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The Survival of the Catholic Family

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

The Catholic family in super-developed countries like the United States is on trial for its existence. This is not my personal opinion but the measured judgment of the Vicars of Christ. One modern pope after another keeps warning the faithful about the deadly struggle going on in the world today, between Christ, the Light of the world, and Satan, the prince of darkness, and the main focus of this struggle is the FAMILY.

  • Where the Christian family — the Catholic Christian Family — is strong, the Catholic Church is strong.

  • Where the family is weak, the Church is weak.

  • Where the family is struggling for survival, the Church is struggling for survival.

  • Where the Catholic family is dying, the Catholic Church in those cultures and countries is dying.

And once the Catholic family, as instituted by Christ disappears, the Church of Jesus Christ has been removed from that nation or people.

My plan for this article is to cover the following areas:

  • What are the signs of disintegration of the family in Western society?

  • Why is the strength of the CATHOLIC family necessary for the restoration of family life?

  • How the Catholic family will not only survive but thrive for the Third Millennium?

Signs of Disintegration

The signs of disintegration of once-flourishing family life in the Western world are so clear that only the willfully blind can fail to see them. The divorce rate in countries like the United States is astronomical. The birth rate is below survival level, with zero and less than zero population ratios becoming commonplace. Millions of couples are simply co-habitating, without exchanging marriage vows. Contraception has been reduced to an exact science, and infidelity has become a fine art. Fornication is no longer considered a sin, and sexual love-making in courtship is minutely described in sex-education programs indoctrinating millions of children and young people in our schools.

Homosexuality, condemned by St. Paul in Sacred Scripture as excluding its practitioners from the Kingdom of heaven, is becoming a world plague. Sodom and sodomy are being defended not only by society but by legislators, psychologists, and, may God forgive them — by some theologians who dare to call themselves Christian.

Abortion as the deliberate murder of unborn human beings is not only legalized but we may say legislated and now those who oppose this murder of the innocents are prosecuted, imprisoned, and treated like enemies of society.

So the litany of the disintegration of family life goes on, until, after the recitation of each of these crimes, we can only pray, “Lord, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on us.”

Why Catholic Families Are Necessary

In the face of such massive breakdown of the family, is there any sanity left anywhere? What began as a plague in Western countries has now penetrated into Asia, Africa and Australia.

Does anyone, anywhere still believe that the family is not out of date; that a lifetime marriage commitment is still desirable; that a loving community of father, mother, and children is not a starry ideal in fairy books but a reality on which alone human society can exist?

Does anyone still believe this? Yes, and behind this “yes” is the principal message I wish to share with you.

Family life, truly authentic, stable family life is still believed in by the Catholic Church.

Let me be clearer. It is still professed by those who believe that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, who said that if a man puts away his wife and marries another, he commits adultery, and if a woman puts away her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

It is still professed that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ, who said, “Let the children come unto me” and who told us to “become like little children, for of such is the Kingdom of heaven.”

Family life is still believed by those who recognize the Bishop of Rome as the Vicar of Christ, by those who accept Humanae Vitae as the unchangeable and infallible teaching of Christ.

Family life is still believed by those who hold that anyone who commits adultery, or fornication, or sodomy, must either repent and beg for divine mercy or face from God the terrible prospect of separation from God for all eternity.

Family life is still believed by those who know that Jesus Christ is alive and present, in the Holy Eucharist; that through the Mass, and Holy Communion and the Blessed Sacrament He is giving us the grace to remain chaste before marriage, practice chastity and charity, without which family life is only a starry dream.

We repeat our question: Does anyone still believe that family life is not only possible but necessary if the human family is going to survive? Yes, the Catholic Church believes this. But I would add this. Those really belong to the Catholic Church who stand on the four pillars on which the Church is founded, namely:

  • the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Church’s Founder, who is the lawgiver and judge of the human race.

  • the will of God the Creator, to make human families, as a reflection of the uncreated Family of the Holy Trinity.

  • the supreme authority on earth in faith and morality, of the Bishop of Rome.

