Teaching Aid - Lichtenwalner

catechetical-sunday-2015-poster-english-spanish-animatedCreated for Communion: Recognizing & Safeguarding the Rights of the Family

by Andrew W. Lichtenwalner, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

"It is not good for the man to be alone" (Gn 2:18).

None of us was created to be alone or isolated. Each one of us was "created by God and for God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2000], no. 27; United States Catholic Catechism for Adults [USCCA], Washington, DC: USCCB, 2006, 2-3). We were made for communion with God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and with others. We were made for relationship.

Sacred Scripture bears witness to this truth in its first pages: "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him" (Gn 2:18). Male and female are created in the image of God (Gn 1:27) and made for each other (Gn 2:18-24). From their communion, new human life springs (see Gn 1:28, 4:1-2).

God's plan for marriage and the family testifies that we were made for communion. Marriage and the family were "willed by God in the very act of creation" (St. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio [FC] [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 1982], no. 3). Marriage is not an institution established by society or the state but rather a primordial institution grounded in the very nature of the human person, created male and female (see CCC, no. 1603). Society is called to recognize, uphold, and support the fundamental meaning of marriage and the corresponding responsibilities and rights of the family.

To speak of the "rights of the family" today, however, bears many risks in a culture where the meaning of marriage has been eroded and redefined in the law and where rights are often solely associated with individual choice, apart from considerations of human dignity and the common good. A challenge is to recover a truly social and communion-centered view of the human person and society. This includes rediscovering the identity and mission of the family and the corresponding responsibilities and rights of the family, all of which are at the heart of safeguarding human dignity. The brief considerations below, largely drawn from the Church's social doctrine and St. John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio, invite renewed reflection on this vital area.

Recovering the Perspective of the Child

Every child has a mother and a father. This fundamental fact is true even when sad or tragic circumstances keep the child from ever knowing or being raised by his or her parents together: death, divorce, abandonment, third-party reproduction, etc. No child is meant to come into the world alone but is meant to be welcomed, loved, and raised by his or her own mother and father, who cling to each other in the bond of marriage (see Gn 2:24; Mt 19:4-6). Every child, every human life, is a gift meant to be received with love and responsibility.

Public discussion about marriage and family today often overlooks the rights of the child and focuses on adult desires, for example, to "marry" someone of the same sex or to have a child through any means possible. But if we are to understand the rights of the family, we should look to the ones most affected by the denial of these rights: children. Every child has a basic right to be known, loved, and raised by his or her mother and father together. Through the eyes of the child and our own experience as a son or daughter, we can grasp the significance of the presence or absence of a married father and mother in a renewed way. "Unless you turn and become like children . . . " (Mt 18:3).

The Meaning of Family

Today the meaning of the family can no longer be taken for granted but must be proposed and explained anew. This is largely due to a false separation between marriage and family and a mistaken view of marriage as "a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will" (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 2013], no. 66). The bishops of the United States, in their 1988 document, A Family Perspective in Church and Society (see Tenth Anniversary Edition, USCCB [Washington, DC, 1998]), defined the family "as an intimate community of persons bound together by blood, marriage, or adoption, for the whole of life," and they affirmed that "the family proceeds from marriage—an intimate, exclusive, permanent, and faithful partnership of husband and wife" (p. 17). The Catechism likewise teaches: "A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family" (CCC, no. 2202; see also Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church [CSDC] [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 2004], nos. 211 and 213).

The fundamental reference point for the family is marriage as the permanent, faithful, and fruitful union of one man and one woman. "[Marriage] should be considered the normal reference point by which the different forms of family relationship are to be evaluated" (CCC, no. 2202). When considering the rights of the family, an irreducible difference must be recognized and upheld: the sexual difference of man and woman, which is the very possibility of the two-in-one-flesh communion of persons of husband and wife from which springs the father-mother unit for the sake of any child conceived from that union.

