Cor ad cor loquitur: Passing on Moral Values in the Family
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Cor ad cor loquitur: Passing on Moral Values in the Family

Cor ad cor loquitur: Passing on Moral Values in the Family

Peter Kahn FAITH Magazine November-December 2013

This is an adapted version of a talk given on 9 March 2013 at the Westminster Diocese event “Passing on the Faith: Virtues and Values.” Peter is married to Alison, with seven young sons.


Cor ad cor loquitur: heart speaks to heart. Blessed John Paul used the relationship between Tobias and Sarah from the Book of Tobit as an image of what life was like in the Garden of Eden before sin. We read in the Book of Tobit:
Tobias rose from the bed, and said to Sarah, “Get up, my sister! You and I must pray and petition our Lord to win his grace and his protection.” She stood up, and they began praying for protection, and this was how he began: “You are blessed, O God of our fathers; blessed too is your name for ever and ever. Let the heavens bless you and all things you have made for evermore. You it was who created Adam, you who created Eve his wife to be his help and support, and from these two the human race was born. You it was who said: ‘It is not right that the man should be alone; let us make a helper like him.’ And so I take my sister not for any lustful motive, but I do it in singleness of heart. Be kind enough to have pity on her and on me and bring us to old age together.” And together they said,“Amen, Amen,” and lay down for the night. (Tobit 8: 4-7)

Our interest today is in how Tobias’ father, Tobit, managed to pass on this way of life to his son. How was it that Tobias was able to treat Sarah as a sister? This is surely what we desire for our children, those of us who are parents. How can we avoid the example of Sarah’s father, Raguel, who limited himself to digging graves for his sons-in-law, covering over the consequences of their sins?

The first sign of Christ’s presence that I discern in family life occurs through the unity of the couple themselves. St Paul says: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).

You could, of course, just tell your son or daughter: “Follow the law.” And Tobit does indeed say to his son: “My child, avoid all loose conduct. Choose a wife of your father’s stock. Do not take a foreign wife outside your father’s tribe, because we are the children of the prophets” (Tb 4:12). In our turn we can tell our children: “You must not live together before you get married,” or “Don’t use the pill.” But what would actually induce someone to depart from paths chosen by so many of their peers? Advice given in this way has something of an Old Testament ring about it, even if it is true that the law of the Lord is perfect and that it brings life to the soul.

The Law of Christ

Christ has brought a new law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us: “You have heard how it was said: ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I say this to you: ‘If a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart’” (Mt 5:27-28). Christ doesn’t add further external demands to the law, but he does add stipulations that pertain to the heart. Morality is about the deepest part of our being.

What does this mean for us as fathers and mothers? You will remember that during the wedding rite the priest asks the couple a question: “Will you lovingly accept children from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ?” Let me take a passage from St Paul: “And parents, never drive your children to resentment but in bringing them up correct them and guide them as the Lord does” (Eph 6:1). There are two main alternatives here. The first is to dominate our children, to impose our own will on them. We see something similar emerging in Eden, where the Fall results in the husband seeking to dominate his wife (and vice versa). The second is to bring our children up as the Lord does.

We need to do some theological groundwork here: “How did the Lord do this?” In John’s Gospel we see that Christ did what his Father wanted: “In all truth I tell you, by himself the Son can do nothing; he can only do what he sees the Father doing: and whatever the Father does the Son does too. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him everything he himself does” (Jn 5: 19-20). Jesus was the one who was close to the Father’s heart; he always did his Father’s will.

We can remember here Pope Benedict’s teaching: “God’s initiative always precedes every human initiative and on our journey towards him too it is he who first illuminates us, who directs and guides us, ever respecting our inner freedom” (General Audience, 14 November 2012). The only truly liveable form of morality is one in which we respond to the initiative that God takes in our lives. So may I ask yet a further question: how does God take the initiative in our lives as fathers and mothers?

Sometimes God does intervene fairly directly in family life, as he did through the angel Raphael for Tobias. And we see God breaking through in other biblical accounts, particularly in the conception and naming of children. As parents we need a deep sensitivity to God to help ensure that we are aware of his will. We need to give ourselves quite fully to prayer. If one were to reach St Teresa of Avila’s transforming union, then we would certainly possess a profound transparency to the divine initiative. God does speak to us before we reach this summit of the Christian life on earth, even if typically in a somewhat less transparent fashion. He especially speaks to us in signs, through the circumstances of our lives. Pope Benedict again reminds us:
Many people today have a limited idea of the Christian faith because they identify it with a mere system of beliefs and values rather than with the truth of a God who revealed Himself in history, anxious to communicate with human beings in a tête-a-tête, in a relationship of love with them. In fact, at the root of every doctrine or value is the event of the encounter between man and God in Jesus Christ. Christianity, before being a moral or an ethic, is the event of love. (General Audience, November 14 2012).

