admit, but nonetheless a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State” (12). The family, as the fundamental unit of the society, exists prior to any State or government. As such, “the State must not absorb the individual or the family,” because the family has rights apart from what the State gives it (35). The State, then, is set up to protect the rights that belong to the family. Therefore, the rights of the family are “founded more immediately in nature,” the nature that indicates marriage is for one man and one woman and thus designed for procreation (13).

040603-N-43604S-039In the encyclical Casti Connubii (1930), Pope Pius XI describes the reciprocal relationship between the State and the family, beginning with an understanding of the virtues that come from maintaining the right order of marriage. He writes, “For experience has taught that unassailable stability in matrimony is a fruitful source of virtuous life and of habits of integrity” (37). He continues: “Where this order of things obtains, the happiness and well-being of the nation is safely guarded; what the families and individuals are, so also is the State, for a body is determined by its members” (Ibid). Thus, if the State upholds the right order of matrimony as between one man and one woman, the State’s well-being will follow, for the State is composed of the families from those unions. Pius XI concludes: “Wherefore, both for the private good of husband, wife, and children, as likewise for the public good of human society, they indeed deserve well who strenuously defend the inviolable stability of matrimony” (Ibid). The State, therefore, ought to uphold the dignity of marriage for both the private good of the couple but also the common good of the society.

Pope Pius XI clearly reaffirms that “the family is more sacred than the State” because it deserves the State’s protection due it is “inviolable stability” (69, 37). Yet, as we know from experience in our modern culture, the State has not heeded the warnings of these Roman Pontiffs. In Familiaris consortio (1981), Pope Saint John Paul II recognizes that, in the modern world, the family “has been beset by the many profound and rapid changes that have affected society and culture” (1). His post-synodal exhortation is devoted to detailing the problems that face modern families: separation, divorce, abortion, and contraception, among others (6). Due to the rise of secularization, John Paul II writes that the root of these problems is “a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one’s own selfish well-being” (6). Marriage is no longer viewed as having been established by the Creator as a natural and supernatural union between one man and one woman for the procreation of children. Rather, marriage serves selfish ends for personal satisfaction and pleasure. Nevertheless, despite the negative modern influence on the family, John Paul II reaffirms, along with his predecessors, that the State and society is at the service of the family. He writes, “But society—more specifically than the State—must recognize that ‘the family is a society in its own original right’ and so society is under a grave obligation in its relations with the family to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity,” quoting Dignitatis humanae (45; DH 5). In the following paragraph, John Paul II lists a “Charter of the Rights of the Family” established by the Synod Fathers, all of which show that the family has rights prior to the State and society (46).

We know all too well that the fundamental problem indicated by John Paul II of marriage for “an autonomous power of self-affirmation” is prevalent in our society and is even promoted by the State. We see this principle in the recent Obergefell v. Hodges case, in which same-sex unions were also considered marriages and therefore must be protected by the State. Justice Kennedy uses some of the very same arguments from antiquity for natural marriage to support same-sex unions as marriages. He quotes the same passage from Cicero used above and even Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote, “There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is so much respected as in America.” Kennedy begins his explanation for Obergefell by saying, “The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life.” What has changed that Kennedy would be able to apply these seemingly pro-natural marriage sentiments to same-sex unions, which are contrary to the natural order? Kennedy argues, “Individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right,” meaning that contracting a marriage with a person of the same-sex is now considered a fundamental right, due to the underlying problem described by John Paul II. Although marriage has always been between one man and one woman, since individuals believe it is their right to marry whomever they wish, the Court likewise deems that they cannot prevent these unions from happening.

This case presents several political issues. First, Obergefell now has set the precedent for a secular definition of marriage. Now marriage no longer needs to be between one man and one woman, but a man can marry a man, and a woman can marry a woman. This will certainly make arguing for natural marriage between a man and a woman in the political sphere very difficult, and at times perhaps impossible, although certainly no less necessary and critical for promoting the common good. Second, the decision damages the institution of marriage, even on the natural level, by blurring the differences between the sexes. Children will now be raised in an era where there is no real difference between men and women, and anyone’s preference is supreme over the objective nature of reality. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s decision did not objectively change the definition of marriage or the stand that the Church takes on marriage. In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, showing from a legal perspective the ridiculousness of the decision, “The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent…the Court…orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia.” Furthermore, despite the Court’s decision, marriage ontologically remains a union between one man and one woman, and ultimately, this is the vision of marriage that we as Catholics must continue to defend in the political sphere. Regardless of the secular decisions made by the Supreme Court, Catholics must still defend and promote the natural institution of marriage not only for the common good of society but also because it belongs firstly to God, not the State, for He is ultimately the Creator of marriage.

veronica_arntzVeronica Arntz graduated from Wyoming Catholic College with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts, which included courses in humanities, philosophy, theology, and Latin, among others using the Great Books of Western thought. The title of her senior thesis was, “Communio Personarum Meets Communionis Sacramentum: The Cosmological Connection of Family and Liturgy.” She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology from the Augustine Institute.
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