Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Centrality of the Family in Catholic Social Teaching

In his Apostolic Exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, Familiaris Consortio, St. Pope John Paul II proclaimed that: “Willed by God in the very act of creation,
marriage and the family are interiorly ordained to fulfillment in Christ”” (3). In a way, John Paul the Great, has summarized the reason for the centrality of the family in Catholic Social Teaching. The omnipresence of familial themes throughout Holy Scripture and Church Tradition are a testimony to the sacred nature of the family and the role that it plays in God’s divine plan. The Second Vatican Council produced one of the most profound documents concerning the modern Church, Gaudium et Spes. This dogmatic constitution assesses much, including the role of the family. “The Christian family loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the Kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to come. Thus by its example and its witness it accuses the world of sin and enlightens those who seek the truth” (Lumen Gentium 35). This truth is evident in every aspect of society, from the individual to the whole of civilization. Because of this, Catholic social teaching (CST) is informed greatly by the needs and duties of the family. Why and how does family play such crucial role in CST? To know this we must first understand what CST gleans from the Bible by way of the Old Testament and the Holy Family, how today’s families figure into God’s divine plan, and how the magisterium has illustrated these things to us through CST.

When speaking of the family, as it relates to CST, one would be remiss to forego the impact that the Holy Family has had on its development. That being said, the significance of the Holy Family is bolstered by the familial themes found in the Old Testament. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church there is a passage that beautifully references the depth of the Bible’s reverence for the family:
It is in the family that one learns the love and faithfulness of the Lord, and the need to respond to these (cf. Ex 12:25-27, 13:8, 14-15; Deut 6:20-25, 13:7-11; 1 Sam 3:13). It is in the family that children learn their first and most important lessons of practical wisdom, to which the virtues are connected (cf. Prov 1:8-9, 4:1-4, 6:20-21; Sir 3:1-16, 7:27-28). Because of all this, the Lord himself is the guarantor of the love and fidelity of married life (cf. Ma 2:14-15)” (209-210).
Here The Compendium illustrates the significance of the family utilizing only the Old Testament as reference, and these are far from the only Scriptures that pertain to the subject. The importance of this is that just as the Old Testament Messianic prophecies came to fruition in the person of Jesus, so did the Holy Family come to exemplify the tenets of what the Old Testament shows a family to be. CST’s concern for the plight of the impoverished and marginalized and the corollary experiences of the Holy Family are unmistakable. From Mary’s (perceived) pregnancy out of wedlock to Christ’s birth in a stable, the Holy Family had much to contend with in the way of social exclusion. Christ’s first miracle, at Cana, was at the ultimate celebration of family, a wedding! In addition to the humble circumstances of Christ’s socio-economic status are his very specific calls to help the underprivileged. In the Gospel of St. Matthew Jesus puts forth a soteriological call to the “human family”: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (NRSVC Matt 25:35-40). 1994 was declared the “Year of the Family” by Pope John Paul II. In his letter to families, Gratissimam Sane, he artfully illustrates how the Holy Family remains a beacon of hope for modern families. In concluding his letter he mentions the significance of each member of the family of Christ:
May the Holy Family, icon and model of every human family, help each individual to walk in the spirit of Nazareth. May it help each family unit to grow in understanding of its particular mission in society and the Church by hearing the Word of God, by prayer and by a fraternal sharing of life. May Mary, Mother of "Fairest Love", and Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer, accompany us all with their constant protection (Gratissimam Sane 23).

