Family the Prophetic Vision of John Paul II - Part Two

David M. Thomas. Bethany Family Institute


The third section of John Paul II's exhortation on family is really the heart of the document. Titled The role of the Christian family, it is sub-divided into four parts which are described as the four tasks of the family, (1) forming a community of persons, (2) serving life, (3) participating in the development of society and (4) serving the life and mission of the church. Supporting these tasks is a theological vision of family life that is both new and very significant.

The sections begins with the often quoted phrase of the pope, Family, become what you are. In the pope's mind, God has created the family to play an extremely important role in God's dream for human life. The family is judged as foundational for virtually all aspects of healthy and loving human development. His pastoral insight would be fully in line with the many theories of human life, especially those that identify the first years of life as decisive for all the rest.

What you are is the dream of God for family life. It's the power, the vitality, and the potential that is woven into the life of each family by God's creative love. The family is not asked to be or accomplish something that's beyond its capabilities. Nor is it expected to reach goals that are simply too idealistic for today's world. The pope is a realist but, it must be noted, he's a Christian realist. The family is not alone in its effort at survival but is continuously nourished by Gods presence and power. Never before in church writings has the family been pulled into such a central place in the Christian life.

While the worldly side of family life is noted, it is also positioned fully within the ambit of grace. Eventually the pope makes it clear that great demands can be placed before the family because the family is abundantly graced, fully accepted and cherished by God's Spirit.

No longer is the family to be viewed as just another created institution like the state or the nation. Rather it's assumed to be a major part of the life of the church itself.  It would not be too much of a stretch (although the pope doesn't use these exact words) to say that the family is the heart of the church! Certainly he claims over and over that the life of love, the life of society and the life of the church itself come to be largely by beginning in families. This is no small claim

What's unique about his approach to the family as a community of persons ? I see two quite important insights peppered throughout his presentation. First, to reach full personhood, one must dwell within a community of equals. Life grows by being shared. The deeper the sharing, the more vitality there is. This sharing of life touches even the most mundane of family activities. The vision is comprehensive and coextensive with everything that happens between family members.

Second, love is described as the life of the family: mutual love, nourishing love, demanding love, forgiving love. Love between equals in the deepest meaning of equality. In his thinking here, the pope rejects even the smallest inkling of hierarchy or paternalism. The interpersonal humanism of the pope, rarely mentioned but I think is there throughout his writings, is more strongly stated here than anywhere else.

The task of serving life features the pope's personalistic argument on respecting human life, not only after it has come to be, but also in the process of its coming to be. Fully agreeing with the conclusion of Humanae Vitae, the pope bypasses arguments against artificial contraception from natural law and replaces the foundation for this prohibition with his own understanding of sexual intercourse.

For him this full expression of human sexuality requires a fullness of love present between the couple. Restricting the possibility of conception amounts to restricting the full gift of self, which is an essential aspect of the act. The pope doesn't use terms like finality or purpose, which were essential parts of earlier argument against contraception. The Synod delegates had asked that the church's view on this issue be strengthened by new arguments that would be more acceptable and understandable to the majority. Archbishop John R. Quinn on the first morning of the Synod itself made a passionate plea for a consideration of how poorly Humanae Vitae had been received by married couples and priests ! Its arguments were simply not persuasive enough. The pope has responded by using language more in line with contemporary philosophy. Recall that his first career was that of being a philosophy professor.

The third task of the family affirms the family's essential role in society. The family is called to be an active contributor to the general social life of the world. It is not to hide from, escape or flee from the demands of citizenship and participation in the many structures of society. The family is in the centre of society, like a leaven to humanize and to remind mass society that it exists to serve the members of society. In other writings the pope has shown how the evils of both socialism and consumerism erode the life of the person by reducing persons to objects, It is above all the role of the family to remind society that such reductionism is hideous, demeaning and ultimately destructive of the good of society itself.

The fourth task speaks to the role of the family in the church. I think this is the most revolutionary section of the Familiaris Consortio. Thoughts about the church as community easily tend to be airy or superficial. When applied to the family, however, the communal life of the church takes on characteristics of intimacy, dailyness and reality in the fullest sense. Could it be that the church has lost its sense of being a family? Could it be that in overlooking the life of the family itself causes the church to lose a sense of community in its wider forms? Could it be that in losing a sense of family, the church seriously weakens the value of what Jesus wanted as the most important sign of the church: that they love one Another ? These are difficult and probing questions. They come to mind as one begins to realize that the communal life of the family and of the church are in many ways the same reality !

All the essential features of the church are found in the family. The family is both a saved and saving community. It is both a sanctified and sanctifying community. It is both an evangelized and an evangelizing community. Everything that is a mark of the life of the church is happening in the family all the time. Would that this awareness was in our Catholic faithful. Would that it were in our leadership.

The last part of the exhortation focuses upon all the pastoral changes that need to happen in order to support this exalted view of family life. Rather than summarize them, it's better left for your own reading. There's a message for all of us whatever role we might have in the church or in society. And most of all, it's directed to each of us who in the final reckoning, all came from and continue to live in family.

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