September 19, 2014

Rejoice in the Lord

Nothing is more important, or natural, than family

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinLast week, I offered some reflections on the biblical view of marriage. Scripture teaches that God created man and woman as equal partners. Together, they form “one flesh” and are called to carry on God’s work as: 1) “procreators” who by the grace of God bring into being new life; and 2) “stewards” who exercise a respectful and protective guardianship over all creation.

In the Gospels, Jesus affirms the character of marriage as an unbreakable bond while offering forgiveness and hope to those who sin against it. St. Paul insists that Christian marriage is an image of Christ’s love for his Church, and 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.

The Bible reveals these things to us as God’s plan for the family, but, as St. Paul teaches, this “plan” is also embedded in the human heart (Rom 1:19–21; 2:14–15). That means you don’t have to know sacred Scripture or the teachings of the Church to identify the most basic principles of marriage and family life. I call these “laws of the heart” that are (or ought to be) evident from serious reflection on the “nature” of marriage and family life among human beings.

The first law of the heart is the fundamental dignity of each human person, which calls attention to the fact that marriage is (or should be) a partnership of equals. Roles and responsibilities may be different between wife and husband, but both are equal in dignity. A man does not “own” his wife, and she does not control (or dominate) him. The success of the marriage, and the good of the family, depends on the couple’s ability to enter into a genuine partnership of mutual respect and support—in good times and in bad.

The second law of the heart is that in marriage there is an interconnection of love, sexuality and fertility. We all know instances in which one or more of these essential elements is missing through no fault of the married couple. And there have been many occasions in human history (including the present time) where one of these elements has either been ignored or deliberately excluded (for example, arranged marriages or same-sex unions). Still, careful reflection shows that marriages that combine genuine affection with sexual intimacy and the openness to new life are the most “natural” in the sense of being closest to the true meaning of human existence.

The third law of the heart is that marriage should be permanent. Both the family unit and a healthy society require stability in marriage. No one is well served—the couple, their children or society itself—when a marriage can be dissolved without fault whenever one or both of the partners decides to do so.

Examples of the serious breakdown in marriages (and the corresponding break-up of families) are all around us today. Permanent commitments are not popular, or easy, but they are absolutely necessary to sustain the family unit and the social order.

These are just three examples of “natural” laws written in the human heart by God. We Christians believe that these innate “laws of the heart” correspond to an objective order in the nature of things. We call this objective order “the natural law.”

However, in our increasingly secular society, a strong preference is given to a much more subjective understanding of the way human freedom should be expressed. For many today, what is “natural” should only be determined by the individual or by society. These are seen to have the last word when it comes to ethical choices—not God or the Church or even the traditional concept of an objective moral order (the natural law).

Pope Francis has asked us “to pray intensely to the Holy Spirit for guidance, strength and hope” as the Church seeks to find ways to protect the family from the many forces working against it. As Christians, we join with all people of good will to proclaim that nothing is more important, or natural, than healthy and productive families!

We learned recently that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, will attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in October 2015. It will be a great joy to welcome him to the United States as he underscores our Church’s commitment to marriage and family life. Let’s all respond to his request that we pray intensely to the Holy Spirit for all families here in central and southern Indiana and throughout the world! †

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