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The Family for the Third Millennium

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We are not speaking of the family in the third millennium. That would be prophetic because only God knows the future. We are speaking of the family for the third millennium.

What do we mean? We mean that family life in the closing decade of the second millennium must be stronger, more solid, and more secure than ever before since the dawn of Christianity. Why? Because family life in the Western world is faced with challenges which threaten its very survival.

Our plan here is to prayerfully reflect on three areas of a subject that is as broad and deep as the ocean. We shall ask ourselves:

  • What are the challenges facing the family in our day?

  • Why does the Catholic Church offer the only solution to these challenges?

  • How are we to respond to these challenges?

Challenges to the Family in the Modern World

Every pope in the twentieth century has written and spoken extensively on the crisis facing family life in our day. The reasons are obvious. In one so-called developed country after another families are not only on trial. Not a few are facing extinction.

Thus in the United States the divorce rate is now three hundred percent of what it was early in this century. The birth rate in the United States is now sixteen children born each year for every thousand Ameri cans. In contrast, the birth rate in Eastern Africa is forty-eight births per one thousand population. These statistics merely illustrate a fact of contemporary history. By every calculation, the family in our country is disappearing.

The impact of this breakdown is beyond human reckoning. What no one dares deny is that the family in once Christian nations is becoming a past memory.

The enemies of the family have coined the term “demographic explosion” to describe what they call “overpopulation.”

Is there a problem with our population? Not really. No doubt the poorer countries have a higher rate of population growth. This is difficult to sustain in the context of low economic and social development. My eight days in Haiti were the most sobering experiences of my life. I baptized scores of dying children, all below the age of one. They were dying for lack of food and medical care.

The more economically developed countries are the ones who talk about overpopulation. They are also the ones who are either responsible for the poverty of other countries or are unwilling to cooperate in helping these nations to cope with their high birth rate.

What are the solutions proposed for dealing with the pseudo-problem of overpopulation? The solutions are contraception, sterilization and abortion. As the Holy Father explains, rather than “face and solve these serious problems with respect for the dignity of individuals and families and for every person’s inviolable right to life, they prefer to promote and impose by whatever means a massive program of birth control. Even the economic help which they would be ready to give is unjustly conditioned on the acceptance of an anti-birth policy.” This has become the inhuman policy of the United Nations in one international congress after another.

How then are we to describe our century? It is a century in which the culture of death is being promoted by the political and financial powers of this world. It is not only the lives of individuals that are being attacked; it is the lives of families that are being murdered by forces of evil released in the twentieth century.

The Catholic Hope for the Family

Underlying the massive breakdown of family life in our day is the intrusion of values of human society that are totally alien to Christianity. If we are to understand what is happening to the modern family, we have to go back to the beginnings of Christianity. The Roman Em pire into which Christ entered was a culture that did not believe in the family. The Latin world familia meant a household. The head of this household was a man who had wives and concubines. He decided whether a newborn child should stay alive. Every bed in which a child was born had to have a pail of water next to the bed to drown the newborn infant, depending on the father’s decision. Contraception and abortion were universally legalized in the Roman Empire. Divorce and remarriage were commonplace. Polyga my was assumed, even among the believing Jews.

In three centuries, Christianity made such an impact on this pagan culture that Emperor Constantine had no choice but to give Christians the legal freedom to practice their religion.

If there is one term that characterized Christians in the age of martyrs, it was “the family.” Two sentences from a second century document tell us what we need to hear:

Like others, Christians also marry and have children but they do not expose these children. They do not kill the children. Christians share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they live on a level, which is above all human law (Letter to Diognetus).

The family, as we now understand it, came into existence with Christianity. Twenty centuries of history teach us that family life is only as stable and as sound as the Christian faith of a culture. As this faith goes, so goes the family.

We asked the question: Why does the Catholic Church offer the only solution to the challenges of the family in our day? Because only the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of God’s revealed truth about the family.

