The Christian Family: Heart of the Church and of Society
Manila, november 1994
The image of the heart, in the title of this talk, expresses clearly the “position” of the family in the Church and in society. I would like to talk about precisely this position. I would prefer, however, to change the order: first I will speak about (civil) society, and then about the Church.
1. Family and society: the source of sociality
The thesis to which I would like to draw your attention, could be expressed very simply in these terms: conjugal communion, inasmuch as it is interpersonal communion oriented interiorly to the gift of life, is the archetype of every social form. What we affirm is that the conjugal and family society is the exemplar of every expression of human sociality.
I would like to begin very simply, by calling your attention to a few very common experiences. The attitude of a company which produces products for newborns is profoundly different than the attitude of a woman who gave birth to a child. The manager of the company thinks (and says): “how useful for us that babies are born!”; the mother thinks (and says): “how beautiful that you were born, that you exist!” Pay attention. It is the same person, the same reality, which is the “object” or term of these two attitudes. What is it then that produces such different attitudes? That which is seen, and perceived. In the first case, the newborn is a possible user of “our product”; in the second case: he is simply a person and nothing other than a person. In the first case it is not even necessary that the manager of the company know the name of the child: whether he be this newborn or that, is of no matter. In the second case, in the eyes of the mother no one can substitute or take the place of that child.
I would like to draw your attention to this concept of insubstitutability, with a description of another common experience.
If someone goes to an agency which offers public services and the employee scheduled for that day doesn’t show up, the manager normally finds a substitute. For the woman who lost a child, it’s impossible to say: “another can substitute him”. Substitution is possible only when the person is seen only in terms of a function to perform; it is impossible, where the person is wanted in himself and for himself.
From these simple common experiences we see clearly that there are two profoundly different ways to look at reality. We see that we can relate to reality in two ways. In the first way we look at reality as something useful for reaching some goal, as something that serves some other end. In the other way we look at reality in itself, for itself, not ordering it to anything else. Let’s call this second way of looking at reality, the ethical stance or gaze. Let us stop for a moment to consider the profound nature of this gaze.
This gaze consists, essentially, in perceiving in reality a goodness, a value, a preciousness that merits being wanted for itself and in itself. In order to be appreciated, this value doesn’t need to serve anything else: it possesses an intrinsic goodness, its own value, inherent in its pure and simple being. When we perceive a goodness of this kind, when we perceive and recognize this kind of preciousness, we love. The act of love is that spiritual act, by which a person recognizes reality in its and for its goodness, beauty, and preciousness.
Let’s now take another step in our reflection. We find ourselves immersed in a universe of realities which present themselves to us in great variety. Let us stop to consider exclusively the person or the relation between persons.
The first thing that comes immediately to our attention is the infinite qualitative difference which exists between “being something” and “being someone”, between the person and things. The moment a person is introduced to us, we immediately feel ourselves spiritually constrained to recognize that in him is a dignity; whereas, in front of things, we recognize that in them is only a price. That is: the person has the value of an end; a thing has the value of a means. As a consequence, the person can only be loved, and the thing can be only used. As you can see, three concepts indicate the world of persons: end-dignity-love; and three other concepts indicate the world of things: means-price-use. In other words, when we enter the world of persons, we once again come upon that way of looking at reality, which we called earlier the ethical gaze. We could rephrase that ethical gaze this way: only the act of love institutes a just interpersonal relation, that is a relation adequate to the reality of persons.
Let us return, now, once more, to a very common experience. If I want to get somewhere with the train, I must first buy a ticket, and for this reason I go to the ticket counter at the train station. I institute a relation with a person, only because he performs a function (that of selling tickets). And not one of us has ever felt that he was lacking in respect in such a transaction.
I give you this example so as to raise a question. There are many times when the things of every day constrain me to establish such kinds of relations with other persons. The question is: is every relation between persons of the same nature as the relation established at the ticket counter at the train station? Note how radical this question is: every of the same nature. If I respond affirmatively to this question, I must conclude that, at the very heart of human society, of every human society is the spontaneous or imposed convergence of opposite interests; that its final end, its reason for being, is the greatest utility possible for the greatest number of people. I don’t want, however, to go any further in this direction.
I would like to call another fact to your attention. There are at least two interpersonal relations which are essentially different than the one just indicated: the relation constituted in the conjugal communion and the relation constituted at conception.
(A) In the first, the two persons encounter each other by reason of their irrepetible uniqueness, which renders each insubstitutable. And this encounter doesn’t have any other reason that the perception of the uniqueness, and preciousness of the other. The husband sees in his wife a unique dignity, as does the wife in her husband. The husband is for the wife someone who can never be substituted by another: no one can take his place. And so it is for the husband.
