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«The ecclesial identity and mission of the family»
February 1985

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Our reflection on “The ecclesial identity and mission of the family” will be divided into two fundamental parts. In the first part, I will try to demonstrate the identity of the family and in the second its mission.

 

1. Identity of the Family

When I speak of identity I want to indicate that which constitutes its truth or its characteristics and specific nature. But I realize that we must immediately tackle what today is a very serious problem. Our whole reflection will depend on the solution to this problem. Does there exist a “truth”, a “characteristic and specific nature” of the family, a truth and a nature which remain unchanged within every culture or must we not rather think that the family is a creation of the culture, of the society?

From the point of view not only theological but also philosophical we must begin by saying that when we speak of the truth of a thing, one must not intend firstly that which man thinks about it, but rather that which God thinks about it. We can cite in this connection a very profound text of St. Thomas:

prior est comparatio ad intellectum divinum quam humanum, unde etiam si intellectus humanus non esset, adhuc res dicerentur verae in ordine ad intellectum divinum. Sed, si uterque intellectus, quod est impossibile, intelligeretur auferri, nullo modo veritatis ratio remaneret” (Qd. Dd. De Veritate 1, 2 c in fine).

Note the beginning of this text “prior est comparatio ad intellectum divinum”. This means: that which a thing is, its truth, depends on the idea that God has of it, on God’s project for it. And this project remains unchangeable. If therefore, there is — as there is — a divine project for the family, there also exists a truth and an identity of the family. On the other hand, it is equally certain that we can observe that the family changes, in its structure, in the various cultures, and even within the same culture it changes with the passing of time. This mutation depends, in the last analysis, on two factors: on the knowledge and on the liberty of the human person. On the knowledge: man does not always reach a complete knowledge of God’s design for the family. His knowledge is often partial. On the liberty: even when man knows the design of God, he must freely realize it, but he can also refuse this realization. The family, seen in its formation as a personal structure, is consequently the place in which the proposal of God and the liberty of man meet. And from this we can derive two important consequences.

The first. Not every realization of the institution of the family has the same value, but its value depends on the greater or lesser faithfulness to God’s design. In other words: we can and we must give an ethical judgement, a judgement, that is, on the goodness/ badness of the institution of the family, as it has realized itself historically. It is necessary and only right that we possess the criteria of this judgement.

The second. The fundamental criterion in order to elaborate this judgement is not inferred — and can not be inferred — from the historical situation, from the relevant statistics or from the consent of the majority, but only from the truth, that is, from God’s design for the family. Without this reference, every ethical judgement becomes, in reality, impossible. Having clarified in which sense one can and must speak of the family, in the sense of God’s design for the family, we must ask ourselves what route we must take in order to discover this identity.

In the light of the Apostolic Esortation Familiaris consortio and of the Catechesis of Wednesday of John Paul II it seems to me that we can indicate the route to follow, in this way: the experience, essentially human which man, illuminated by Revelation, has of himself, and — reciprocally — the light of Christ in so far as it reveals internally the essentially human experience that man has of himself, I must stop a moment in order to explain this very important point.

When I speak of an essentially human experience I mean that knowledge which man has of himself and which allows him to know his human identity, his truth as a human person, the nature of his being a human person.

It is obvious that this definition presupposes an affirmation which we can not demonstrate now: that is, man’s possibility to reach, by means of his knowledge, a truth about himself, a truth which transcends history, which is not relative to any culture and which is always and everywhere valid. It is sufficient for our purpose — that is, to demonstrate this possibility — to think a little about what happens in each one of us when we live an ethical experience, the experience, that is, of an “unconditional ought-be” of that which is an absolute requirement of our being a human person. Each one of:us, in that moment sees that which is good and that which is evil in relation to his being a human person. How would such a vision be possible if we do not know who man is?

“Could we know what is the art improving man himself if we did not know who we are? ... If we know ourselves, perhaps we will know the care we must take of ourselves, otherwise we will never know it” (Plato, Alcibiades I, 129 a).