The "Mission Identity" of the Family

Family, become what you are. These words from St. John Paul II remain a charter for the mission of every family—a mission tied to the specific identity of the family as "a community of life and love" founded upon marriage (FC, no. 17). As St. John Paul II taught, every "family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love" (FC, no. 17).

St. John Paul II spoke of four general tasks of the family: forming a community of persons; serving life; participating in the development of society; and sharing in the life and mission of the Church (see FC, nos. 17-64). As the "first community," the family is intimately bound up with the life of society, and the Christian family is further bound up with the life of the Church, with a mission for all of society.

Family as the Key Cell of Society

Contrary to common belief, the fundamental unit of society is not the individual but rather the family founded on marriage. This fact reinforces the understanding of the human person as "essentially a social being," not an isolated individual for whom relations with others are secondary (CSDC, no. 149). "The family is the original cell of social life," "at the center of social life," and "the prototype of every social order" (CCC, no. 2207, emphasis in original; CSDC, no. 211). In the face of individualism and the objectification of the family in laws, policies, media, and entertainment, the Church reminds families that they are a subject of culture (i.e., a formative agent and not a merely passive recipient) and have a vital social role (see FC, nos. 42-48). In fact, the family has priority over society and over the state (CSDC, no. 214). In this sense, the family is meant to be the way of society: "The family, then, does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family"(CSDC, no. 214, emphasis in original).

Family at the Service of Society

The family does not have to go outside of itself, as it were, to serve society. Rather, by living what it is and what it is called to be, the family makes a decisive and "original contribution" to society (FC, no. 43). "Family life is an initiation into life in society" (CCC, no. 2207; see also USCCA, 379). In fostering communion among family members, the family is the "first and irreplaceable school of social life" (FC, no. 43), exemplifying how the larger community should be characterized by loving, sharing, protecting the weak and vulnerable, and caring for those most in need.

In this way, by living out its identity, the family is also called to radiate love outward. St. John Paul II speaks of the importance of hospitality as well as the family's political responsibility. About the latter, the pope teaches:

Families should 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. Along these lines, families should grow in awareness of being "protagonists" of what is known as "family politics" and assume responsibility for transforming society; otherwise families will be the first victims of the evils that they have done no more than note with indifference. (FC, no. 44)

As a "social subject" and true actor within culture and society, the solidarity that is lived within a family never remains closed within itself but opens to service and active participation in society (see CSDC, nos. 246-247).

The relationship between family, the economy, and work is also particularly significant (see CSDC, nos. 248-251). The way a family takes care of its own household (oikonomia, household management), with an emphasis on sharing and solidarity rather than a "market mentality," makes the family a crucial agent in economic life (CSDC, no. 248). The Church also recognizes the important relationship between work and the family. Work is often a necessary condition to establish and sustain a family, and the family is a key measure for ascertaining the ethical order of work (CSDC, no. 249). The Church continues to advocate for a just wage that respects the needs of family life, as well as for social recognition of the full work of the family, which includes the work of the home and the responsibilities of mothers and fathers in the home (CSDC, nos. 250-251).

Society at the Service of the Family

Understanding the identity and mission of the family, particularly its irreducible and primordial place and role in society (i.e., its "social priority"), naturally leads to a consideration of society's responsibility for the family (CSDC, no. 252). The family serves society by making an indispensable contribution founded upon the marital covenant of a man and a woman who promise to be true and faithful to each other for life and who together welcome and raise any children that may come from their union or be adopted by them. Society, in turn, has the responsibility to respect and foster marriage and family life.

St. John Paul II teaches about the obligation that is incumbent upon society in this regard:

Society—more specifically the State—must recognize that "the family is a society in its own original right" (Second Vatican Council, Declaration Dignitatis Humanae, no. 5), and so society is under a grave obligation in its relations with the family to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity. By virtue of this principle, the State cannot and must not take away from families the functions that they can just as well perform on their own or in free associations; instead it must positively favor and encourage as far as possible responsible initiative by families. (FC, no. 45)

In other words, society should seek to ensure that the family has all it needs to realize its potential and flourish, going so far as "to avoid and fight all that alters or wounds [the identity of the family]" (CSDC, no. 252).

