The Gospel of the Family

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In his three years as pope, Pope Benedict XVI has spoken often and profoundly of the centrality of marriage and family in the life and mission of the Church. What he has taught thus far shows a clear continuity with Pope John Paul II’s rich development of the Church’s understanding. At the same time, though, Benedict has brought his own insights and concerns regarding marriage and family as they relate to the Church and the world today.

The Question of Relativism Back to Top

To begin, it is helpful to place Benedict’s thoughts on marriage and family within some of the broader themes of his pontificate. One of these is the problem of “relativism” in modern Western culture, a concern that had figured prominently in Benedict’s pre-papal writings. By relativism, the pope is referring to the tendency to reject fundamental truths about reality, such as those concerning the meaning of human life and its destiny. Likewise, relativism rejects transcendent moral truth that is not merely a product of social, psychological or biological factors.

Clearly, relativism runs contrary to Catholic belief, which insists that we can discover the truth about reality, human life and its destiny. But Benedict has highlighted a particular effect of relativism: its tendency to isolate the individual within himself. Since relativism regards underlying truth as uncertain and finally unattainable, Benedict has often noted that it proposes “the self with its desires” as the “ultimate criterion” for human life. The implication, then, is that every desire is legitimate. Of course, Benedict is not saying that human desires are wrong or unimportant. Rather, he is only insisting that they must be rooted in truth if they are to be worthy of the human person.

Considered in this light, it is clear why the question of relativism has been such a persistent theme in Benedict’s discussion of marriage and family. Just as individual marriages and families cannot last long if they are based on individual desires detached from truth and love, neither can marriage and family as social and cultural realities survive. The effect of relativism on marriage and family, therefore, has been a decrease in their stability and social significance, as manifested by developments such as no-fault divorce, the widespread acceptance and use of contraceptives, the increasing acceptance of extra-marital sexual relations and childbirth, and the increasing legal and social support for “gay marriage.” Thus, at the 2006 World Meeting of Families, in Valencia, Spain, the pope spoke of the “centrifugal forces” pulling marriage and family away from their core meaning and stabilizing truth.

As Benedict argued last year, such circumstances reduce marriage and family to “a mere social formalization of emotional ties.” The result, then, is that human love can only find expression in structurally unstable relationships, which are ultimately fleeting and self-seeking.

In the face of these challenges, Benedict has repeatedly referred to what he has called the “truth about marriage and the family” or, indeed, the “Gospel of the family.” “It is only the rock of total, irrevocable love between a man and a woman,” he argued in a 2006 address, “that can serve as the foundation on which to build a society that will become a home for all mankind.” The pope has emphasized two crucial aspects of marriage and family which, he says, finally “converge.”

The Experience of Love Back to Top

There is first of all the question of universal human experience. Marriage and family are realities known from the beginning by every culture and every religion. They represent a universal truth of the person, intelligible to Christians and non-Christians alike. This is because, as John Paul II had emphasized, marriage and family are “rooted in the inmost nucleus of the truth about man and his destiny.”

Marriage and family are therefore inseparable from being human — which in itself entails the personally formative experience of being either male or female, of being a child or a parent, and so forth. This experience also reveals that we are called to love.

Since the family is so closely related to the “essential core of the human being,” it is also closely related to fundamental and unavoidable questions of human life: “Who am I? What is a human being?” As Benedict pointed out in a 2005 address, these questions naturally lead to further questions: “Does God exist? Who is God?”

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), Benedict speaks of the many kinds of love we experience: love of our work and activities, of our social life, even of friends. However, he points out that the love of man and woman seems intuitively to be the paradigmatic case of human love. Indeed, the encyclical begins by telling us that the foundation of human love, its “epitome” (imago perfecta), is the man-woman relationship, which seeks happiness in marriage. The love between man and woman would therefore seem to constitute a starting point for any understanding of human love. It is precisely this exemplary type of human love that gives rise to children and the family as a whole. Marital love is therefore also the beginning and support of the other characteristic familial loves.

