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Michaelmas 2001, Volume XVI No. 3

The Family's Role in the Development of Society

This address, given by Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput to a symposium celebrating the 20th anniversary of Familiaris Consortio, sponsored by the USCCB Committee on Marriage and Family Life and Committee for Pro-Life Activites -- August 17, 2001, is published here with the archbishop's kind permission.

By Archbishop Charles Chaput

Freud described religion as "the solemn air of sanctity" we manufacture around our habits and moral decisions. I don't think I'm taking much of a risk in suggesting that most secular intellectuals in the United States probably regard religion as weak or naïve -- a relic of humanity's past and a kind of cheap alternative to psychotherapy. Maybe I'm being unfair. But I doubt it.

Unfortunately, too many Christians experience their faith in exactly this way. That's why we have the world as it is. Many Christians -- too many Christians, especially in a wealthy country like ours -- live their convictions as if they were pious clichés. The language of faith gives us the words to comfort ourselves in the face of disappointment or suffering. But many of us never carry Christ beyond that. We're embarrassed to share Him with others. We're afraid to apply His teachings to our economy or our politics. And that suits modern secular culture very well, because privatized faith has no public consequences.

The trouble with such faith is this: It's a form of lying. It's hypocrisy. The greatest enemy of Jesus Christ in every age doesn't come in the shape of the world or the flesh or the devil. It's the lukewarm faith of His disciples. If we want to know why the world isn't won for Christ, take a good look in the mirror.

Henri Bergson once said, "If you want to know a man, don't listen to what he says; watch what he does". The Epistle of James says, "faith, if it does not have works, is dead". God didn't make us to be "good enough" Catholics. He made us to be saints. He made us for greatness and heroism. Every human heart, Christian or not, instinctively knows that. Saint Irenaeus once wrote that, "the glory of God is man fully alive". God calls each of us to humanize and transform the world, and if we don't live life that way, people will seek meaning elsewhere, in counterfeits.

Earlier this summer, in getting ready for my comments today, I read the biographies of two men: Robert Browning's book, The Emperor Julian, and Jon Lee Anderson's book, Che. Sounds strange, but bear with me.

Julian the Apostate was the Fourth Century emperor who tried to restore paganism as the Roman state religion. And of course Che Guevara was the Marxist guerrilla leader killed in Bolivia in 1967.

These two men lived 1,600 years apart, but they had some odd similarities. Both were romantics. Both were hungry to change the world. Both were austere in their personal lives and intolerant of corruption. Both were intellectuals. Both were also men of action. Both died in their 30s, fighting for what they believed in, in places far away from their homes. And both completely rejected Christianity because of the example of the Christians they knew.

In Julian's case, he grew up in a Christian imperial family where the men would attend Liturgy, and then systematically murder each other for power. In Guevara's case, he saw the Church in his country, Argentina, as just another tool of the ruling classes in the oppression of the poor. Both men were repelled by what they saw as the hypocrisy of Christians.

Here's my point: The witness you and I give in our daily lives has consequences beyond anything we can imagine. Example is powerful. That's why the historian Christopher Lasch once said that "an honest atheist is always to be preferred to a [dishonest] Christian".

Real religious faith has nothing do with pious clichés, and it's never primarily centered on the self. On some level our faith should make us restless and uncomfortable, like a good infection. Karl Barth said that "to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the world".

Pope John Paul II tells us again and again that our Christian vocation is to take part in a struggle for the soul of the contemporary world. Real faith has very serious public consequences. It's always personal, but never private. And it always seeks to change the world.

OK, how does any of this relate to Familiaris Consortio, and especially to Nos. 42-48? Let me answer that with another question. How many of you have had someone tell you, "What marvelous work the Church does in housing the homeless, feeding the poor, and helping migrant workers; it's too bad she's so hung up on the sex stuff"?

Buried in a remark like that is the idea that over here, Catholics have all this wonderful social doctrine -- but over there Catholics have a slightly nutty fixation on abortion, contraception, and monogamous heterosexual marriages. And if somehow Catholics could just lighten up on the sex issues, the world would open its heart to our social teaching.