The Holy Spirit leads God’s family ever further along the path of salvation. The 20th and 21st centuries have been integral in hastening us upon this course. CST has grown by leaps and bounds. Pope Francis’ recent Synod on the Family, and the one to come in 2015, are testimonies to the continued focus on this most basic social institution. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have had a hand in the development of social doctrine, especially as it pertains to the family: “Marriage and the family are the central social institutions that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined. We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable” (Themes of Catholic Social Teaching). It is the pursuit of these rights that serve to illuminate the need for healthy and contributing family units, households, communities, and the Church alike. The precursor to next year’s fourteenth ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops, and the follow up to this year’s third extraordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops, was 1980’s Synod on the Family. St. John Paul II’s postsynodal apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio presents a brief list of what CST hopes to address with respect to the modern family; “Thus, with love as its point of departure and making constant reference to it, the recent Synod emphasized four general tasks for the family: 1) forming a community of persons; 2) serving life; 3) participating in the development of society; 4) sharing in the life and mission of the Church” (17).

“Forming a community of persons” involves the responsibility of society to foster the well-being of the individual. What better expression of a communion of persons than that which is established in the Sacrament of Marriage. It is for this reason that the integrity of marriage, as the building block upon which families are established, is held in such high regard. “For the good of the spouses and their off-springs 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” (Gaudium et Spes 48). It is a union by which God joins a man and wife and perpetuates that community of persons through procreation and the promotion of God’s divine plan. As Catholics it is our responsibility to cultivate a culture that preserves this most sacred of institutions. Through active participation in our communities and at the polls we can do our part in encouraging a society built upon the morals of the Church. “Marriage must be defined, recognized, and protected as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, and as the source of the next generation and the protective haven for children. Policies on taxes, work, divorce, immigration, and welfare should help families stay together and should reward responsibility and sacrifice for children” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship 70).

Once children enter the picture, the small “community of persons” that God has created is focused on providing for those who cannot provide for themselves, our children. This is where the “participation in the development of society” comes in. The First Epistle of John speaks to this directly. The language is familial in nature, and the priority placed on charity through action is explicit: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (NRSVCE, 1 John 3:17-18). Children are dependent upon their parents for food, shelter, clothing, education, moral support, and the tools by which to further the family/society as adults. Fostering a family environment that promotes empathy and love through affection, in God’s name, creates a small society that encourages the tenets of Christ’s Law (NRSVCE, Galatians 6:2):
The first and fundamental structure for "human ecology" is the family, in which man receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person. Here we mean the family founded on marriage, in which the mutual gift of self by husband and wife creates an environment in which children can be born and develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny. (Centesimus Annus 39).
To achieve this we must be socially aware and proactive. “Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2207). The lessons learned at the family level, and perpetuated through the generations inform who we are as a society. “A truly sovereign and spiritually vigorous nation is always made up of strong families who are aware of their vocation and mission in history. The family is at the heart of all these problems and tasks. To relegate it to a subordinate or secondary role… would be to inflict grave harm on the authentic growth of society as a whole” (Gratissimam Sane 17). To prevent this subordination of the family it is our duty as Catholics to take an active role in protecting our children. As much as we would like to be there for them every minute, it is impossible. Because of this we must ensure that the social institutions responsible for our children in our absence are correctly ordered. An example of one such institution would be our education system: “Government, through such means as tax credits and publicly funded scholarships, should help provide resources for parents, especially those of modest means, to exercise this basic right without discrimination. Students in all educational settings should have opportunities for moral and character formation (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship 72). This is just one example of society’s responsibility for the care of our young. In addition to this we must have the moral fiber to ensure that laws, rules, and regulations are in place to protect our most valuable assets, our children, from exposure to pornography, gratuitous violence, and similar threats to their developing minds.

In step with this theme of providing for those who are unable to care for themselves is the Church’s stance against abortion, contraception, euthanasia, capital punishment, and similar threats to human life. In this way the family is central to “serving life.” Rather than a place where life is optional in the face of suffering, Pope John Paul II demands that that family be a “sanctuary of life.”
It is necessary to go back to seeing the family as the sanctuary of life. The family is indeed sacred: it is the place in which life — the gift of God — can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life (Centesimus Annus 39).
The dignity due to the individual is rooted in God’s creation of man, and similarly in man’s reproduction: “In procreation therefore, through the communication of life from parents to child, God's own image and likeness is transmitted, thanks to the creation of the immortal soul” (Evangelium Vitae 43). God’s imprint upon our beings informs all that we do in striving for the greater good, and similarly informs the dignity due to men as children of God.

