100 Days: The Papacy and the Family
The Synod of Bishops on the Family begins at the Vatican in approximately 100 days. The prophetic voice of recent popes can provide those gathering in Rome with a consistent, clear and coherent vision of marriage and the family.
October 11th 1962. The solemn opening of the Second Vatican Council. His Holiness Pope John XXIII gives not one but two speeches. The first is a theologically dense but hugely important address to the Council Fathers. Today this speech is largely forgotten. The second comes later in the day, an informal talk from the window of the papal apartments looking out over the crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square. This was Good Pope John’s “moonlight address”. In it he told his audience: “When you head home, find your children. Hug and kiss your children and tell them ‘this is the hug and kiss of the Pope’.” What is it about these words that so touched the hearts of the Catholic faithful and many others, then and now?
It is surely providential that in the run-up to the Extraordinary Synod on the Family we have seen raised to the altars two great popes who both identified themselves with the family and courageously upheld the fullness of the Church’s teaching on the family.
By invoking the parent-child relationship, there was an implicit appeal to the intrinsic goodness and attractiveness of the family. The world loved Good Pope John because he was saying: “I am with you in your families. I hug your children with you.” He identified himself with the family and, from Heaven, the recently canonised Pope Saint John XXIII still does. No doubt he is even now interceding for parents and children all across the world.
This papal identification with, and concern for, the family did not end with Pope John XXIII. Quite the opposite. His immediate successor, Pope Paul VI, presided over the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, which gave to the Church many profound teachings on the importance of the family. The centrality of the family is underlined in many of the Council’s documents, including Lumen Gentium and Apostolicam Actuositatem. Above all, though, Paul VI’s concern and care for the family is expressed at length in the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, which notes that “the well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family”. The document goes on to speak of “the excellence of this institution” and “its superlative value” (GS 47). Having recognised the value of marriage, in the subsequent paragraphs (48-52) it expands upon the Church’s understanding of marriage:
The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence, by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other, a relationship arises which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one. For the good of the spouses and their off-spring, as well as of society, the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone. For God Himself is the author of matrimony, endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes. All of these have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole. By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown. Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love “are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matt 19:6), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them. (GS 48)
Gaudium et Spes therefore stresses marriage not simply as a human convention. It has been “established by the creator” and is “qualified by His laws”. In fact, “God Himself is the author of matrimony”. This implies that we human beings do not have the ability or right to change or manipulate this immutable and eternal reality based upon our own desire, whims or peccadilloes. In the 11th century King Canute attempted to hold back the waves to demonstrate that even regal power could not trump the laws of nature. Any contemporary attempt to redefine the meaning of marriage – whether by socially liberal politicians or misguided clerics – strikes a similarly ridiculous and pathetic pose. The damage to the common good, however, is infinitely more alarming.
''Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church.''
The God-given features of the institution of marriage are detailed in Gaudium et Spes. First, it is based on “irrevocable personal consent” and, once this consent is given, God ratifies the bond of marriage such that “the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone”. Hence there exists in the lifetime of a husband and wife “an unbreakable oneness between them”. Second, this union between them “impose[s] total fidelity on the spouses”. Third, “the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown”. Finally, “through this union they [the spouses] experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day”. In synthesis, the institution of marriage, while constituted by the “personal consent” of the spouses, is nonetheless more than a purely human convention. Matrimony is willed by God as a life-long, exclusive, faithful relationship between a man and a women that, as a minimum requirement, is open to the possibility of the procreation of new lives. God wills that spouses find their fulfilment within this union.
Because marriage is a good willed by God, the council document also notes that “Christ the Lord abundantly blessed this many-faceted love” (GS 48). Further, what God has created and willed as good is caught up through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ into a new and higher reality. For baptised Christians, marriage becomes a sacrament by which God gives special helps to spouses to live out their married vocation:
Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect and may aid and strengthen them in their sublime office of being a father or a mother. For this reason Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state. (GS 48)
After John XIII and Paul VI, the cause of the family was adopted and embraced by Pope John Paul II. From 1978 onwards, he gave the Second Vatican Council’s vision of marriage an intellectually solid foundation that was continuous with the Church’s traditional teaching but that also integrated modern advances in the fields of anthropology, sociology and philosophy.
Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, a close collaborator with Pope John Paul II, tells an anecdote that highlights the importance of the family to the recently canonised pontiff. Despite all his great scholarly works, and his political achievements in helping to bring about the fall of communism, John Paul II gave an instant response when once asked how he would like posterity to remember him: as the Pope of the family.
The family was, indeed, Pope John Paul II’s central preoccupation. From September 1979 he began to use his General Audience to catechise on the nature of human loving. These weekly sessions ran for another 133 weeks and now form the basis for what is known as the Theology of the Body. It is the exchange between Jesus and the religious authorities on marriage (Mt 19:3ff; Mk 10:2ff) that Pope John Paul II takes as his point of departure. When asked about the possibility of marriage Our Lord refuses to enter into the question at the level of legalistic prescriptions. Instead, he says: “Have you not read how in the beginning God created them male and female?”
Thus Pope John Paul takes up Christ’s approach of going back to the beginning, back to God’s original intention for humanity, created as male and female. In this way he enters into a profound theological meditation on the meaning of what it is to be male and female. Within this context of the complementarity of the sexes he explores the meaning of the human body and human sexuality.
Against an aggressively secular world view that reduces human sexuality to the merely biological, or to no more than the acting out of purely subjective preferences, John Paul II reflects on human sexuality within the context of human loving and in the light of the Creator’s intention. From this reflection emerges an anthropology that is grounded in the dignity of the human person and which provides the philosophical foundations for the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life.
Similarly, Pope Francis too has chosen to make marriage and the family one of his chief concerns. There are contemporary challenges to be met. In our ephemeral and sexually permissive society there are many temptations that work against the ideal of the married family. Economic factors often create stress and put pressure on relationships. The demands of work may mean we have to live away from our loved ones or eat into the time we are able to spend with them.
Moreover, many outside the Church do not share our values. Many of these are in positions of influence in the media, higher education and government. From these cultural wellsprings stems open hostility to the values and way of life the Church proposes. This animus is not confined to those outside the Church. Many within also remain to be convinced of the Gospel of family life.
It is surely providential that Pope Francis has chosen to focus on the family at this time in history. It is surely providential that in the run-up to the Extraordinary Synod on the Family we have seen raised to the altars two great popes who both identified themselves with the family and courageously upheld the fullness of the Church’s teaching on the family. Indeed, it now seems that Pope Paul VI will be beatified in October.
Certainly there are challenges. We meet these challenges, though, intellectually well equipped thanks to the patrimony left to us by Popes John XXII, Paul VI and John Paul II. They have given us the teaching of Christ and his Church enshrined anew in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, with freshly laid philosophical and anthropological foundations.
While it is greatly to be desired that the Extraordinary Synod on the Family will provide us with new and creative ways to face up to the challenges of our time, we already know what Christ and his Church teaches. Moreover, in the anthropology of Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body we have a framework to describe the consonance between our human nature and God’s designs for us. The Church’s teaching on marriage is truly good news. It is the Gospel of family life.