But it can't happen. It could never happen -- because the issues surrounding sexuality and the family connect intimately with the dignity of the human person. And the dignity of the human person is what all Catholic teaching seeks to advance. We learn this first and most fruitfully in the "school of love", which is the family. We can't remove abortion and contraception from our priorities in Catholic social teaching anymore than we can forget about our duty to ensure proper food, clothing and shelter for children once they're born.

Vatican II described the family as "the first and vital cell of society" (Apostolicam Actuositatem - Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, 11). It stressed that "the well being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life" (Gaudium et Spes, 47).

But let's go back even further, to 1891, and reread Rerum Novarum; then after that to Quadragesimo Anno; and Mater et Magistra; Pacem in Terris, Populorum Progressio, Laborem Exercens, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Centesimus Annus, right through to Evangelium Vitae in 1995.

Again and again, over a hundred year period, we see the family either explicitly or implicitly present as a key element in all the social teaching of the Church.

Here's just one example. Paul VI's great encyclical, Populorum Progressio, focuses mainly on issues of international development. But it includes this line: "The natural family, stable and monogamous -- as fashioned by God and sanctified by Christianity -- `in which different generations live together, helping each other to acquire greater wisdom and to harmonize personal rights with other social needs, is the basis of society'" (§36).

Why add that reflection in a document on global development? Because, as the US bishops observed two years ago in their statement on everyday Christianity, "Our families are the starting point and the center of the vocation for justice". The habits we learn and live in the family are the habits we bring to the public square, and finally to the world arena.

So let's take a look at what Nos. 42-48 actually say. Then we can turn to some implications for families.

The message of this section of Familiaris Consortio is simple. I can sum it up in a saying I first heard as a child: "The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother".

What separates Catholic social teaching from every revolutionary movement for justice is the rejection of violence and the affirmation of the power of love. Real love -- love that involves a complete commitment to understand and meet the real needs of the person we love -- is very hard work.

Nothing is more demanding, and nothing takes more care and self-sacrifice, than love within a family. Loving "humanity" is easy. Loving family members, friends and neighbors as God wants them to be loved, day in and day out -- that's what separates the wheat from the chaff. Words are cheap. Actions matter. And nowhere is that truer than within a family.

No. 42 has two key points:

First, "it is from the family that citizens come to birth, and within the family that they find the first school of the social virtues that are the animating principle of the existence and development of society itself". What are those virtues? Justice, charity and a love for freedom and truth as God means freedom and truth to be understood.

Second, "far from being closed in on itself, the family is by nature and vocation open to other families and to society, and undertakes its social role". This means that families can't be fortresses or enclaves. God created us to engage and sanctify the world, not withdraw from it.

No. 43 describes the family as "the most effective means for humanizing and personalizing society". The family builds up the world "by making possible a life that is, properly speaking, human".

This reminds me of a passage in Pius XI's 1937 encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge. Pope Pius wrote this encyclical to contest the Third Reich's persecution of the Church in Germany, and the Nazi harassment of Catholic young people, families and schools. He wrote that, "every true and lasting reform has ultimately sprung from the sanctity of men who were driven by the love of God and of men". (33) He said that "personal sanctification" is the crucial first step to sanctifying the world by extending the Kingdom of God. And that makes perfect sense. Most of us learn how to seek God and hunger for holiness from our parents and within our families.

Familiaris Consortio encourages families to become involved in forms of social service, especially those that favor the poor; to cultivate the practice of hospitality and to engage themselves politically. The Pope especially encourages families to "be the first to take steps to see that the laws and institutions of the state not only do not offend, but support and positively defend the rights and duties of the family".

The Pope also reminds us that in many places around the world, the family is under siege from a hostile society and state. And in response to these abuses, he outlines a charter of 14 family rights that range from the right to political and economic security, to freedom of education, of worship and of movement to seek better living conditions. [The complete Charter of the Rights of the Family, published in 1983, appears in this issue - Ed.]