I shall dedicate the rest of this article to looking at ways in which Christ comes to meet us in our family life, because it is this encounter with Christ that is the source of any commitment to moral values. The only basis on which to live a moral life is a response to the initiative of Christ in our lives.

The Most Valid Basis for Educating Children in Love

The recent Synod on the New Evangelisation proposed to us: “This faith cannot be transmitted in a life which is not modelled after the Gospel or a life which does not find its meaning, truth and future based on the Gospel” (57). You cannot pass on the faith, you cannot pass on moral values, unless your life is modelled on the Gospel. It is no surprise that The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, a document from the Pontifical Council for the Family, calls the witness of parents “the most valid basis for educating children in love”.

The first sign of Christ’s presence that I discern in family life occurs through the unity of the couple themselves. St Paul says: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). Is there a harder teaching in the whole of the New Testament? Blessed John Paul identifies this mutual subjection as an important part of his theology of the body, but how challenging it is to live out.

Do not argue with each other: it is an offence against the dignity of your marriage if you seek to dominate your spouse, and to impose your own will on them. It contradicts the way in which your marriage acts as a sign of Christ’s unity with the Church. Let me make a bold suggestion – and here, given the number of marriage breakdowns in the Church today, my intention is perhaps as much to indicate the strength of the response required as to make a realistic proposal for change. The Church could add an additional phrase to the marriage vows: in subjectione invicem in timore Christi. This is the Latin from Eph 5:21 to indicate that each one is to be subject to the other: “Give way to one another in obedience to Christ,” as the New Jerusalem Bible translates this verse.

We need to find ways to convey to engaged and married couples that marriage is not about getting one’s own way. Christ did not become a man to live from some autonomous will. He came down to earth to live from the will of his Father. It is a cause for wonder when you see a married couple living together in a way that is unified under Christ; just as it is a cause for sorrow when you see a couple who cannot give up their own wills for each other. Children see this from the inside. They see when their parents are united, and that it brings life. And if their parents seek to dominate each other, they soon experience misery.

This unity of the parents carries over into the family as a whole. Unity is one of the basic sources of all morality. When a family is united, children soon realise that life is not about serving one’s own interests, but about acting together for the good of the entire family. Everyone needs to give up their own ideas in order to do this. Only then does it really become possible to eat meals, go for walks, play sport or work together; and in ways that give occasion for wonder.

You might think that to do what the others want is restrictive. But a truly whole-hearted freedom is found here rather than in serving one’s own interests. A moral way of life is quite naturally passed on to your children in this fashion. If, on the other hand, everyone goes off to their own little world (perhaps of entertainment or comfort) then we lose the capacity to be together, and conflict is all that results.

Accepting Children From God

For the next sign of Christ’ presence in family life, I want to come back again to the wedding vows: “Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ?” Will you accept children lovingly from God? This might at first seem a little remote from passing on moral values in the family, but bear with me.

Let me use some of the language from the Sermon on the Mount, if I may, to put this across:

"You have heard how it was said: ‘Only limit the size of your family where proper reasons exist’, but I say to you that if someone disdains the gift of children they have already begun to offend against the dignity of marriage.”

This may sound a little strong, but Pope Paul VI teaches in Humane Vitae: “The right and lawful ordering of the births >of children presupposes in husband and wife first and foremost that they fully recognise and value the true blessings of family life.” Pope John Paul II talked about a “morally correct minimum level” for the size of a family. One can see this as the external requirement of the law, but it is a challenge to keep an external demand if our heart has not been truly formed. It is easy for “improper reasons” to kick in if one does not recognise the true blessings of family life. We may seek to maintain a higher standard of living than is genuinely necessary, or look to avoid the scorn of others. There are many reasons why we can perceive children as a burden, aperception that indeed results directly from the Fall itself.

We need to see that Christ is present through our children, right there in the wonder of their births and their unfolding lives. The aim here is to live from God’s will rather than from some autonomous agreement between the couple. Gaudium et Spes (50) teaches that, in exercising responsible parenthood, married couples will act with docile reverence toward God. My wife and I are not the ones, in the first instance, to determine the size of our family. A married couple can morally choose to make use of the infertile period to avoid the conception of a child where proper reasons exist, and Humanae Vitae does spell out the nature of such reasons. But even as we retain our freedom in the circumstances that God allows us to experience, it remains the case that thedivine initiative must still precede our human initiative. In his catechesis on St Maximus the Confessor, Pope Benedict reminded us: “The height of freedom is the yes, in conformity with God’s will.”

