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Catholic Social Teaching: Marriage and the Family

Saturday, May 31, 2014
Betrothal of St. Joseph and Our Lady
It is often declared that the family is the basic building block of society, yet according to the National Office of Statistics the divorce rate in the UK has more or less stabilized at around 1% of the married population divorcing every year with about 1/3 of all marriages ending by their 15th wedding anniversary. This inevitably has consequences for the environment in which children are raised and suggests that whilst the Christian vision of the family remains the social ‘norm’ in an ideological sense, in practice it is increasingly abnormal. Indeed, as Richard Conrad OP once pointed out in conversation, it may be the case that the Christian family is acquiring some of the ‘iconic’ value of eschatological sign that has traditionally been the sole preserve of celibate religious. 

If Christian marriage has indeed become a counter-cultural sign of the Kingdom of God in our world today, this should alert us to the danger of assuming that wider society will provide by a kind of cultural osmosis the moral and spiritual formation necessary to live out the Christian vision of family life. We should instead begin to take married life – and thus family life - more seriously as a vocation. The newly married couple are in some respects like a novice in a monastic community: they have entered into a new and very specific kind of community life. Like the novice, the newly married couple will need formation if they are to live this life well and help others, i.e. their children, to live it well. 

Against this backdrop it is perhaps unsurprising that our theological understanding of married life has undergone something of a transformation over the last one hundred years. For both Augustine and Aquinas, the primary good of marriage is the propagation of the human race, which is bound up with our natural desire to live. An explicit link, then, is made by these two theological giants between marriage and the family: marriage is for a family. The good of friendship, for example between husband and wife, or the fulfillment of both partners through living a married life well, are very much second order goods in their understanding. The Council of Trent maintained this distinction of primary and secondary ends although, interestingly, the two orders are reversed: where offspring was the primary end of marriage for Aquinas, Trent makes it a secondary reason to marry. Trent instead proposes what Aquinas considered the secondary goods of friendship, and fidelity, and growth in virtue and so on as the first reason for a person to marry. In the twentieth century this trend toward considering marriage as a good in itself developed even further: Vatican II, for example, did not particularly emphasize the instrumental goodness of marriage but rather chose to underline the intrinsic goodness of the married couple and family as a life-long community. Gaudium et Spes is keen to emphasise that the married couple and the family are a “community of love” (GS 48). The fruitfulness of marriage, then, is seen as the fulfillment of conjugal love (see GS 51) In this way the council hopes to present the family as continuous with marriage which of course has particular significance when we remember that marriage is a sacrament. 

The Holy Family in Nazareth
The sacramental bond between husband and wife conforms their relationship into a symbol or sign of Christ’s love for his Church. The normal characteristics of natural conjugal love therefore take on a new significance which purifies them, strengthens them, and elevates them into an expression of specifically Christian values (Familiaris Consortio 13). This makes marriage, according to John Paul II, the ‘natural setting in which the human person is introduced into the great family of the Church’ (FC 14). Married life, in this view, becomes a co-operation with God in creating persons: it is a sacred share in the divinely assigned mission to raise children for God. The family must therefore be a kind of school of love, that is to say a school of humanity through which the child can reach the fullness of life and love and live as a true friend of God and neighbour. 

This is indeed an inspiring vision, but at this point we must ask an embarrassing question: if the Holy Spirit works so profoundly through the sacrament of marriage and sanctifies the whole of family life, why is it that the Christian divorce rate, for example, is the same for Christians as society as a whole? Why is it that Christian families are often places of oppression and abuse? Or to borrow John Haldane’s comment in the Catholic herald: Why doesn’t the grace of God bear fruit in our lives? The simple answer, of course, is that we can resist grace and we do resist grace whenever (to varying extents) we reject God and (again to varying extents) worship instead what is not God. John Paul II’s reflections on marriage and family dwell extensively on Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve decided to put knowledge of good and evil ahead of the worship of God. Family life, both Christian and non-Christian, still bear the scars of this fall. The family, as Robert Ombres OP puts it, is ‘eroded from within’ when the common unity of the family is found in something other than God, something other than love.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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