Another indispensable aspect of Catholic Social Teaching and the family is our call to “share in the life and mission of the Church.”  Families can do this in two ways. The first way is by creating what Pope John Paul II called “the little domestic church” within the walls of our own homes (Familiaris Consortio 51). The family unit should be a place of frequent prayer, constant learning, praise, and worship. Each member of the family should strive to emulate each of the members of the Holy Family, and in doing, catechize those around them:
As a sharer in the life and mission of the Church, which listens to the word of God with reverence and proclaims it confidently, the Christian family fulfills its prophetic role by welcoming and announcing the word of God: it thus becomes more and more each day a believing and evangelizing community… The discovery of and obedience to the plan of God on the part of the conjugal and family community must take place in "togetherness," through the human experience of love between husband and wife, between parents and children, lived in the Spirit of Christ. Thus the little domestic Church, like the greater Church, needs to be constantly and intensely evangelized: hence its duty regarding permanent education in the faith.” (Familiaris Consortio 51).

The second way the Church impacts the family is by being said family! In his papal encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI elaborates upon the role of the Church as family, provider, and caretaker: “The Church is God's family in the world. In this family no one ought to go without the necessities of life” (25b).
The Church offers an original and irreplaceable contribution with the concern that impels her to make the family of mankind and its history more human, prompting her to place herself as a bulwark against every totalitarian temptation, as she shows man his integral and definitive vocation. By preaching the Gospel, the grace of the sacraments and the presence of fraternal communion, the Church, “heals and elevates the dignity of the human person,… consolidates society and endows the daily activity of men with a deeper sense of meaning (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 51).
God the Father Almighty has gathered us into His house, into His Church, and eternally stands as the model upon which our own families are built. “Just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (NRSVCE, Ephesians 1:4). Our responsibility to the Church is similar to our civic responsibility. We are called to be active, concerned, and helpful. We are charged with contributing in a positive way and abiding by the rules that have been set. More than anything we have been appointed to perpetuate the message of Christ on earth.

If society as a whole is able to recognize the proper and natural order of God’s plan we will be able to make the progress necessary for peace “on Earth as it is in Heaven” (NRSVCE, Matthew 6:10). It is only through caring for each and every person of the human family with the same amount of care that society places on the achievement of power and monetary gain that we can improve the conditions of those who cannot do for themselves:
Man's social nature makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on one another… Among those social ties which man needs for his development… like the family and political community, relate with greater immediacy to his innermost nature; others originate rather from his free decision. In our era, for various reasons, reciprocal ties and mutual dependencies increase day by day and give rise to a variety of associations and organizations, both public and private. This development, which is called socialization, while certainly not without its dangers, brings with it many advantages with respect to consolidating and increasing the qualities of the human person, and safeguarding his rights. (Gaudium et Spes 25).
Catholic Social Teaching in the 20th and 21st centuries has continued to be one of the only constant sparks of light in a gradually darkening room. The influence of the Catholic Church, and ultimately He who instituted her, cannot be understated. The family as an institution is challenged on a daily basis. Traditional moral values are being undermined by the unfortunate redefinition of marriage, and the conjugal act has been relegated to recreational act. The flagrant disregard for life at conception has led to a loss of respect for life at any age. Death has become a viable alternative to pain and unwanted pregnancy. Only through nurturing the family unit as the most basic building block of society can we hope to effect humanity at large. Pope Francis, in his Papal Encyclical, Lumen Fidei, commented on the dire consequences of a modern society preoccupied with brotherhood without the benefit of a guiding father: “Absorbed and deepened in the family, faith becomes a light capable of illumining all our relationships in society… Modernity sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure (54).

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