Rights of the Family

A specific way that society, and particularly the state, serves the family is by recognizing and protecting its rights through just policies and laws. St. John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio provided a list of rights of the family, which were later developed into the Charter of the Rights of the Family (October 22, 1983, www.vatican.va/roman_curia/ pontifical_councils/family/documents/rc_pc_family_doc_19831022_family-rights_en.html). These rights include

  • The right to exist and progress as a family, that is to say, the right of every human being, even if he or she is poor, to found a family and to have adequate means to support it

  • The right to exercise its responsibility regarding the transmission of life and to educate children

  • The right to the intimacy of conjugal and family life

  • The right to the stability of the bond and of the institution of marriage

  • The right to believe in and profess one's faith and to propagate it

  • The right to bring up children in accordance with the family's own traditions and religious and cultural values, with the necessary instruments, means, and institutions

  • The right, especially of the poor and the sick, to obtain physical, social, political, and economic security

  • The right to housing suitable for living family life in a proper way

  • The right to form associations with other families and institutions, in order to fulfill the family's role suitably and expeditiously

  • The right to protect minors by adequate institutions and legislation from harmful drugs, pornography, alcoholism, etc.

  • The right of the elderly to a worthy life and a worthy death

  • The right to emigrate as a family in search of a better life (FC, no. 46; see also USCCA, 381)

The Charter of the Rights of the Family acknowledges that these rights "are often ignored and not rarely undermined by laws, institutions and socio-economic programs" (Preamble). Today, unfortunately, the family has less and less protection and support from the state. The redefinition of marriage in the law, for example, has brought new challenges to religious freedom that affect individuals and their families. This shows how important and precious it is to recover this fundamental aspect of social justice, namely, that the family founded on marriage has basic rights that entail protection and promotion by the state precisely so that the family may be recognized and supported for what it uniquely is and does (see CSDC, no. 253). Indeed, even the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that "the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State" (art. 16.3, www.un.org/en/documents/udhr).

Domestic Church, Become What You Are: The Missionary Witness of Christian Families

Today is the "hour of the family" (St. John Paul II, Address on the Occasion of the World Meeting of Families, October 8, 1994, www.vatican.va/holy_father/ john_paul_ii/speeches/1994/october/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19941008_incontro-famiglie_it.html), and particularly that of the Christian family. At a time when the rights of the family are often overlooked and when individualism and consumerism dominate social and economic relationships, families, and especially Christian families, are called to live out their responsibilities with renewed courage and determination.

Pope Francis has spoken of "the social dimension of evangelization" (EG, nos. 176-258) within a renewed emphasis on missionary discipleship (see EG, nos. 19-49). The missionary witness of Christian families, from their homes to their neighborhoods, parishes, and communities, has a decisive social importance and value, giving testimony to the rights and responsibilities of the family. Such witness begins very simply: In the family, is time for God and for each other a priority? Is the family closed in on itself or open to the needs of neighbors and other families (see EG, nos. 20-24)? How can the home, in the midst of the toils and sufferings of everyday life, be a place of joy, peace, and security? Is family life dominated or served by technology? Are meals eaten together on a regular basis? How is the Lord's Day honored in the home? Is the faith celebrated and discussed? Is forgiveness taught and lived? How does the family remain "close to the poor," serving the poor and most vulnerable (EG, nos. 197-201 and 209-216)?

It is not good for the man to be alone. May all of us, in the Church and society, rediscover and promote the family founded on marriage as "joy and hope" for the world (St. John Paul II, Address, October 8, 1994).

Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from Charter of the Rights of the Family, October 22, 1983,copyright © 1983, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, copyright © 1982, LEV; Address, October 8, 1994, copyright © 1994, LEV; Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, copyright © 2013, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.