(B) In the second relation, when the woman discovers that she has conceived a child, she experiences two complementary facts: in her body there is another person (not an appendage of her body); and yet this other person is totally dependent on the mother.
In the two societies just indicated we see the essential nucleous of a human social relation which is not structured upon the principle of utility, but upon the pure ethical principle to which we referred at the beginning. In other words: the human person is given the possibility of living the event of an interpersonal relation, in the full sense of the term.
At this point, however, I am sure that you have in mind two forms of human sociality which are profoundly different one from the other. One of those forms, the conjugal-family bond, is founded on the pure recognition of the dignity of the person. Another is founded on the principle of utility. Is man condemned to live in this dicotomy? Time permits us to respond to this question only in synthesis.
- That there be interpersonal relations founded upon the principle of utility is inevitable. The moral law, however, demands that the principle of utility not be predominant, that it not become the only and principle norm.
- The perception of the value of the person comes, on the natural level, within the environment of the two societies mentioned previously, the conjugal and the family society.
- Only the man who has lived this experience is capable of constructing a society, which is not simply founded upon utility.
Now we can understand in what sense the family is “the heart” of society.
- The experience of communion, founded not on utility but on love, is the first and fundamental contribution of the family to society. In marriage, and in the family, as we have seen, the relations between persons are inspired and guided by the law of love, the law of gratuitousness: every person is received in himself and for himself and not because he is useful. Every person is recognized in his dignity.
In other societies it is not always so, as we have seen.
Often the person is considered only on account of his usefulness.
As a consequence the conjugal and family community teaches man and woman a new and different way of being. This knowledge guides the person to prevent the utilitarian principle and norm from becoming the supreme and exclusive norm of society.
- We must, however, ask: concretely, in what way does the family become the “heart” of society? Certainly every society has problems particular to it. However, perhaps it is possible to offer some fundamental remarks.
A) The family is the heart of society, in the first place and above all because it is the first, insubstitutable subject which educates the person. That is: the first social function of the family is the education of the person. This is a task which the family cannot delegate to others. Even if the State must intervene in the field of education, it should do so only as a help to families.
B) The family is the heart of society because it must intervene in the formation of social institutions. Let me explain. Family associations which have a public influence should be established so that laws and institutions of the State, non only not offend the family, but positively promote the rights and duties of the family. Several areas could be addressed: education, housing, and problems tied to working women.
This is the end of the first point of my reflection. I can summarize everything very simply. The conjugal-family society is the fount of all forms of human sociality, in so far as it educates the person to consider the other in his dignity and not above all for his utility. The crisis of married and family life is the first cause of the dishumanization and depersonalization of society.
2. The family and the Church
The reflection on the relations between the family and the Church goes deeper. We must begins with a few general affirmations which are taught by the Magisterium of the Church.
The first. The Church is a community created by the grace of Christ, through his Holy Spirit. It is a community which lives on holy and supernatural realities: Holy Scripture, the Sacraments, apostolic succession. The family, as such, belongs to the order of creation and is an institution limited to this age.
The second. Since the beginning the Church has taughts that no child could be baptized against the will of his parents: there must be parents who present the child to the Church for baptism. On the other hand, the Church will not baptize the child if the parents are not willing to educate him in the Christian faith.
The third. Certainly the Son of God, made man, could have begun his human existence without a family. But he chose to enter the history of men through the family. This fact is not without deep meaning. The presence of the Incarnate Word in the family tightly binds the mystery of Redemption with the mister of the family.
On the basis of these three affirmations we can say: a) even though they are distinct, there is a mutual relation between the family and the Church; b) the place where they meet is the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word. At this point I would like to explore these points a little further.
2, 1. Family and Church: genealogy of the person.
I believe that in order to understand the relations between the families and the Church, we must place ourselves within the perspective of the genealogy of the person. What do we mean by “genealogy of the person”? It is the process through which a human person reaches maturity, by which I do not only mean biological maturity. Let us begin, then, to reflect on the relation between family and the genealogy of the person.
That the human person finds his cradle, not only biological but spiritual, in the community of the family is a central and constant affirmation in the Christian vision of the human person. St Thomas speaks about how necessary it is for man to have not only a physical uterus for his fulfillment and development, but also a spiritual uterus, constituted by the conjugal communion of his parents. This affirmation has an anthropological character. But not only. It is an affirmation which regards the social architecture, the relations between the family and other societies. As we shall see.