A fundamental problem with relativism, then, is that it undermines our basic and universal call to love. As the pope explained in Valencia, relativism tends to reduce love to a merely “subjective and ephemeral” desire for individual pleasure. The result is an exaltation of sexuality, severed from its authentic religious and human significance in the exclusive and permanent bond of marriage.

Convergence with Revelation Back to Top

These inescapable human experiences “converge” with the second aspect of Benedict’s teaching on marriage and family: the participation in God’s covenant as revealed in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the person of Christ. As we have seen, the human person, by his or her very nature, is drawn to love. This call is first made apparent by the experience of marriage and the family. But this experience itself opens up to, and indeed participates in, God’s disclosure of himself as love. As Benedict said during a 2006 address at St. Peter’s Basilica, the family is “God’s first and ordinary means of the encounter with humanity.” In Valencia, he stated even more profoundly that “each generation, all parenthood and every family has its origin in God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

A first sign of this, Benedict said, is that God chose to become man in the heart of a family, accepting Mary as his mother and Joseph as his adoptive father. In doing so, he also became part of the larger human family. Thus, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin by tracing Jesus’ human lineage (Mt 1:1-17, Lk 3:23-38).

Scripture and tradition consistently use spousal and familial analogies to describe basic relationships, both within God himself — Jesus is the only begotten Son of God — and in God’s salvation of the world. Thus, Benedict writes, the “exclusive and definitive love” between husband and wife “becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa” (Deus Caritas Est, 11). For example, Scripture and tradition repeatedly refer to Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as his bride; to the “wedding” of divine and human nature in the Incarnation of Christ in the womb of Mary; to the men and women of the Church as sons and daughters of God and so forth. In other words, God’s disclosure of himself in revelation suggests that the most apt way of understanding what it means to speak of God’s love and the vocation of humanity itself is to compare it to spousal and familial love, which is built into the embodied nature of every man and every woman. The “truth about marriage and the family,” Benedict said in 2005, “has been actuated in the history of salvation, at whose heart lie the words: ‘God loves his people.’”

A 'Love Story' Back to Top

Antecedents for this focus lie in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s writings. Cardinal Ratzinger extensively discussed the biblical concept of God’s covenant with his people and its fulfillment in Christ. This covenantal relationship begins with Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. Among others, there are also important covenants with Abraham and Moses, the latter of these taking a specifically legal form. The covenant between God and his people then takes a turn toward a spousal analogy, which develops in the writings of the prophets.

But how, Cardinal Ratzinger asked in a 1995 article, does the spousal language of the prophets change our understanding of what God’s covenant with his people means, indeed what the law means? Once this covenant is characterized in terms of a marriage, Israel’s repeated infidelity can be described as a kind of adultery. Certainly, according to a reductively legalistic interpretation of the covenant, Israel deserved to be cast off as a faithless spouse. Instead, God repeatedly forgives his bride. This, in fact, is the heart of the law as it gradually comes to be understood.

Cardinal Ratzinger argued the Old Testament shift toward spousal imagery means that the history of God’s relationship with his people becomes a kind of “love story.” But this spousal sense of God’s covenant with his people is brought to its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Indeed, if we think of a marital covenant as the truest way to describe this covenant between God and man, then its center is the union of divine and human natures in the person of Christ, when the Son became flesh. By receiving his body and blood in the Eucharist, we are therefore drawn into this marital and familial covenant, becoming united with the bridegroom, Christ.

The reality of flesh and blood in the Eucharist is therefore the reality of God’s covenant with man brought to its deepest implications. It is the greatest truth of the human person, and it is the source of the “Gospel of the family.” As Benedict tells us, it is here that we find the convergence of human love, most visibly reflected in the marital and familial relationships, with “love in its most radical form” — that is to say, the love of God who would sacrifice his only begotten Son for the sake of the Bride-Church, and of the sons and daughters who are her members (see Deus Caritas Est, 12).

David S. Crawford is an assistant professor of moral theology and family law at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.

(Photo courtesy L'Osservatore Romano)