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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 3 Michaelmas 2004
Celebrating 20 Years - 1984-2004

Familiaris Consortio provides foundation for formation
Families: The Future of Humanity

by Margaret M. Whitehead

The family is the focus of the eighth and final statement of Women for Faith & Family's Affirmation for Catholic Women: in particular this paragraph refers to Familiaris Consortio, the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II, and reads as follows:

We pledge our wholehearted support to Pope John Paul II. We adhere to his apostolic teaching concerning all aspects of family life and roles for men and women in the Church and in society, especially as contained in the Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio; and we resolve to apply the principles contained therein to our own lives, our families and our communities, God being our aid.

In 1984, just three years after Pope John Paul II issued his Apostolic Exhortation on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, Familiaris Consortio, Helen Hitchcock and the other remarkable women who worked with her to start Women for Faith & Family saw this document as a vital aid to the evangelizing work that they were undertaking.

Pope John Paul II and the 1980 Synod of Bishops understood that the family was in a state of crisis and confusion in many modern cultures; and the Church leaders therefore saw it as part of their mission to reach out to the Church, and to the world, with an authentic message about the meaning and reality of what marriage and family were -- so that a true renewal of these essential social entities could begin:

Knowing that marriage and the family constitute one of the most precious of human values, the Church wishes to speak and offer her help to those who are already aware of the value of marriage and the family and seek to live it faithfully, to those who are uncertain and anxious and searching for the truth, and to those who are unjustly impeded from living freely their family lives. Supporting the first, illuminating the second and assisting the others, the Church offers her services to every person who wonders about the destiny of marriage and the family.

In a particular way, the Church addresses the young, who are beginning their journey toward marriage and family life, for the purpose of presenting them with new horizons, helping them to discover the beauty and grandeur of the vocation to love and the service of life.1

The crisis and confusion in marriage and family life, which were so evident in 1984, have deepened and spread to an extent not even imaginable twenty years ago. The fact that marriage has an identity -- that it is something given, namely, a union between a man and a women for the purpose of forming a community of love and life, a family -- is challenged on every front. That this marriage-family union is essential to society and, indeed, forms the basic cell of society, has virtually disappeared from the public arena. And the role of the family, which provides for the loving and stable care and formation of children -- the future of society -- is in grave danger of disappearing from our legal and political system as well.

Some of the signs of a "disturbing degradation of some fundamental values" listed in the papal document are:

...a mistaken theoretical and practical concept of the independence of the spouses in relation to each other; serious misconceptions regarding the relationship of authority between parents and children; the concrete difficulties that the family itself experiences in the transmission of values; the growing number of divorces; the scourge of abortion; the ever more frequent recourse to sterilization; the appearance of a truly contraceptive mentality.2

Today, we could add many other new and "disturbing degradations of fundamental values", such as homosexual attempts at marriage, in-vitro fertilization fertility treatments, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research. We would not have to change the pope's description of what is at the root of all these disturbing trends, however:

At the root of these negative phenomena there frequently lies a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God's plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one's own selfish well-being.3

Even within the Church, the teaching of Familiaris Consortio is not widely known, taught, understood, or lived. Toxins in the culture have affected many within the Church, including many of our pastoral leaders who do not utilize the teaching tools provided by our faith. This papal document in particular is ignored. Throughout Familiaris Consortio, the Holy Father calls upon the bishops and priests to be involved in building up families and helping people to form good marriages; but the response over the last twenty years has not yet been sufficient to overcome the ignorance and confusion that abounds among the faithful.

What to do? Wring our hands and give up? Or start responding to the Good News about redemptive grace, love, life, and the true dignity of the human person? The source of this Good News is readily available to us -- in Scripture and in magisterial teachings of the Church, in the millennial witness of saints and holy people, and in the Sacraments of the Church. Prayer, along with reading and studying Familiaris Consortio itself, are good ways to begin to deal with the many social and moral problems affecting marriages and families today: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free". (Jn 8:32)

Because Familiaris Consortio provides such a thorough and important presentation of needed truths, WFF is working on a study guide to Familiaris Consortio that can be used individually, within families and/or by groups. In the sidebar, you will also find some recommendations for materials that you can use to study other documents of the Church, and to learn how to teach the truth and meaning of vocations, virtue, sexuality, marriage, and family life.

