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Familiaris Consortio

- on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World

by Helen Hull Hitchcock (Nov 1, 2001)

"As the family goes, so goes the nation, so goes the world in which we live."

These words of Pope John Paul II spoken during a visit to Australia more than a decade ago are truly prophetic. They proclaim the central importance of the family in providing the essential moral, religious and cultural framework on which any society is built; and they contain also an implicit warning about what will happen to the nation and the world if we do not take care to make it possible for families to form and to function as the fundamental element in the construction of a just social order.

So important is the family to society and to the Church that, as cultural factors have systematically undermined families during the past few decades - so dramatic and widespread were the effects of the family's rather sudden decline -- that in 1980 the Catholic Church convened a world Synod on the Family. From this synod came two documents specifically intended to give guidance and encouragement to families and to all concerned with the welfare of the family.

The first of these documents was the apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, published in November 1981; the second was the Charter of the Rights of the Family, promulgated by the Holy See in 1983. A third development of this Synod of the world's bishops was the creation of the Pontifical Council on the Family, an agency of the Holy See intended to oversee and encourage efforts to strengthen families everywhere.

Despite the singular importance that the Holy Father attaches to resolving problems currently afflicting families all over the world, these two major documents have been seriously underutilized by the national churches. Most Catholic families are probably barely aware (if at all) that they exist; and it is probably safe to say that only a tiny percentage of those of us to whom these efforts to provide guidance, support and encouragement were directed have actually read them.

This is most regrettable. This month we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Familiaris Consortio. But in those twenty years, the assault against the family has not abated. If anything, the situation is worse than ever. It is deeply ironic that many of the so-called "pro-family" agencies which have sprung up recently to address family problems, as well as much of the "family" legislation during this decade have not only not helped to repair and restore families, but have actually contributed to their further erosion. In many ways both the family as an institution and individual families have suffered more from the social tinkering supposedly intended to help than from neglect. Even worse, some of the most serious problems are caused by divisions within the Church a situation that Pope John Paul II spoke of this week (October 21) at the close of the Synod on the role of bishops.

It is more urgent now than ever that Catholics heed these prophetic words of the Holy Father, and his similar statement in Familiaris Consortio that "The future of humanity passes by way of the family."

Highlights of Familiaris Consortio

In my talk today I would like to focus on some highlights of Familiaris Consortio, which the Pope wrote expecting that all Catholics, not just theologians or bishops or professional Church workers, would find in it a source of pastoral guidance and orientation, as well as inspiration and encouragement.

Familiaris Consortio explicitly identifies the family as both the "first and vital cell of society" and as the cradle of faith.


The Pope calls the family "an intimate community of life and love" formed through the sacramental relationship between a man and woman in mutual self-giving and receptivity. It is the sacrament of marriage that gives us both the grace and the obligation to form the family as a "community of life and love."

The Holy Father says that the family finds in the plan of God both what it is (a "community of life and love") and what it should do (expend its effort to become this "community of life and love.") Its identity and its mission are inseparable, he says. Its power to achieve its mission is grounded in and sustained by the sacrament of marriage which makes possible an "indivisible unity" between a man and a woman, and orients the two individual persons towards the fruitful realization of this unity in love through the bearing and nurture of children.

In the words of the Pope,


The document outlines "four general tasks for the family: 1) forming a community of persons; 2) serving life; 3) participating in the development of society; and 4) sharing in the life and mission of the Church. [pp 31, 32] Through the efforts to accomplish these tasks, the family becomes what it is. The role of the family in society is to establish these "communities of love", without which a just social order is impossible. Its role in the Church is to nurture faithfulness and loving unity with each other and with God in each its members. The two roles cannot be separated from one another.

Family as nurturing ground of faith

It is principally through the education of children that the family equips its members to withstand the continual onslaught against it by a culture which distorts the meaning of what it is to be human, of what it is to be a man or a woman, of the very value of human life.

Abortion and euthanasia, divorce and abandonment, child and spouse abuse, pornography, alcohol and drug abuse, violence of all kinds, teen-age pregnancy, rampant promiscuity, sexual aberrations and diseases all these social ills which plague our society can be traced to this profound confusion about the meaning of human life and human sexuality, of what it means to be human beings in relation to each other and in relation to God.

Traditional moral norms have been undermined by the very institutions which have provided continuity and protection in the past including schools and churches. Schools (including religious schools), which in earlier times helped parents to transmit not only information on academic subjects, but also social values and moral and ethical principles, now often work against parents instead of supporting them.

Churches, with were for most people a reliable source of guidance not only for religious belief and doctrines, but for inculcating moral and ethical principles and protecting the expected `norm' for responsible behavior towards others, have frequently capitulated to the "progressive" impulse which regards such norms and traditional principles of human conduct as "oppressive" leftovers from a "patriarchal" age, and often active promote attitudes which are actually destructive under the name of "progress" and "justice."

