The Sunday following the celebration of Christmas usually brings us the feast of the Holy Family. This feast gives families the opportunity to reflect upon the beauty of traditional marriage and the family as God has created it to be. The Son of God was born into a human family consisting of a loving mother and a dedicated father, a model for all family life since the beginning of time.
As we all know, family life, especially in the United States, faces many challenges today. Our secular culture unfortunately promotes many different forms of family life, oftentimes to the detriment of the children involved. But the church has always upheld the traditional family as the normative place for children to attain their fullest potential as human persons.
Pope Francis, in his Encyclical Letter, Lumen Fidei, writes that the Christian family is founded “first and foremost on the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24) and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom and loving plan. Grounded in this love, a man and a woman can promise each other mutual love in a gesture which engages their entire lives and mirrors many features of faith. Promising love forever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love” (LF #52).
In the Instrumentum Laboris, the document prepared for the III Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, entitled “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” states that “one of the great challenges of the family today consists in attempts at its privatization, running the risk of forgetting that the family is the fundamental cell of society. The (traditional) family is the source of the essential virtues for a life in community. Without the family, a person is unable to emerge from his individualism, since it is the only place to learn the power of love to sustain life, keeping men and women united,” (#33).
Recent studies show that almost all Americans honor the ideal of traditional marriage in theory but have become increasingly tolerant of departures from this ideal. This comes from a kind of “expressive individualism” that seeks both to give American adults utmost freedom to pursue their own desires and to enforce a public ideal of “tolerance” for family-related choices. This mindset has the greatest consequences for less-educated Americans, who according to studies are less likely to have a “marriage mindset” and live by norms that lead to strong marriages.
Studies also show that the outcomes in families with two married parents are better than those with only one. In
comparing children raised in single-parent families, children in families with two married parents are significantly more likely to steer clear of events that limit their future economic opportunities (i.e. criminal activity) and they flourish more in today’s labor market. A higher percentage of college graduates come from intact families where mothers have received degrees in higher education.
Paul Amato, president of National Council of Family Relations, notes, “Studies consistently indicate, however, that children in stepfamilies exhibit more problems than do children with continuously married parents and about the same number of problems as do children with single parents.”
We all realize that today cohabitation has become an increasingly common venue for bearing/rearing children. More than 40 percent of children will spend some time in a cohabiting household and 21 percent of children are born into cohabiting unions. Cohabiting families are most common in Middle
America and in poor communities. Studies clearly show that children do not fare as well in cohabiting households as they do in married families. Cohabiting unions tend to have less commitment, trust, sexual fidelity, more violence and less parental supportiveness than married unions. Cohabitation is now a bigger risk to children in the U.S. than divorce.
How does faith play a role in keeping marriages and families strong? Studies show that men and women who share a common faith are more likely to succeed in their marriages. God as the center of one’s marriage is the best religious predictor of marital quality. Those who attend church regularly are 35 percent less likely to divorce.
Faith, lived intentionally, opens one’s heart to the greater meaning of life and love as defined by Christ and his church. “The truth of love between a man and a woman,” according to Pope Benedict XVI, “can be only understood in light of the love of Christ crucified. Marriage based on an exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa,” (Final Report of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, #19).
Pope Francis, in treating the connection between the family and faith, writes: “Encountering Christ, letting themselves (young people) be caught up in and guided by his love, enlarges the horizons of existence, gives it a firm hope which will not disappoint. Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificentcalling, the vocation of love. It assures us that this love is trustworthy and worth embracing, for it is based on God’s faithfulness which is stronger than our every weakness,” (LF #53; Instrumentum Laboris, #7). When faith is weakened, the foundations of life, family and society are weakened (LF #55).
Much more can be said regarding why traditional marriage and family express the mind of God and are at the very foundation of what makes up a good society. But lack of space for further reflection in this edition has won out. The family has often been referred to as a “domestic” church. As we begin a new year, perhaps all families can take the time to reflect upon their own family life from this perspective, praying the words of Pope Francis, “Holy Family of Nazareth, reawaken in our society (and our families) the awareness of the sacred and inviolable character of the family, an inestimable and irreplaceable good,” (From a Sunday Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Rome).
May God richly bless your marriages and families.