Marriage and the Family

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"God created man in his own image and likeness: calling him to existence through love, he called him at the same time for love" (Familiaris consortio, 11).

There are two main vocations to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy.  The vocation to marriage is a vocation to a specific kind of human love (conjugal love), blessed by God and instituted by him at the creation of the world.  In the first two chapters of Genesis we read about the creation of the world and the institution of married life.

In the above quote, the Pope refers to the words of Genesis 1:27 telling us that God made man and woman in his own image.  This means that they are different from everything else in the world that God had created until then.  They have an intellect and free will as God has.  They are persons, a man and a woman, equal in dignity - "male and female he created them".  God is love, and since they were made in his image they were made to love God and each other.  The words of Genesis continue, "God blessed them".  Thus they formed the first community of love, an image of the Trinity, which is the divine community of love.

Then God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth . . ." (Gen 1:28).  This tells us that God meant this community of love, which is marriage, to bear fruit.  He gave them a share in his act of creation.  The fruit of marriage is children.  This is its first purpose.  God intended that through the loving union of man and woman in marriage, children be brought forth.  They are its crowning glory.

In the second chapter of Genesis we read more about the vocation of marriage:

The Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him" . . . and a rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. . ."  Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen 2:18, 22-24).

Here God reveals to us that marriage, which by its nature is a union of love, has as a second purpose mutual love and support of the husband and wife.  The man and woman united in marriage are to support one another in life.  They are to help one another in their tasks on earth - primarily raising their children.  Through marriage they become one and are no longer simply individuals.  They are called to sacrifice some of their individual freedom for the sake of a greater good - the new family they have formed.

We also learn from the above quote that the man and woman shall become one flesh - that is, the union in marriage is one of body as well as of soul.  There is a total giving, under God, of the whole person to the other.  There can be no total conjugal self-giving apart from marriage.  Total self-giving means giving of oneself, until death, exclusively to one person.  You enter freely and consciously into marriage.  You make a public promise in front of witnesses which, once made, you are no longer free to take back.  You even give up the right to decide otherwise in the future.  Total giving of self also means accepting all the consequences, which includes openness to the gift of life.

Since bodily union is an expression of the total self-giving of two persons, it is a lie if it takes place between two unmarried persons.  If your body expresses, "I am yours for ever", but your mind knows that is not true, then you are lying.  That is why sex outside of marriage is a lie.  It is also, of course, fornication or adultery.

The Sacrament of Marriage

The married state has been blessed by Our Lord, as well.  At the beginning of his public life, Our Lord attended a wedding feast where he worked his first miracle (Jn 2:1-11).  By his presence at this wedding, Christ blessed the vocation of marriage.  He also raised marriage above the natural level to the dignity of a sacrament.  Thus, the baptized man and woman who unite themselves in marriage receive from Christ the graces that they need to live this life.  These are special graces to help them overcome obstacles, bear their crosses, and become better spouses and parents.

For the Christian the natural end, or purposes, of marriage are raised to a supernatural level.  The bearing and raising of children are not simply for life here on earth.  Christian parents raise children that they may eventually be united forever with God in Heaven.  Similarly, the Christian husband and wife not only support one another in mutual love but, even more importantly, must help one another to know, love, and serve God so that they may reach Heaven.  This is called the mutual sanctification of the spouses.

Christ also emphasized the indissoluble nature of marriage.  He taught us that the union of husband and wife is a lifelong union, which ends only with death.  On one occasion, when Our Lord was questioned by the Pharisees about divorce, he quoted the passage from the second chapter of Genesis and then said: What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder. . . I say to you, whoever divorces his wife. . . and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Mt 19:6,9).

Thus did Our Lord make clear that marriage must be a permanent state on earth.  He himself taught this on his authority as Son of God, for even in the Gospels we see that his contemporaries accepted divorce.  Because the indissolubility of marriage is often rejected in today's world as well, the Christian must be an example and witness to the world.