In addition to the lack of support from its former allies, families are further weakened by internal confusion and indecision. Parents increasingly lack confidence in themselves to exercise their responsibility in the formation and education of their own children. They have come to rely heavily on "experts" psychologists, educational theorists and other professionals who are constantly telling mothers and fathers how they may damage their children in various ways by transmitting onto their offspring their own "rigid" beliefs and "outmoded" attitudes.

Undermined from all sides, confused about what they should be doing and weakened further by their own indecision and the "natural" resistance of their children, too many parents have withdrawn from any sustained attempt to take an active role in the moral formation of their children.

Parents have been taught to avoid "interfering with the natural development" of their children and of "imposing guilt-inducing morality" on them.

For this reason the Pope emphasizes the "primary responsibility" of parents in the education of their children. He does not hesitate, either, to say that exercising this responsibility will involve difficulties and personal sacrifice. But he also offers fathers and mothers the support they need for their difficult "primary" task by assuring them that this is, in fact, their vocation and their mission. Their responsibility is also their right.


The Pope amplifies his point about the basic right and responsibility of parents to educate their children by emphasizing that parental love is the "basic element," the


Grounded and animated by love and given to parents as a `ministry' or `vocation' by the sacrament of marriage, then, the Holy Father outlines the parents' task in education as involving two principal areas: 1) educating in the essential values of human life; 2) introducing children to their "first experience of the Church."[p 60 ff] These two areas, moral education and religious education, are closely related. In the first category, the Pope explains,



"Education in love as self-giving" calls parents to



The school is bound to observe the principle of subsidiarity with regard to parents when it cooperates with parents in sex education (which should include "education for chastity.") Thus the Church is "firmly opposed" to "imparting sex information dissociated from moral principles."

In the second category -- religious formation the Pope stresses the link between moral and religious education when he says:


The Holy Father quotes the Second Vatican council, which described the content of Christian education:


The Pope calls parents "the first heralds of the Gospel for their children" through their ministry of educating them. By this instruction, by praying with their children, by introducing them to the liturgy of the Church, parents "become fully parents, in that they are begetting not only of bodily life but also of the life that through the Spirit's renewal flows from the Cross and Resurrection of Christ." [p 64]

And to help Christian parents in assuming this task by which families share in the priestly [sacrifice, self-giving] and prophetic [teaching] mission of Christ and the Church, the Holy Father expresses the hope of the Synod Fathers that


{Nearly 14 years after these words were written, the Catechism of the Catholic Church appeared for the first time in English. ({It has not yet appeared in Japanese, two decades later.}) But despite the CCC, a great gift of John Paul II to the universal Church, too many "approved" texts used in our Catholic schools to young Catholics the truth of the Catholic faith are seriously defective -- a fact acknowledged by bishops themselves.)

It is through education in the true faith of Christ in which the message of love as self-giving subsists, families can extend this love beyond their own homes to other people and thus respond with "spiritual fecundity" and genuine compassion to all those in need. The family members' commitment to Christ provides the "inner dynamism" which manifests itself in service to life; and this service is also their witness to the world outside of "the faith that is in them."

Sharing the life and mission of the Church

In the section Sharing the life and mission of the Church Pope examines the link between the Christian family and the Church and says that families not only receive the love of Christ, but become a principal means of communicating Christ's love to the world. The family as a community of persons is not only saved, but becomes itself a saving community. Thus the family is a "domestic Church" Ecclesia domestica a "living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church." [p 74] It is sign, symbol, witness and participant of the Church's `motherhood.' Through the human experience of conjugal love and love between parents and children "lived in the Spirit of Christ," we discover the plan of God and learn "the obedience of faith." For this reason, the Holy Father says, "the little domestic Church, like the greater Church, needs to be constantly and intensely evangelized: hence its duty regarding permanent education in the faith." [p 79]

On the Christian family's ministry of evangelization, the letter quotes Pope Paul VI:


And from Pope John Paul II's 1979 exhortation, Catechesi tradendae we learn,


The Pope emphasizes the family's ecclesial service, or service to the Church. He calls the parents' ministry of evangelization "original and irreplaceable" He describes the authentically Christian family as "the primary and most excellent seedbed of vocations to a life of consecration to the Kingdom of God." Even challenges presented by adolescent and young adult children who may reject the faith should not deter parents from their evangelical responsibility, says the Pope:


In fact, the Holy Father emphasizes that this "catechesis of the Church of the home" is a genuine ecclesial ministry, in that it "is rooted in and derives from the one mission of the Church and is ordained to the upbuilding of the one Body of Christ." [p 81]

The Christian family participates in the priestly role of Christ and His Church in and through sacramental communion with the whole Church. The sacraments baptism and marriage in particular are sources of power and nourishment by which the family is both called to holiness and brings holiness into the Church and to the world. But also prayer private prayer and liturgical prayer is a vital and necessary part of the family's path towards holiness.