John Paul II closes this section of Familiaris Consortio by reminding us that "[I]nsofar as it is a `small-scale church', the Christian family is called upon, like the `large-scale church', to be a sign of unity to the world, and in this way to exercise its prophetic role by bearing witness to the kingdom and peace of Christ, toward which the whole world is journeying". In other words, in the name of Jesus Christ, every Catholic must in some sense be an internationalist and so must every Catholic family.

Now how do we apply these teachings?

As the Holy Father says in Novo Millennio Ineunte, we should never be "seduced by the naïve expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula.... It is not a matter of inventing a new program. The program already exists: It is the plan found in the Gospel . . . [and it] has its center in Christ Himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in Him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with Him transform history..." (29)

The most important way for families to live Familiaris Consortio as if it really mattered is to pray often and together -- and not to "lie" when they do it. We need to live what we say we believe. That means bringing Christ into all of our daily routines, and all of our daily interactions and reflections.

I think it was Karl Barth who said that there are actually two sources of revelation: the Scriptures and the newspapers. In one sense he was right. It's a poetic way of expressing the fact that God speaks to us through the events of our time, not only important events but also in the daily events of our lives at home, in our communities, and with our relatives and friends.

That's why I've always clipped the newspapers. Sooner or later, God uses the headlines to speak to the heart. Let me give you just a few examples.

Here's the first example: Awhile back the Congressional Budget Office reported that the wealthiest 2.7 million Americans now have as much to spend as the poorest 100 million Americans. The incomes of the richest Americans are rising twice as fast as those of the middle class. Four out of five American households take home a smaller portion of the economic pie than they did in 1977, and the gap between the rich and poor in the United States is actually increasing.

Here's another example: A couple of weeks ago the Chicago Tribune reported on the rise of a "pro-anorexia" movement on the internet. Hundreds of websites now exist to encourage and support people -- not in overcoming their anorexia, but in hanging onto it. About 5 million Americans, mostly young women, struggle with anorexia, and at least 1,000 die from it every year. And it's very difficult to shut any of these websites down because of the protection they get from constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech.

Here's another example: Last fall, the London Times reported on the marketing of a new toy called "Death Row Marv". The toy allows children to electrocute a plastic doll based on a comic book character convicted of murdering the man who killed his girlfriend.

According to The Times, "strapped into the chair, the 6 inch figure can move his neck, shoulders, waist and wrists. As the current is applied, his eyes glow red and his body convulses. In his death throes, he taunts his executioners through clenched teeth [with the words, `Is] that the best you can do, you pansies?'"

Here's another example: Earlier this month Chicago papers reported on the death of a Richard Englbrecht. At 81, Englbrecht was quiet and something of a loner, so he didn't have many friends. He was dead in his house for several weeks before anyone noticed he was missing.

But that's not the whole story. Englbrecht lived right next door to Adolph Stec, 72, who was also found dead in his house, earlier this spring. Stec had been dead, sitting in his living room chair, for more than four years. Both men had died of natural causes. Neither had close relatives. Nobody noticed they were missing. In the case of Adolph Stec, he wasn't discovered until the authorities auctioned his house for unpaid taxes, and the new owners broke in to do renovations.

And here's one final example: On August 2, the New York Times reported a story entitled "Bioethicists find themselves the ones being scrutinized". The story had three key points. (1) Bioethicists play a growing role in deciding morally sensitive questions like stem cell and cloning research. (2) As one expert complained, "anybody can stand up and claim to be an ethicist -- there is no licensing, there is no accreditation". And (3) in the words of another expert, research corporation "bioethics boards look like watchdogs, but they're used like show dogs". In other words, corporations tend to hire and manipulate bioethicists to get the moral counsel they want.

What can families draw from these stories in the light of their relationship with Jesus Christ?

We live in an economy that runs on the artificial creation of desires -- and the goods to meet those desires. Every day, in a hundred different ways, we're told that we don't have enough things, we deserve more things, and we should get the things we want right now. The average American child sees 16,000 hours of television before the end of high school and 1 million commercials before the age of 20. In effect, our kids get a free education in greed, discontent and fantasy relationships. And then we wonder why their marriages don't work.