Familiaris Consortio's Introduction gives the overall framework for the document. The Introduction is followed by four sections. Part I (Sections 4-10) describes the situation of the family today -- the good and the bad -- and calls for a true understanding of human dignity and conversion of heart in order to deal with the problems everybody encounters. Mention is made of the negative effects of the media and of today's technological developments, which do not place a high value on "the ultimate meaning of life and its fundamental values", but rather work against the authentic "advancement of the human person". Too often the human person is seen more as a lab animal to be used rather than as a person who must be respected and loved. Wisdom, not just knowledge, is needed: "For the future of the world stands in peril unless wiser people are forthcoming".4

Part II (Sections 11-16) deals with God's plan for marriage and the family. It starts with the creation of man in the image of God through and for love. The fundamental vocation of the human person is to love; and, since man has a body and a soul, and he is called to a love that includes both body and soul, "the body is made a sharer in spiritual love". The Church recognizes two ways to live the vocation to love: marriage, and virginity or celibacy. Each vocation is meant to be "an actuation of the most profound truth of man, of his being 'created in the image of God'". Vocations to virginity or celibacy forsake the goods of marriage in order to witness to the supernatural dimensions of life and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Most of Part II is devoted to explaining God's plan for marriage, a freely-chosen, covenantal love, which involves physical and personal self-giving, and is open to the generation of new human beings: "Their bond of love becomes the image and symbol of the covenant which unites God and His people ... the ever faithful love of God is put forward as the model of the relations of faithful love which should exist between spouses".5 God's covenantal love for His people is fulfilled in Jesus Christ through His Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, and in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit: "The Spirit which the Lord pours forth gives a new heart, and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ has loved us".6

Through the sacraments of Baptism and Marriage, spouses are bound to each other as they share in the covenantal love of Christ for His Church and receive the graces of redemption. Since love is essentially a gift of self, marital love must be open to the reality of children, to passing on the gift of life. The graces of marriage make it possible for the spouses to handle the demands of family life and to give each other and their children "a love which forgives and redeems". Through the sacraments and the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, the family becomes a communion of persons that is part of the Church and is the "natural setting in which the human person is introduced into the great family of the Church".

The Role of the Christian Family
Part III constitutes the longest section of Familiaris Consortio, and it is the heart of the document. It is entitled "The Role of the Christian Family". The family "has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God's love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride".7

The family is a community of life and love that has four basic tasks: to form a community of persons; to serve life; to participate in the development of society; to share in the life and mission of the Church. This section also deals with the roles of women, men, children and the elderly within the family.

Throughout this whole section -- and in the entire document for that matter -- the theme of self-giving love, which operates on the natural level and the supernatural level, underlies everything. The vocation to marriage is always a personal call by God, and requires a personal response; but it is also always prophetic, that is, it asks us to give glory to God by our sacrificial and faithful witness to our call. This is never easy, and, in our times, many couples have been affected by the anti-life mentality around us, by the acceptance of divorce, and by the cultural incomprehension of the value and necessity of the sacrifice and forgiveness that are needed in all loving relationships.

Familiaris Consortio also stresses over and over again that sacramental graces are given in Marriage. The Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation make it possible for the couple to keep their marriage promises and maintain their families:

This conjugal communion sinks its roots in the natural complementarity that exists between man and women, and is nurtured through the personal willingness of the spouses to share their entire life project ... such communion is the fruit and the sign of a profoundly human need. But in the Lord Christ, God takes up this human need, confirms it, purifies it, and elevates it, leading it to perfection through the sacrament of matrimony...8

Part IV of the document deals with the agents and structures of pastoral care within the Church. It delineates the roles of families, pastors, religious and the ecclesial community in marriage preparation, marriage and family support. It describes ways to deal with difficult or irregular family situations. This section mentions the three stages of marriage preparation: remote, during childhood and within the family; proximate, during young adulthood and including catechetical instruction; and immediate, shortly before marriage as a review and reinforcement of Church teaching.

The Conclusion of Familiaris Consortio consists of a short exhortation and prayer for families:

... the families of today must be called back to their original position. They must follow Christ. Christians also have the mission of proclaiming with joy and conviction the Good News about the family [and] the Good News includes the subject of the Cross. But it is through the Cross that the family can attain the fullness of its being and the perfection of its love.9

Pope John Paul II expressed his hope that we will not only read and study this document but that we will also apply it to our lives. Using the descriptions of the three stages of preparation for marriage, the remote, proximate and the immediate, it is clear that studying Church teaching and documents, such as Familiaris Consortio -- which are concerned with vocations, chastity, marriage, and family -- would be the best way to proceed during the proximate stages of preparation. Young adults need to know and understand this teaching in order to make good marriages.