The New Testament also teaches us about the supernatural element of marriage.  In his letter to the Christian community in Ephesus, St. Paul reminds us of the mutual obligation of husbands and wives to love one another: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church. . . and let the wife see that she respects her husband" (Eph 5:25, 33).  Thus, we are to love one another with Christ himself as our model.

The Family

In marriage, the husband and wife unite to form a new community - the family.  The family is the basic unit of society.  It is in the family that new human beings are brought into the world.  It is here that we first learn how to live in society.  And it is in the family that children are first taught and prepared for their place in the Church and in society.  There are then obligations for both parents and children in the family.

In addition to helping one another to serve God and neighbor and thus reach Heaven, the state of marriage places other obligations and responsibilities on the husband and wife in their roles as parents.  The first obligation is that they must be open to the gift of life.  This means that they must accept children as coming from God and destined for God.  While it is true that not all marriages will be blessed with children, this openness to children must always be present.  In such childless marriages the couple can glorify God through their union of love and their mutual sanctification.  They are called to be spiritually fruitful through works of mercy such as, adoption or foster care of children.

The second obligation of parents is to care for those children whom God has given them.  The basic needs of life must be met first.  Satisfying physical needs, however, is not sufficient for preparing children for the world or for eternal life.

The third obligation of parents is to educate and form their children so that they will be able to lead good and useful lives on earth and, finally, to attain salvation in Heaven.  Naturally, parents must see to the basic instruction of their children - reading, mathematics, and the like.  More importantly, parents are responsible for their moral and religious education.  They must care for the spiritual needs of their children - not simply their physical needs.  One of the first duties of Christian parents, for example, is to have their children baptized.

Since moral, religious, and intellectual education begin very early in life, parents are the first teachers of their children, by both word and example.  They are also the primary educators of their children.  This means that the obligation for educating their children belongs first to the parents.  Even though most parents eventually delegate their role of educator to the school, they should not abandon their role as the primary educators.  Parents must continue to teach their children and help to form their moral characters.

Filial Piety

Children also have obligations and duties within the family, and must develop the virtue known as filial piety.  This is the virtue of giving honor and respect to our parents, who are immediately responsible for our existence and well-being.  Like the virtue of religion, filial piety is a part of justice and is an acknowledgement of the debt that we owe to our parents.

Filial piety requires us to obey our parents since they have been given authority from God to raise us.  In this we can model ourselves on Jesus, who was obedient to Mary and Joseph.  "And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them" (Lk 2:51).  This obligation is proper to us until we reach adulthood and are responsible for our own lives.

Filial piety, however, does not end with our maturity.  We are still obliged to honor and respect our parents.  We must recognize the great work they have undertaken with God and should show them esteem and gratitude.  That is what the Fourth Commandment is all about. 

Finally, filial piety requires us to care for our parents in their old age or infirmity.  The Word of God in the book of Sirach reminds us of this duty: "O son, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives" (Sir 3:12).  Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity (Ps 133:1).

Children also have the duty within the family to love and respect their brothers and sisters.  This charity should be offered to everyone, but since we share a more intimate bond with the members of our family, it is even more important there.  Often this is difficult to achieve, but we must each work to make our homes centers of Christian charity and unity.

Finally, children also have an obligation to respect the authority belonging to those who teach them.  Since parents may delegate some of their authority to the school, just as they respect, honor, and obey their parents, children must respect, honor, and obey those who teach them.  We recognize this special role of the school as taking the place of our parents temporarily when we call the school our alma mater, which means "loving or nourishing mother".  Truly we are nourished by the school as we are nourished by our parents.

In addition to this, as children grow older, they must take upon themselves more and more responsibility for their education.  This is particularly important in our religious education.  Often people study their faith during their youth, are confirmed, and then do not pay any further attention to their religious development.  Our knowledge of our faith does not end with our Confirmation.  Rather, we must, as adults in the Church, take charge of our religious development and continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God.

  Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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