What is the deep reason of this connection between the family and the genealogy of the person? We can begin with an affirmation that the Church has always made, even though it is one of the more contested affirmations among those who do not share the Christian vision. It is the affirmation according to which there is a morally inseparable connection between the use of sexuality, conjugal love and the procreation of a new person.
I retain that the clear perception of this connection is of decisive importance for understanding the whole of Christian doctrine concerning man and marriage. Let us look at the contents of this connection and the reasons for which it is affirmed.
The contents. A meaning is inscribed in being a man and in being a woman. It is not up to freedom to invent, but only to discover, and interprete in truth this meaning which already exists. Masculinity and femininity is a language endowed with an original meaning. It is not a purely biological fact disposed to receive a meaning which human freedom decides to attribute to it. What is this meaning? it is the gift of one self to another within a totality.
The language of masculinity/femininity is the language of total gift. It is a language which is intrinsically, and essentially spousal, conjugal. Human sexuality is oriented to conjugality (and in Christ to consecrated virginity). In this sense, the doctrine of the Church speaks of a morally inseparable connection between the exercise of sexuality and conjugality.
“The logic of the gift of self to the other within a totality involves the potential openness to procreation […] Certainly, the reciprocal gift of the man and of the woman doesn’t have as its end only having children, but it is in se a mutual communion of love and of life. The intimate truth of such a gift must always be guaranteed. Intimate is not synonymous with subjective. If means above all essentially coherent with the objective truth of the ones who give themselves to each other” (Letter to families, 12, 12). The potential paternity and maternity inscribed in each of them also enters into the construction of this truth. In this way the person is generated by an act of love and of waiting as pure gift.
The reasons for which the Church affirms these connection are profound. We can perceive them by way of a foil. That connection can be negate in two directions. The first being a man or being a woman doesn’t convey any original meaning which precedes freedom for which there is not prescriptive definition of the sexual relation, but only a descriptive one and for this reason paternity and maternity don’t have any objective ground. In this context is found the current ennobling of contraception as liberation from sexual biology, the attempt to gain equal social and legal status on the part of homosexual couples and the refusal to consider adoption as a “copy” of natural generation. What is the result of this kind of disconnection? I will limit myself by calling to your attention that which seems to be the most important. At the root is the negation that human sexuality is a fundamental language, through which the person can express the fundamental meaning of his existence that is the person expresses his original vocation through the language of the body, through his being man and her being woman. To unhinge this reciprocity in giving, one unhinges the fundamental code of interpersonal communication. One destroys the very origin of the possibility of interpersonal communion. Let’s not forget that man was alone and God did not create another man. He created woman. It is the possibility of a civilization of the gift that is destroyed.
But the disconnection proceeds also in the other direction: one can uproot procreation (and the genealogy) of the person from the conjugal community and from sexual activity. In this context is found the artificialization of human procreation, which now no longer seems to have any more limits. What is the result of this second type of disconnection? The risk of reducing the child to a “product” which one needs for his own happiness.
As we can see, the reason for which the Church affirms that between the use of sexuality, conjugality and procreation there exists a morally inseparable connection is only one: only in this connection is interpersonal communion and the dignity of the person saved.
This basic reflection has brought us to the consideration of the family as the place where the person is brought up. The growth of the person consists in the growth of his freedom, that is of his capacity to love, to give himself in truth. Why is the family the original place, I don’t say the only place of this growth of the person?
Keeping in mind what I have just said about the relation between sexuality, conjugality, and procreation, we can respond with two points. In reality, the family community is built upon two interpersonal relations, the conjugal relation and the parent-child relation. Let us consider each analytically.
2, 1, 1. I have already spoken about the “language of the body” as the fundamental language of the person: masculinity and femininity have in themselves and for themselves a meaning which must be read in the truth. The inspired author of the second chapter of Genesis has revealed a decisive truth for our spiritual lives.
Man experiences an original solitude, that is a solitude intrinsic to his being a man. Place in a universe of things, in the universe of non-persons, he feels absolutely alone. This solitude is not good: the human being in these conditions has not reached his fulness. And in fact, precisely so as to get out of this state of solitude, man — and each one of us — looks for something to dominate, to possess. Dominion and possession which do not help him to get out of his original solitude. Man reaches his fulness when place in front of the woman. That is the moment in which he discovers himself to be called to a communion, and capable of bringing it about because he is in front of another person. This is a very profound mystery. It is through the language of the body that the person expresses his original vocation.
