September 12, 2014

Rejoice in the Lord

What the Bible, Church teach about the family

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinDuring the months of September and October, I am writing about the family. This is a serious—and timely—issue as our Church prepares for an extraordinary meeting of the Synod of Bishops to be held in Rome on Oct. 5-19. Here are some of the questions I’ll be addressing:

What is God’s plan for the family? What do the Bible and the teachings of the Church tell us about the meaning of marriage and family life? Why is the Christian view of family life so difficult to understand and accept today? What can any of us do to foster a deeper understanding—and a more complete acceptance—of the sacramental character of Christian marriage and the indispensable role of the family as the foundation for both the Church and human society?

Let’s start with the Bible—both the Old Testament and the New Testament. What does sacred Scripture tell us about marriage and family? In this brief column, it’s not possible for me to provide a detailed or comprehensive answer.

The holy Bible is not one book but a collection of many different books, poems, prayers, letters and other forms of writing (such as the Gospels) that we believe were all inspired by the Holy Spirit and that reveal—in many diverse ways—the history of our salvation which we believe includes God’s plan for the family.

Beginning with the Book of Genesis, the Bible teaches us that men and women are equal partners—made in God’s image and likeness—and that they are meant to unite “as one flesh” in a sacred bond of intimacy, which we call marriage.

Genesis also tells us that, together, men and women are meant to continue God’s work of creation both as “procreators” (bearers of children) and “stewards” (guardians or caretakers) who exercise dominion over all living and inanimate things. These two fundamental roles—procreation and stewardship—are carried out within the basic social unit we call family.

Family is not precisely defined in the Old Testament, but it is implicit in everything written by the sacred authors. The union of a man and a woman is essential to the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity and for all creation. Children are a blessing, and the family unit (including the extended family) exists to provide a structure (a “school of love”) that allows for successful childrearing, and that provides a framework for participation in whatever social structures may exist (tribe, clan, village or city).

As with everything, God’s plan for marriage and family life was severely damaged by human sinfulness. The indissoluble bond between husband and wife was broken by the mutual sins of Adam and Eve. Family ties were further severed by Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. And within six generations of the fall, Scripture says, Lamech took two wives (Gn 4:19)—a cultural necessity, perhaps, but certainly not the ideal established by God.

In fact, throughout most of the Old Testament, we witness the unraveling of God’s original plan for the family. Even key Old Testament figures (like David and Solomon) found themselves struggling to uphold values that they knew to be divinely mandated.

The Gospels and the other books of the New Testament give witness to a “restoration” of God’s design for marriage and family life. Jesus affirms the indissoluble character of the marriage covenant while offering forgiveness and hope to those who have sinned against it. St. Paul insists that Christian marriage is an image of Christ’s love for his Church, and in his Letter to the Ephesians (see chapters 5 and 6) he acknowledges the challenges that confront husbands, wives and children as they struggle to live out God’s plan for them in spite of the Evil One’s constant efforts to frustrate them.

Since the beginning of time, families have struggled to remain faithful to God’s plan. The Church has consistently taught that marriage is a sacrament (a sign of God’s grace that causes what it signifies). Against all the powers of evil working against it, the family survives. “The future of humanity passes by way of the family,” St. John Paul II wrote. “It is therefore indispensable and urgent that every person of good will should endeavor to save and foster the values and requirements of the family” (Familiaris Consortio, Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, #86).

The Bible reveals to us God’s plan for the family, but it never suggests that carrying out this plan will be easy. God’s grace alone makes marriage and family life possible. Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will sustain our families in their vocation to be procreators and stewards in accordance with God’s plan. †

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