Teaching the Message of Familiaris Consortio in the Home
The remote stage of preparation is the time most within the control of parents and families and is extremely important in providing the formation and foundation for later decisions. When the child is growing up in his family environment, the parents are the most influential people in his life. I am going to suggest some ways that you can effectively pass on the teaching of Familiaris Consortio about marriage, family, virtues and vocations.

Scripture: Use Scripture stories and readings to teach your child about his creation in the image of God, body and soul; about sin and the fall of man; about the need for redemption and the coming of the Redeemer; about God's love and care for each person; about the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit; about Jesus and His special love for children; about the sacraments and the Church as ways that Jesus gives us Himself and saving grace here and now.

Celebration: Don't just celebrate Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, tell your child what you are celebrating and why. Relate these feasts to the child's life as a special person made in God's image; made to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.

Vocation: Tell the child about his special call from God to holiness and love and the different vocations that God calls people to. Tell your children how important what they do each day is to their whole lives and how much they contribute to the happiness and order of your family life.

Virtues: Give your child opportunities and encouragement to be generous, kind, honest, obedient, chaste, modest, self-disciplined, patient, courteous, and respectful. Self-esteem is not the goal of parenting, but rather showing respect for the child and expecting him to show respect (honor) for you and others. This is a very important goal.

Freedom: Teach your child that freedom is based on truth and responsibility.

Chastity: Teach chastity within the context of the call to holiness and the fundamental vocation to love and self-giving. Always place it within the context of vocation and the permanent commitment of marriage. Teach your child that he is a whole person possessing intellectual, moral, emotional, and physical aspects and is not just a sexual person.

Saints: Tell your children about the Holy Family, about Jesus as a child, about their special saints, about important saints on the yearly calendar. Saints provide examples of how we should try to live.

Family: Pray, work, and play together. Eat meals together. Give each child special roles and work to do for and with the family. Talk about what families do; about how they connect generations, care for one another, help each other to grow in holiness, provide formation and education, and help others. Tell your child his story as part of your family; about how you prepared for him and chose his name; about his special personality traits and gifts; about how he contributes to your family life and community. Make going to Mass and receiving the sacraments a normal part of your life.

Cultural Issues: Limit media exposure and help your children to understand that many programs today do not just provide entertainment but also have an agenda. Teach them to notice the difference between the media understanding of the dignity and value of the human person and God's understanding. Help them to expect and deal with peer pressure. Teach them about the importance of having good friends - friends who are good and who help them to be good.

The overall plan should not be just to have a checklist of things to do. Rather, it is important to keep in mind the natural and supernatural goals for your children and your family as you go about your daily life, and to incorporate these habits and attitudes into your normal family life.

1 Introduction to FC, p. 11.
2 FC, p. 17.
3 FC, p. 17.
4 FC, p.19.
5 FC, p. 24.
6 FC, p. 25.
7 FC, p. 31.
8 FC, p. 33.
9 FC, p. 130.

Church Documents to consult:

Print copies may be ordered from:
USCCB Publishing - 3211 Fourth Street, NE, Washington, DC 20017-1194
Pauline Books & Media - 50 St. Paul's Avenue, Boston, MA 02130-3491

Recommended programs or materials for home or group Use:

Life & Hope, A Catholic Parent's Guide to Human Sexuality. (A four-part video or CD series dealing with The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality).
Contact: Catholic Parents Program,
c/o Sally Wallace - 2740 Alexander Street, Endwell, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 754-1824

Taking A Stand. (A nine-part video series to help and encourage parents to teach chastity to their own children featuring Dr. Thomas Curran and Mary Beth Bonacci).
Contact: Trinity Formation Resources, P.O. Box 24886, Federal Way, WA 98093
Phone: (888)765-9269 Web:

Formation in Christian Love -- Building Character through Virtues. (A four-volume family life education program for education within the home).

Preparing for the Gift of Self. (A High School Supplementary Program of proximate Marriage preparation).
Contact: Family Life Institute - 7052 Diplomat Dr. Suite B, Manassas, VA 20109
Phone: (703)365-7281 Web:

Margaret M. Whitehead is the Director of Religious Education at a Catholic parish in Northern Virginia, and has conducted programs in chastity education. Mrs. Whitehead, a member of the editorial board of Voices is married to Kenneth W. Whitehead, and mother of four sons.

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