We can now understand, I believe, why in the conjugal communion the human person grows as a human person: because it is in this that he becomes fulfilled as a gift of self. And in fact in the conjugal bond we find in an eminent way all of the mysterious and paradoxical nature of man. There is no bond of mutual belonging which is more radical that the conjugal belonging: it is not possible, in humanis, to belong in a stronger way than in the conjugal bond. There is no greater act of freedom that the act with which two spouses give themselves to each other. It is not possible, in humanis, to be more free. Freedom coincides with the gift. And the gift of self implies the possession of oneself: one cannot give what one doesn’t possess. The height of self-affirmation coincides with the height of self-donation. It is for this reason that the conjugal communion is the place where the person as such grows.
2, 1, 2. Conjugal communion expands into the family community. This is the proper place for the genealogy of the person: the proper place for his growth.
Although rooted in biology, the conception of the person is not simply the result of a fortuitous or necessary coincidence of biological factors. This way of explaining the coming into existence of an individual reduces the birth of an individual to a function of the survival of the species. But the man who is conceived is a person, unique and insubstitutable in his infinite value. And in fact spouses can only want a child: any child. they cannot decide precisely the person to conceive. The knowledge of this unique, insubstitutable person can only come from the existence of that person. When he is born and the parents see him for the first time, they say: “this is my child”. They cannot know him before he exists. Why? Here we discover the essential difference between created knowledge and divine knowledge. Man knows that which exists and why it exists; whereas it is divine knowledge which makes it exists. In one word: every conception implies an act of creation. Each one of us exists because God though us and wanted us.
As a consequence, the spouses not having decided, and having received the child as a gift from God, they receive him as such. And in this reception is fount the origin of the whole genealogy of the person.
Once the new person enters the universe, he asks about the “countenance” of this very universe; if it is hostile or friendly, if it refuses him or receives him, if it considers his existence good or bad. Depending on the answer that the new person receives, his entire existence will be stamped by it. His growth will be determined by the response that he receives to his question. From whom will he receive this answer? From the woman who conceived him and from his father; “how good it is that you exist”. He is welcome. The universe awaited him as a gift and he can live in the certainty that it is good to exist. The grown of the person in the truth and in the good begins like this. This is the way the new person is affirmed in the spousal love in which the spouse is affirmed in himself and for himself. The affirmation of the new person can begin his growth int he environment of conjugal love.
We can really see how the affirmation of the connection between the use of sexuality, conjugality and procreation is at the base of the next affirmation that the family is the original place of the persons growth.
In the course of my reflection, I have continually used the phrase “original place” not “exclusive place”. The human person also needs other “environments”, other places, for an integral growth. This raises the problem of relationships, of family relations with the other places where the person grows. I mentioned the problem of social and political architecture.
Now, it will not be difficult to see how there is a very close relation between the church and the family. This is a relation which is rooted in the genealogy of the person.
At the beginning we spoke in general about the family. Let us now consider the family which springs up from a Christian marriage. The two Christian spouses know that the gift they have received, the child, is called to eternal life in Christ. they know that he is predestined to be a son of God in Christ. They know that he is called to be in the Church. They request baptism for their child so that this divine plan be accomplished.
Marriage and family edify the Church in this way. In the family, the human person is introduced by way of baptism and education, into the church and the Church is reciprocally introduced into the genealogy of the person. Certainly, the family cannot do this alone. It needs other charisms which are in the church. The faith that the Church transmits to the child is the faith preached by the Pastors of the Church. The Eucharist which brings Christian existence to perfection is celebrated by the Priest. There is, however, a “ministry” which Christian parents carry out: that of introducing the new human person into the mystery of the Church. Precisely, it is that of generated the new person in the Church (= genealogy of the person).
2, 2. Family and Churchy; the mystery of Christ in the Family
We could never fully comprehend the mystery of the hidden life of Christ in Nazareth. The Son of God inserts his divine being into the family community. He has a mother in the true and proper sense. He has a legal father. He has cousins. His human life, his human genealogy comes about in the family. “The child grew in wisdom, age and grace”. It was not only a biological genealogy (age), but also a spiritual genealogy (wisdom-grace). “And he submitted himself to them”. His human genealogy is the fruit of the education that he receives from Mary and Joseph. He is introduced into the human world by means of this education.
The rooting of the Church in the family finds its deepest reason in the mystery of Christ. In the human genealogy of Christ the Church was formed.
At the beginning we reflected on the relations between the family and society and then on the relations between the family and the Church. Now we can see that each of these relations have a common foundation: the human person. Society needs the family so that it can be a society of persons which are recognized according to their dignity. The Church needs the family because it is in the family that the Christian genealogy of the person comes about just as the human genealogy of the word came about in the family. This is the task of the family: to affirm the supreme value of every human person, because it has the task of guarding the truth of love in the world. That is: it is the heart of society and of the Church.