But in order to know the design of God for the family, in its entirety — and therefore know the identity of the family — the essentially human experience is not enough. It must be illuminated by the light of Christ. We must therefore ask ourselves, first of all, what does this illumination, which Christ casts on our experience, consist of, and secondly we must ask why such an illumination is necessary?

Firstly. It was Pascal who wrote that “man infinitely exceeds man”. What does this mean? It means that man in himself is a mystery so great and profound that only he can not understand himself entirely. This greatness and this profundity of the mystery which is man consists on the fact that the human person feels himself as orientated towards an end which infinitely exceeds his powers: man infinitely exceeds man, precisely. The end to which he is orientated is the communion with God which is reached with the vision of Him. This orientation constitutes man, moulds him, so to speak, and goes through every dimension of his person. The light of Christ solves this enigma which man is for man. He fully reveals man to man, in that He shows him the fundamental meaning of his existence. This is precisely the illumination which Christ casts on the human experience: the Revelation to man of that he, man, from the depts of his being, waits for and invokes: the total communion with the Father.

Secondly. This illumination is necessary, because — as the faith teaches us — man was created in Christ and, consequently, Christ is the truth of man. As an Italian theologian wrote “the Divine election, the design or the mystery, is the humanity of God and humanity in God: Jesus Christ, the Church and the universe in Christ for the Church and with the Church (cfr. Col 1, 13-20; Eph 1, 3-10). This is the design decided by God, in unity and essence... Outside this unitary and original design there is “non being”, “the abstract” (I. Biffi, Theology and a Theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Piemme 1984, p. 16).

In the believer there is, therefore, a sort of circle between the human experience and the light of Christ: in the light of Christ, man understands himself always more profoundly, and reciprocally, the most profound consciousness of himself, reached in this way, allows us to receive more intimately the light of Christ.

Having stated therefore in which sense we speak about the identity of the family and which route brings us to the discovery of it, we are now able to discover this identity.

It is obvious that we set out from the presuppositions that it is only marriage contain ing the elements of unity and indissolubility that can form the basis of the family, and that the family is an extension of conjugal community. In fact, we can set out precisely from the following question: in what, does this expansion, in its specific identity and nature, consist of? What transforms the conjugal community into a family? The obvious answer is so simple that it makes us think that the question from which we set out is too simple to put us on the right road: this is the child who transforms the conjugal community into a family and it is therefore the act of procreation which expands the conjugal community so that it becomes a family.

We must penetrate deeply into this event, into arrival existence’s event of the new human person, like “founder event” of the familiar community.

Just as conjugal community’s origin stays the meeting between enterprise of God and man and woman getting married’s consent. Just so in the familiar community origin stays the meeting between God and married couple.

 

A) The creation’s divine act. At the beginning of every single human person stays a God creative act: this is a faith truth taught by the Church. But also our reason can comprehend this affirmation. The human person, for reason of the spirit constituting her like only and irreplaceable subject, cannot be the fruit of the necessity, or a case, been due to the nature’s impersonal power. When in the universe appears a man, appears somebody (and not simply something) essentially different and superior from all over infra-personal world. Appears someone destined immediately and directly to the communion with God. It cannot happen without God knowing it, without God wishing it. God knows, God wishes that this person exist: that is — it is the same — He creates her.

Not only, but as we have said already, this person is created with regard to Christ: in order to become son in the only-Begotten of the Father, participating of the same divine life.

 

B) the procreation’s conjugal act. In the light of the previous reflection we can comprehend the intimate nature of the procreation’s conjugal act. It is the place where happens the creation’s divine act, it is the human co-operation at divine operation.

The procreating ability inscribed in the human sexuality is ordered intrinsically to be ability of cooperating with God Creator. This is the reason which for it is inseparably connected — it must be connected — with the unitive ability of the same human sexuality: only a real human love’s act is worthy or cooperating with God creative love’s act.

The conjugal community becomes familiar community when happens this meeting between creative divine love and procreating human love: and is this meeting that defines the truth, the family identity: as we must now show.

