October 10, 2014

Rejoice in the Lord

Celebrating the joys and challenges of family life

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin“The family in the modern world … has been beset by the many profound and rapid changes that have affected society and culture. Many families are living this situation in fidelity to those values that constitute the foundation of the institution of the family. Others have become uncertain and bewildered over their role or even doubtful and almost unaware of the ultimate meaning and truth of conjugal and family life” (John Paul II, “Familiaris Consortio,” #1).

More than three decades ago, St. John Paul II wrote about the challenges facing the family today. He described both “bright spots” and “shadows” that either illuminate or conceal the family’s “ultimate meaning and truth.”

Based on the Church’s teaching about the meaning of marriage and family life, I think we might say that the many “shadows” that have been cast over family life today can be grouped into three categories: 1) the covenant relationship between husband and wife; 2) the meaning and purpose of human sexuality; and 3) the role of family in the Church and in society. Let me say a word about each of these.

We Catholic Christians believe that the marriage of one man and one woman is something sacred. We consider it to be more than a social contract or legal agreement. For us, holy matrimony (the sacrament of marriage) is a lifelong commitment or covenant before God. In keeping with the teaching of Jesus himself, the bond that is created before God and man when two people marry cannot be broken. It is indissoluble (incapable of being dissolved).

The permanence of marriage has been a challenge for all people in every generation. Jesus acknowledged it as a hard teaching, and he extended God’s mercy to those who found themselves at odds with God’s plan for marriage and family life.

As St. John Paul teaches, many today are faithful to this fundamental truth while many others are uncertain—even bewildered—by its increasingly difficult demands.

When our laws and society as a whole treat marriage merely as a civil union that is easily dissolved, it becomes even more difficult for a man and a woman to remain faithful to each other to the end. Modern divorce rates are staggeringly high, and ministering to Catholics who are divorced and remarried, or who find themselves living in “blended families” as a result, is a responsibility that the Church must embrace with pastoral zeal, compassion and hope.

The so-called sexual revolution has occasioned much of the uncertainty and bewilderment that St. John Paul speaks about. Easy access to artificial contraception, and even abortion, have effectively separated sex from marriage. Sexual activity outside of marriage no longer has the kind of social stigma it once had, and intimate relations by “consenting adults” are common today. The negative impact that this social situation has on family life can’t be overstated. The number of children who are born to unwed mothers grows every year—as does the number of “single-parent” families.

In this rapidly changing social context, Church teaching on human sexuality appears hopelessly old-fashioned. To insist, as we do, that sexual intimacy belongs exclusively to the relations between one woman and one man in marriage seems like something from the Dark Ages. And yet it is a powerful truth that we are challenged to uphold firmly—even as we reach out to those who question or reject our view of the meaning of sexuality.

Finally, we are losing perspective on the role of the family in the Church and in society. Sacred Scripture and Church teaching affirm the family as fundamental to God’s plan for humankind. Marriage and human sexuality allow for the procreation, education and personal development of future generations. The family serves as the fundamental model for all social and political organizations. As St. John Paul II says, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family.” When families are strong, society is strong. When families are broken and unstable, all human communities suffer.

The extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family that begins on Oct. 5 in Rome has its work cut out for it as it seeks to better respond to the challenges facing marriage as a sacred covenant, sexual intimacy as reserved to married couples, and the family as a model of stability for all social organization.

Let’s not forget that there are bright spots as well as challenges. Many families today give witness to the meaning, and the joy, of marriage and family life.

Let’s pray for all families. Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the bishops and lay leaders who are participating in this very important synod. †

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