Paul VI taught that when parents exercise responsible parenthood, children will “grow up with a correct appreciation of human values” (Humane Vitae 21). Blessed John Paul, in his book Love and Responsibility, said that “to create a family means to create a community. To be a community it must have a certain size.” There is a way in which as a family grows in size it becomes more realistic to have an exchange of love in which one gives up one’s will for the other, as each child both expresses and calls forth further generosity. In the same book Pope John Paul wrote that “a determination on the part of husband and wife to have as few children as possible, to make their own lives easy, is bound to inflict moral damage both on their family and on society at large.” If youare generous, then your children will be learn to be generous as well. They will realise that generosity brings life in its fullness, as they too find joy in each other. This gift of children is a clear sign of Christ’s presence; a sign that calls forth a response from us.

Society: Common Cause With Others

When everyone else is going in a different direction, it can be hard to sustain a way of life that is experienced from the inside as fulfilling. Children do need an explicit awareness that Christ is present in their lives, as the Synod on the New Evangelisation indicated: “Children and youth should be educated in the family and in schools to recognise the presence of God in their lives” (36). Pope Benedict suggests that as parents we need a watchfulness that enables us to take those opportunities to reflect on our life together with our children (General Audience, 28th November 2012). We need to realise without any doubt that genuine and enduring fulfilment is found by those who respond to the desires that pertain to the deepest part of our being. Choices in which we look to our owninterests may possess an instant appeal, but in the end they will bring an apathy in which life is experienced as burdensome.

Others will encourage us to settle for a lethargic response, in which we refuse to allow Christ to move our hearts. It is important to choose friends for our children wisely. Tobit was careful to ensure that Tobias was accompanied by a faithful Jewish companion on his journey to collect the family silver. I am surprised that we have not given greater room for the new ecclesial movements in this country. In other countries many new Catholic movements are flourishing. Why is it that the UK has barely created any new movements of its own, beyond those that pertain to the years of youth?
There are many imperfections in the movements, but this does not mean that we should disdain strong expressions of community life in the Church. I myself have left two of the new movements, broken-hearted, but this does not negate the wonderful gifts that God gave my family in each case. We are now involved in a further movement, Communion and Liberation. How hard life would be without opportunities to make common cause with others in responding together to desires that God inflames in all of our hearts. We each need far more than lives as autonomous families, arranging things to our own convenience. We are far too suspicious of substantive communal expressions of life in the Church in this country. We need many more opportunities and ways to make common cause with others in the faith.How else can we learn to deny own wills in following after Christ, or foster a resilient moral commitment on the part of our children?
People around us may think that a life of this sort leads to oppression and misery; that one should aim above all to limit the scope for people to dominate each other. I am reminded of the words of John’s Gospel: “How can anyone who is already old be born? Is it possible to go back into the womb again and be born?” These are the words of Nicodemus, who could not conceive that a different way of life would ever be possible. But a communal life of faith is possible, even if we are sometimes swayed by those around us to believe otherwise.


Teaching a moral way of life to our sons and daughters involves far more than getting them to memorise a moral code. Morality depends on an encounter with Christ, in which we as parents respond to those really-very-concrete signs of his presence: a spouse, a child, a community. And in which our children also learn to respond to us as parents who manifest God’s will for them, or learn to see Christ present and reaching out to them through blood-brothers or sisters-in-the-Lord.

Jacob and Esau chose different paths in life. Esau was happy with a pot of stew, something that fulfilled him for a brief moment and then left him empty. Jacob was aware that the blessing of his father was valuable even though it was to come in the future. It was Jacob rather than Esau who received the dew from heaven and the richness of the earth, abundance of grain and wine (Gn 27:28). We will be surprised when we reach heaven, God willing, at the myriad times that Christ has reached out to us in the circumstances of our lives.

We don’t pass on moral values directly, but we can open up the hearts of our children to encounter Christ, by our own example and by drawing them into this way of life. And in this way Christ’s heart speaks to the hearts of our sons and daughters.

Any response to these few thoughts I have committed to paper can only come as God moves your heart. It is not something that I as an author or speaker can do. This is in God’s hands. But I pray that all of us will be ready to see Christ when he does come to meet us, and that, like St Peter, we will be willing to jump out of the boat at the words “It is the Lord”.

Tobit and Anna, Raguel and Edna received great joy through their children. May this also be true for us. “My soul blesses the Lord, the great King, because Jerusalem will be built anew and his house for ever and ever. What bliss if just one of my family be left to see your glory and praise the King of heaven” (Tb 13:15-16).

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