The fact that human person owes her existence to God creative act and the married couple can only put the conditions in order to this act happen (generatio — said the ancients — est opus naturae non personae), makes so that the son be a pure gift made to the married couple by God Himself. God entrusts to these whatever exists more precious in the universe: a human person. Which one is the right attitude, the married couple’s adequate attitude in front of this “pure gift”?

Saint Augustine wrote: “Secretum Dei intentos debet facere, non adversos” (Tract. in Jo, 27, 2; CCL 36, 270). The mistery (secretum) of God must make ourselves “intentos”, that is, careful, conscious, receptive, engaged and not “adversos”, that is, absent-minded, distrustful, suspicious. The married couple are involved in the “secretum Dei”, because they are involved in His creative act. The right and adequate attitude is that one of receiving this gift according to God intention. We have discovered the first and fundamental dimension of the family identity, her more profound truth. The family is the place, the holy temple in which God completes His greater act, that creative one. And ever, more precisely: the family, such as, constitutes herself into this own being the divine creation space of the human person. And this creation economy is respected also in the redemption economy: also the Word was made flesh inside a human family.

But, now, we must understand more profoundly what means “reception of the son’s gift”: a gift made by God Creator. Whatever is given is not a thing, but a person. From this very simple observation derive some consequences very important.

The first and more immediate is that the gift doesn’t put in being a “property”, but only a “trust” (I don’t use, obviously, these terms in juridical meaning).

That is: the new human person is given in order to be guided to the fullness of her personal being, to realize the plan that God has about every person who comes to the existence.

In this way, the human person is continuously and progressively generated in co-operation with the creative God love. This “continuous and progressive generation” is the education. As, therefore, God preserves him who is created (conservatio est continua creatio) as married couple generate continuously him whom they have procreated (educatio est continua procreatio). Remain so a profound, intimate correspondence between divine act which the Lord is leading with the new creature to her purpose, to that purpose for which he has created her, and human act of the education with which married couple lead the new creature to realize the God plan and to consent always more faithfully to the divine Providence.

As I have said already upper part, the God Providence proposes a purpose that He has revealed to us: make every person participating of the divine filiation in the Word Incarnate, the Only-Begotten of the Father, because in Him is rebuilt the communion with God and between human people, in the Church.

Every human person is created considering this purpose and is given to her parents because through them be caonducted to this realization of herself. It is obvious that only the parents baptized are conscious of this.

The second consequence is, just, that. The parents must introduce the new human person in the family of sons of God, in the Church through the baptism and, then, through the faith education and christian life. This is the second essential dimension of the identity, of the christian family truth, about it we must now make our attention.

After the original sin, the man is born “anger son” and he has need, to be saved, of being again generated.

The human history is construed through this double generation: the generation which gives origin to the human family “devoid of God glory”, under the sin; the generation which gives origin to the human family re-created in the glory of God, which constitutes the Body of Christ, who is the Church. Whereas the two orders meet and intercross, the humanity gets in the Church and the Church penetrates in the human generations. Is the christian family that, asking to the church the baptism for the own son, operates this joining, this crossing. In this way, the family becomes the place in which God completes His redemption work: He, not only, creates the man, but He creates him again in the spiritual generation. Saint Thomas speaks, just in the baptism context, about a “quodam spirituali utero” (S. Th. 1,2, q. 10, a. 12 C) constituted by “parentum cura”: the new person is generated to the spiritual life in this spiritual womb what is the spiritual, christian education, given by parents.

Wishing now to express shortly and synthetically the christian family identity, we will can say: the family is the place in which God makes to be the new human person, the holy temple in which celebrates the creation and redemption act of the new human person.

I should like now before finishing this first part of my reflection, say something about it what destroys the family identity just described. Exist, really, the facts that, by the same nature, attempt the same truth of the familiar community.

As we have seen, the “beginning”, the founder event of the familiar community is the admirable and mysterious meeting between creative power of God and procreative ability of the married couple. What breaks this tie from the man’s side? In what way the man and the woman can be opposed to this founder event? It is the contraception that breaks this tie and is through the contraception that the man and the woman prevent God of being Creator. In this stays the grave intrinsic malice of the contraceptive act and, precisely, for this cause is the contraception what destroys, in first place, the family identity, the truth more profound.