In the two thousand years since Calvary, there have been many departures from Catholic unity. There have been countless churches, called Christian, which have separated themselves from the one true Church of Jesus Christ. Without exception, they broke with the Church of Rome because they refused to accept the Catholic teaching on the family.

In a culture like our own, Catholics are surrounded, or shall I say engulfed, by people who do not share our Catholic heritage. Concretely they do not share the unchangeable doctrine revealed by the Son of God.

In 1535, two English Catholics were martyred for the faith: St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. John Fisher was the only bishop in England who stood firm with the Pope in denying that Henry VIII had a right to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. St. Thomas More was chancellor of England. He, too, remained faithful to Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of consummated, sacramental marriage. Both Fisher and More paid for their loyalty with their blood.

Our Responsibility

All we have said so far was a prelude to what I really want to share with you. No words of mine can describe the breakdown of the family in so-called developed countries like the United States.

Our country has witnessed a massive secularization of its culture. God and the rights of God; virtue as conformity to the divine will; sin as the choice of what I want contrary to what God wants; eternal life in the beatific vision as the destiny of our existence – all of these have become either pious fancies or the dream world of religious weirdos. Siegmund Freud defined psychosis as the mental state of people who believe their behavior on earth determines their happiness after bodily death.

I am speaking to believing Catholics. If the contemporaries of Christ called Him a fanatic, we should not expect the world to have a better estimate of ourselves.

The focus in this article is on our responsibility to meet the global breakdown of the family as understood by Christianity.

At this point, we could speak for hours about the implications of our duty to preserve family life for the third millennium. At root, however, our duty is to proclaim the teachings of Christ on the family as taught by the Church which He founded.

Among these teachings of Christ, none is more important for the preservation and promotion of sound family life than the Catholic doctrine on Church and State. I know of no single statement of a Bishop of Rome that is clearer on this subject than the one sentence of Pope Pius XI. “The family,” he declares “is more sacred than the State. Human beings are begotten not for the earth and for time, but for heaven and eternity” (Casti Connubii, Dec. 31, 1930).

In the light of this pronouncement of the Vicar of Christ, our most serious responsibility for the third millennium is to defend the rights of the Church in her teachings on the family. Our corresponding responsibility is to resist the usurped claims of the State, which is literally possessed by the evil spirit in some countries to destroy the family.

By implication, therefore, we must first know the Church’s teachings on the sacredness of the family as belonging to God and destined for union with the Divine Family of the Holy Trinity.

Our faith teaches us that each human person was individually created, in his human soul, at the moment of conception in his mother’s womb. There is no such thing as a “fetus.” There is no such thing as mere “tissue.” There is a human being from the moment that the ovum is fertilized and immediately God creates an immortal soul out of nothing; He infuses that soul into what thus becomes a human body animated by a human spirit.

Our faith further teaches us that to destroy this just conceived human being is murder.

Our faith teaches us that God instituted marriage to provide for the increase of the human race by the loving cooperation of husband and wife in procreating the human race.

Our faith teaches us that marriage is a life-long commitment of one man and one woman in a cove nant of love. Husband and wife are to love each other even as Christ loves the Church and wants us to love Him in return.

Our faith teaches us that mother and father are to provide not only for the bodily well-being of their children. They are to teach them and train them and prepare them for an everlasting life in the heavenly kingdom which Christ died on the Cross to obtain for us.

All of this is part of the heritage of our Catholic faith. However, it is not enough to merely believe what the Church teaches about marriage and the family. We must also understand this teaching.

I never tire repeating to the audiences to which I speak how important it is to understand what we believe: here the revealed truth taught by Jesus Christ about the family. At the core of this truth is a mystery of selfless love. What are we saying? We are saying that the family as a union of father and mother and children is the union of a love, which is the only reconciliation of authority and liberty.

Except for God’s becoming man in the person of Christ, this family love would be impossible. This is proved in every culture which departs from the foundations of Christianity. Without Christ there cannot be selfless love. Without selfless love there cannot be a stable, fruitful family life. This is the verdict of twenty centuries of Christian history.