In imitation of Christ's prophetic role, parents have the specific responsibility to teach -- beginning with teaching their children to pray, both by example and by direct instruction, the letter says. This instruction in prayer includes preparation of children to receive the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation as well as teaching them the traditional prayers of the Church.

The Holy Father suggests that it is not enough to send our children to classes for instruction. What children hear from parents and what they see us doing will make an indelible imprint on their lives which, in the Pope's words, "will leave an impression that the future events in their lives will not be able to efface." Thus our "concrete example" and "living witness" is "fundamental and irreplaceable" in teaching our children to pray. He gives specific examples of prayers children should be taught, in addition to liturgical prayers and morning and evening prayers and mealtime grace: they include devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, popular devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary and, especially, the Rosary. [p 87-91]

Prayer is urgent, the Pope makes clear, for the family's exercise of its responsibilities:


Finally, the Pope invokes the protection of the Holy Family, the prototype and example for all Christian families who strive to become the "community of life and love" which is our essential vocation, our purpose and our mission.

What the Holy Father is saying in this key apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world is that to build the Body of Christ, it is necessary to start with the foundation we can only build from the ground up, not from the top down. The `foundation stones' are Christian families, formed by the grace of God and in the obedience of faith into solid `communities of life and love.' If these foundation stones are threatened, if they are weakened or collapse, the whole state of Christ's Church on earth will be damaged, and the entire social order is endangered.

From the many thousands of letters we have received , it is clear that a principal concern of Catholic women (and men, too) is the faith of their families. They express a deep desire to transmit the Catholic faith to their children, and they are urgently asking for help to do it help which, sad to say, cannot always be expected from local Church sources. They need encouragement and guidance of bishops and other Church leaders such as that provided by papal writings like Familiaris Consortio and the recent Letter to Families. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church is a great blessing and gift intended to help parents with this task. Every family also needs the support of other Catholic families the fellowship which strengthens, and the benefit of the experiences and ideas of others who share their vocation and mission.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we see that our society shows signs of imminent collapse not only of social institutions and public structures, but within the private lives of individuals.

The "Judeo-Christian" moral foundation of our culture is being progressively eroded by hedonism and self-indulgence, by refusal to make commitments to and sacrifices for others, by indifference and even hostility to religious faith and principles -- and by indifference and hostility to life itself.

It is dramatically clear that our world is from becoming a "community life and love" -- a community which nurtures and sustains and saves human lives. Instead, we are becoming what the Pope has called a "culture of death"; we are confronted daily, in our seriously damaged culture, by radical isolation, by the anguish of loneliness and grief, by violence and disease, destruction and death.

The fundamental and necessary role of the family in building a community of life and love has never been more clear, yet the very concept of `family' is being systematically attacked all around us. The United Nations Conference on Population in Cairo held in 1994, and on Women in Beijing -- and the subsequent international meetings -- have shown that even our own nation's leaders advocate coercive "population control", ironically, in the name of "freedom." (Some courageous bishops have spoken out movingly against this.)

The Pope was so concerned about the Cairo Conference in 1994 that he has asked all Catholics to pray daily to St. Michael the Archangel. We are still praying this prayer -- and urge all Catholics to join together in praying it. This along with the Rosary and Eucharistic Adoration is something we can all do right now -- and I am convinced that we must.

"As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the world in which we live." With these words, the Holy Father has focused on the Cradle of Faith, the Domestic Church. In the midst of the present crisis, many Catholics -- parents, teachers, priests and religious -- have come to realize that the Truth embodied in the Catholic Church -- the liberating Truth of Christ, which is also a "sign of Contradition" to the world -- is truly the world's only hope of freedom and peace. And this truth will be transmitted, first of all, by mothers and fathers to their children.

"The future of humanity passes by way of the family." Especially during this time of crisis in our country and in the world, every Catholic must realize with renewed dedication that it is precisely our vocation and our responsibility to help shape that future -- which is the future of the entire world. We must using every resource available to us every spiritual and intellectual gift we possess. This is our share in Christ's mission to the world. Truly, the family is the Cradle of Faith, the "domestic church", where life and love begin.

As the Holy Father says at the end of his great encyclical on the Church's moral teaching, Veritatis Splendor, "No absolution offered by beguiling doctrines, even in the areas of philosophy and theology, can make man truly happy: only the Cross and the glory of the Risen Christ can grant peace to his conscience and salvation to his life."

He closes that encyclical -- and we will close our reflections here -- with this prayer to Mary, the Mother of the whole Church:

"O Mary, Mother of Mercy,

watch over all people that the Cross of Christ

may not be emptied of its power,

that man may not stray from the path of the good,

or become blind to sin,

but may put his hope ever more fully in God

who is 'rich in mercy'.

May he carry out the good works

prepared by God beforehand, and so live completely

'for the praise of His glory'".

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