In the last 20 years, the average U.S. worker has seen his annual number of working hours increase by one full month. In other words, instead of creating leisure and more time for the family, the U.S. economy has brought about a permanent culture of apprehension.

We've created an environment where both parents frequently have jobs outside the home; a society of more work and more stress, caused by our addictive consumption of goods, which is fueled by the relentless marketing of products, which creates more consumer debt, which generates the need for longer work hours, in order to make more money. Families have no time to be a family. And tens of millions of husbands and wives are essentially working to service their credit-card debt. They live to pay their bills.

To counter this economic environment, one of the most important gifts parents can give their children and each other is gratitude. The German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, " . . . in ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than what we give, and it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich". The Roman poet and philosopher Seneca once wrote, "He that urges gratitude pleads the cause of both God and men, for without it we can be neither social nor religious".

Gratitude leads to humility. Humility makes us aware of others. And an awareness of others and their needs softens our hearts to forgive -- and leads us to see our own sins and our own need for repentance. These are the seeds of both justice and mercy, without which no society can survive.

We need to teach our children that what we do becomes who we are. We need to share more and acquire less. We need to unplug a little from the network of noise that surrounds us. We need to create the room for a silence that we can fill with conversation -- conversation with each other and with God.

If our children play with toys like "Death Row Marv" or video games that involve murder and violence, they lose a sense of the sanctity of life. If they ignore the elderly people who live next door or down the street, they help create a culture of isolation and loneliness. If they think "freedom" includes the right of a website to encourage young women to starve themselves to death, they don't understand what real freedom means.

Freedom is not the right to do whatever we want. It's not "choice" for its own sake. It's not an endless variety of consumer goods. Freedom is the ability to see and the courage to choose what's right.

We live in odd times. Those of you who are my age may remember a song the Rolling Stones did about 30 years ago called Sympathy for the Devil. There's a verse in that song that kept coming back to me as I thought about our discussion today.

Every cop's a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails, just call me Lucifer
And I'm in need of some restraint.

These days, Lucifer is in need of a lot more than "some" restraint. We live in an age when fertility and the creation of new life can be divorced from love. It's an age when words don't mean what they mean; when the breakdown of the ties that connect us as a people is described as social progress; and when even the definition of the family can be turned upside down. The Pontifical Council for Culture described our situation this way two years ago:

Painful personal situations call for understanding, love and solidarity, but what is a tragic breakdown of family life should never be put forward as a new model for society. Anti-family and anti-birth campaigns and policies are merely attempts to modify the very notion of "family" to the point of robbing it of its meaning. In this context, forming a community of life and love which unites spouses in association with the Creator is the best cultural contribution Christian families can offer society.


One of the biggest lies of our age is that individuals can't make a difference. It's exactly individuals who do make a difference -- and united in the love of Christian families working together, they can change the world.

Let me close with one final reflection. We call the Church Ecclesia Mater [Mother Church] for a reason. She's our mother as surely as the mother of any family. The Church continues the mission of Jesus Christ in the world. She suffers for the world, forgives, heals, encourages, corrects and guides us exactly as a mother does. So the sooner we stop calling the Church an "it" instead of a "she", the sooner we stop thinking of the Church as a religious institution, or corporation or sociology project, and begin to listen to her again as our mother, our mater et magistra [mother and teacher], the better she -- and we -- will accomplish God's work of changing and sanctifying the world.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that "There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan". Pope John Paul II once said that, "Against the spirit of the world, the Church takes up anew -- each day -- [a] struggle for the soul of the world". And the great French theologian, Henri De Lubac, wrote that "The Gospel warns us that salt can lose its flavor. And if we -- that is, most of us -- live more or less in peace in the midst of the world, it is perhaps because we are lukewarm".

God doesn't need lukewarm Christians. He doesn't want lukewarm families. The mission of the Church is sanctifying the world; and all of us as her sons and daughters -- especially those of us responsible for forming and nourishing families -- share in her mission. "Go make disciples of all nations" is still the mandate.

So let's pray honestly, work honestly, love honestly and live honestly so that others will see and believe.

Copyright © 2001, Archbishop Charles Chaput.

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