Defending the Family

We are still addressing ourselves to our responsibility for family life into the third millennium. But now we shift our attention to the widespread threats which the family faces in our day.

No one has written more forcefully about these threats than our present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. He tells us that these threats are not merely verbal or highly organized. They are now being legally justified, and even forcibly legalized.

In one nation after another, the State is given the right to determine the conditions for marriage. For example, in more than one country of South America, Catholic marriages are invalid in the eyes of the government. The State is given the right to determine how many children may be conceived and brought to birth. The State is given the right to determine who is to live and who should die. One result is that those in the medical profession are given legal jurisdiction to decide on the morality of the people’s choice to murder an unborn child or kill an unwanted adult.

Dare we ask whether the civil law can require of its citizens to live according to the moral standards determined by the State? The Vicar of Christ tells us, absolutely not. The State has no right to determine moral standards that are contrary to the divine law.

In order to justify the most devastating anti-family legislation, its promoters are appealing to democracy. The Church tells us that a democratic culture is prone to base its legal system on what the majority in a given society considers moral and actually practices. A democratic society further believes that the will of the majority should determine the moral norms of a society.

What is the result? The result is what we call ethical relativism. This means that the laws are determined by the people of a country. It acknowledges no objective principles of right or wrong, but claims that morality depends on the choices of the majority of people in the democratic state.

What happens to the human conscience? The civil law takes the place of our conscience. In 1973 when the Supreme Court legalized abortion, the reaction of the people was that of a nation hypnotized by an alien mind. I do not hesitate to say that this alien mind is the mind of the devil.

I believe I know the writings of the popes very well. Twenty five years of teaching theology to my Jesuits; thirty years in working for the Holy See have taught me a great deal. I know of no pope in the last five centuries who has written more openly, I would say more brazenly, about the State encroaching on the laws of God than Pope John Paul II.

He asks whether the civil law can take the place of a human conscience. He answers, absolutely not. He states without ambiguity that the purpose of civil law is to guarantee an orderly social coexistence in true justice. He quotes St. Paul to the effect that the civil law is to provide people with the means to “lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1Tim 2). This presumes that the civil law is not in contradiction with the divine law.

The Holy Father further asks whether the legalization of crimes against human life and the human family can be morally justified. Again he declares, no. Such legalization opens the door to every kind of crime in the name of conscience and under the pretext of freedom.

What happens when the State refuses to recognize the human rights of a family? When this happens, it is not only failing in its duty but its laws lose their binding force.

I was fourteen years old when I began reading Karl Marx. Certainly much too soon. But one thing I have learned. Karl Marx was a sworn enemy of the family, which he claimed was the invention of a patriarchal philosophy.

These principles have penetrated the culture of our nation far beyond anything that we can imagine.


We began by addressing ourselves to “The Family for the Third Millennium.” We saw something of Christ’s teaching on what the family should be. We also saw, however briefly, that demonic forces are at work in the world to destroy the family. These forces literally control the political and financial powers of many nations, including our own.

There is no human power that can cope with these evil powers of the modern world. When Christ told us that the prince of this world is the evil spirit He was not indulging in platitudes. He was speaking the unqualified truth and foretelling what His followers should expect until the end of time.

Only a deep faith in the Divine Exorcist and trustful confidence in His power can make the humanly impossible divinely possible with the help of His grace. Selfishness, as the saints tell us, is cunning. It pushes and insinuates itself into everything or makes us believe it is not there at all. This is the root cause of the breakdown of family life in so many materially prosperous countries in our day. Only the God who became a Child and lived on earth as a member of a Family could have inspired the selfless love that brought the Christian family into being. This same Jesus, we are confident, will reform the Christian family where it has weakened and even bring it back, if it has been destroyed.

After all, has that not been the story ever since Good Friday and Easter Sunday? The Church, we may say, has died many times and risen again — for the best of reasons. Her Founder is God who was crucified and rose from the dead. The Christian family of the third millennium is most promising, but only for those who really believe that Christianity is the religion of civilization.

Father John Hardon is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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