Be careful well. These affirmations don’t have to be understood only in its obvious, immediate meaning; it is obvious that the contraception prevents the procreation and, therefore, the rise of the family. The thing is more profound. In the contraceptive act, the man and the woman arrogate themselves a power over rising of the life competing only God Creator. 

In this way, the man and the woman break that tie, that report between creative love of God and familiar community, reducing this to be simply a created reality of the man. As you can see the contraception changes completely the same family definition.

But there is a fact morally more serious than contraception itself which destroys the identity of the family. God fulfills His creative act of the human person entrusting the new personal being to the acceptance of the spouses, first of all of the woman who conceived it.

God said: It is beautiful that you are! And each one of us came into existence the very moment God said such words. But for the total completition of God’s creative act somebody else too has to say: It is beautiful that you are! It is the exclamation of the woman the very instant she realizes she has conceived. And so the new human person begins his history: he enters the human family: he becomes one among us. What does prevent this to happen? 

Abortion. Abortion is the act that more than any other act destroys the truth of the family: totally. Man is rejected precisely the very moment in which he expects to be welcomed for ever. It is the acceptance of the other, in his originary moment, that is rejected. I believe there is no other act and that there can not be any other act more destructive of the identity of the family. When man is no longer safe not even in the womb of the woman who conceived him, he is no longer safe in any other place: it is the very spring of creation which is polluted. Only Satan could device an act so deeply against the whole creation.

Last but not least, the identity of the family is destroyed when the family refuses to be that “uterus spiritualis” of which Saint Thomas spoke of: when the family declines its human and Christian educational task. I do not have any authority to tell you what I am going to say, since you are Bishops. You will forgive my daring. It is a heavy duty of the pastors, first of all, to uphold God’s right, His sanctity and His glory, when He creates man, above all. Therefore, the family is the first temple in which God sanctifies His Name and reveals His glory. It is one of the most serious duties of the pastors to uphold the sanctity of such temple, to prevent its profanation: to do what they can so that God may glorify Himself in it.

Then when we are not clear in the magisterium on contraception, on abortion, on the right of the family to educate, we allow the profanation of God’s temple.

 

2. The Mission of the Family

In the light of all that I said in the first part of my conference, I would like now, in the second part, to reflect on the mission of the family.

The concept of mission is closely connected with the concept of identity. Moreover, it is one of the most important characteristics of all the great figures of salvation economy to have identified themselves with their mission (Jeremiath, Paul...): the mission of the family can only be understood in the light of its identity.

In short, we can say that the mission of the family essentially consists in serving life in its beginning and in its growth. With such formulation which describes the mission of the family, we have insisted above all on the object of such mission: the object of this mission is the life of the person, in the moment and time of its taking shape. It is the human person in its originary becoming. We have now to pierce into this “object” in order to grasp its essential dimensions.

We can start off with a question: in what does the birth of a human person consist, from the beginning up to its full growth? It is obvious that we do not ask such question from a biological, or physiological, or sociological or any other point of view, but from the point of view of a philosophical and theological anthropology.

 

A) Let us start from the point of view of philosophical anthropology. We all know Plato’s famous and hard passage we read in the Republica. The greatest of all philosophers says that there is a perfect connection between the relation “sun-eyes” and the relation “idea of good-human spirit”; as the sun/its light makes things visible to the eye and thus allows the eye to see, the same way the idea of good makes things intelligible to the intellect and thus allows the intelligence to understand.

I reflected at lenght on such passage which guided me to the answer to our question. The human person, as created person, is somehow passed across by two interior forces apparently contrasting. On one side, the human person is subject. That is, he exists in himself (sui iuris, used to say the Roman Jurists): he is an “unum” which cannot be communicated to others. Such ontological constitution of the person is made clear by the fact that the person is spirit and the spirit cannot be but in this ways: in itself.

Nevertheless, on the other side, if we attentively observe our dynamisms, our spiritual faculties, we see that they are always directed toward an “object”, toward something or somebody distinct from the subject. The thinking is always thinking of something; the will is always will of something: by thinking and willing the subject goes out of himself. In the subject a centripetal forces crosses with a centrifugal one: in their equilibrium consists the “success” of every human person’s existence. To be with oneself without closing in an empty individualism, to be with the other without losing the self: this is the problem.

Let us now analize one of the deepest human experiences: the experience of love. In what does love precisely consist? When we can truly say we love a human person? First of all when we want the good of the other person not because it is our good, but because it is his/her good, mostly his/her own original good: his personal being. In wanting this we are taken out of ourselves by the good ness (ontological goodness), by the beauty (ontological beauty) of the being of the person. Does such ecstasy, such going out of ourselves entail the loss of self? or does it more deeply allow to find ourselves? By willing the other, the good of the other, he, who loves, understands that this answer — the answer of love — is the only adequate one to the value of the loved person: only in this way we are in the deepest truth of ourselves. “In the sincere gift of self man finds himself”, teaches the Gaudium et Spes. The solution to the above problem rests in the truth of love: in willing the good of everything in a way adequate to the value of everything (ordo bonorum: St. Augustin), man goes out of himself without losing himself.

In the end, what did such “exodus” for self which makes us enter the homeland of our identity, of our truth, allow? What has made possible the beginning of such journey? What has originated such vision of things as gifted with a dignity of their own? The eye starts seeing when light arises; man starts understanding himself and any other thing of person when he “sees that everything is good”. The light of good allows to see this. Let us go back to the question from where we started: in what does the birth of the human person consist? Perhaps we found the answer. The human person is born, in the truest meaning of the word, when it “sees that every thing is good”: then it is able to love. But how is this vision possible? The first other, different from self, whom man knows, with whom he enters into relationship, is the woman who conceives him. If this other person welcomes him, the person tells him “how beautiful it is that you are”, the new human person enters the world of being as he who is waited for, wanted, that is, loved. His own personal self emerges from such experience; he becomes him self in the embrace that expresses to him, in a human way, God’s creative act.

And such experience extends then to other persons. We now understand perhaps the depth of the service of the family to the life of the human person.

I can not attempt to synthetically express such service in this way. The first and fundamental mission of the family is that of originating the human person. This generation of the human person consists in introducing him in the order of being, in that universe of values in which he will be able to fully be himself, in the truth of love. In one word: to generate the human person is to introduce him in the truth of being.

 

B) Now we will try to answer to the same question from the point of view of the theological anthropology. From this point of view, the human person is born — in the deepest sense of the word — when he/she attains that complete realization of him/herself, planned by God in Christ. In a word: to be “in the form od Christ”. As I have already said, the birth consists in baptism, which is the originary configuration to Christ: the new birth of the human person.

In this prospect, the task or mission of the family consists in asking baptism of the Church, so that the new human person be in Christ.

But the new birth in Christ is only an embryo which must be developped. The mission of the family is to educate the new human person to the fullness maturity in Christian life.

Parents are primarily responsible for this maturity: and this responsibility has to be recognised by the Church. On the other hand, the maturity of life in Christ coincides with the insertion in the Church for which pastors are responsible. The new human person entirely becomes him/herself in Christ thanks to the harmony of these two ministries.

 

CONCLUSION

Our meditation on the identity and the mission of the family shows us the exact “place” that this community has in the economy of creation and Redemption. We could say that it is the place of the origin: the origin of man in all the truth of his personal being, called to live in Christ.

From this derives a consequence of great importance: the Church and in particular the pastors of the Church must have a particular regard for the family. Why? Because in it, and from it man is born: because in it and from it in a certain sense the Church itself is born. Now the cradle of the human person requires an absolute respect and veneration. In fact, man is the most precious creature in the world: for him all the visible universe was created. But, above all, it is God Himself who creates and saves every human person. Concern for the family is the first and most important expression of the concern of the Church for man. But what does it mean to care for the family? It means to defend it and to promote it. To defend it in its identity, in its human and christian truth; to promote it in its mission of service to the life of the human person. The destinies of humankind will depend in great part on the care the Church takes for the family during the upcoming years.