  • the existence on earth of Jesus Christ in the triple sacrament of the Holy Eucharist as Mass, Communion and Real Presence — giving us the grace to do the humanly impossible by the practice of Christian chastity and charity.

Survival of the Family Depends on the Catholic Response

But we press the question: Why is the strength of the Catholic family necessary for the restoration of family life throughout the world?

Why? Because the survival of the family throughout the world depends on strong Catholic families.

We are entering on a new era in human history. The world is fast becoming a global village. There is a new social consciousness, such as history has never known before. Catholic families are being called by God to evangelize the rest of mankind. They have a new vocation in the modern world: to proclaim the Gospel of the Christian family to the teeming millions who need their witness and inspiration.

I make bold to say that the family, as family, will survive only where strong Christian families, as families, are proclaiming their faith to an unbelieving world.

Do you know what was the main reason for the miraculous conversion of the pagan world in the first centuries after the resurrection of Christ? It was the heroic witness of Christian families, whose lives of chastity and charity melted the hearts of their persecutors. Yes, but the price those Christian families had to pay was the price of martyrdom. It was the living martyrdom of oppression by a Christ-less state, and the bloody martyrdom of death by fire or sword or the teeth of wild beasts.

There is a story in the Confessions of St. Augustine where he relates what heroism his mother, Monica, practiced in living with her pagan husband, Patricius. Patricius was often unfaithful to Monica. He was given to outbursts of furious anger against his Christian wife. But, says Augustine, she kept forgiving his infidelity, and patiently enduring his verbal cruelty. Why? So that she might convert him, and her son, to Christianity. She succeeded admirably. And for over 1,500 years the world has been nourished on the wisdom of St. Augustine, as a result we may say by the heroism of his mother, St. Monica.

How the Catholic Family Will Not only Survive but Thrive for the Third Millennium

We have so far asked two questions, “What?” and “Why?”

  • What are the signs of disintegration of the family in Western society, and

  • Why is a strong Catholic family necessary for the restoration of family life?

We now come to our third, and last question, “How?”

How, we ask, is the Catholic family to remain strong, seeing that family life in the whole world depends on the strength and stability of Catholic families? My answer is: the Catholic family will not only survive but thrive for the third millennium by Catholic parents living up to their rights and responsibilities in the religious education of their children.

Let me repeat. The Catholic family will not only survive but thrive for the Third Millennium on one condition, that Catholic parents live up to the rights and responsibilities in the religious education of their children.

The Rights of Parents

As we approach the subject of the rights of parents in the religious upbringing of their children, the first thing we must do is spell what these rights are. Stated in one sentence, parents have the right to give their offspring a share in their own life of the spirit, corresponding to the share they have given the children in their life of the body. Or, in more concrete terms, parents have the right to communicate their own religious beliefs and practices to the sons and daughters to whom they have already communicated their physical existence as human beings.

These two rights go together. No less than a married couple have the natural right to beget children for this world, so a married couple have the right to beget children for the world to come.

From Whom Do these Rights Come?

From whom do these rights come? This is no idle question. Why not?

  • Because in one country after another, and not only behind what we used to call the Iron Curtain, the government is claiming more and more monopoly in the education of children.

  • Because even in Catholic circles, powerful vested interests are telling parents they are incompetent to train their own children. Borrowing the philosophy of the secular state, a growing number of Catholic educators with professional degrees are usurping the rights of parents as educators.

We return to our question: From whom then do parental rights in education, and especially religious education not derive?

  • They do not derive from the state or from civil society.

  • They do not, surprisingly, derive even from the Church. Rather the Church keeps telling parents they before everyone else on earth, have the primary right to provide for the religious upbringing of the children whom they have generated.

By now we are ready to affirm that the rights of father and mother to give their offspring adequate and, as far as possible, accurate religious education come from God.

Why Rights from God?

Why so? Because it was God who created the human soul and infused it into the body prepared by the mother and father. Because God makes each immortal soul out of nothing and unites it with a body to product a human person. This person is to serve God on earth, for which training is required from the moment of birth. Some would say that moral training begins already in the womb! A good training from infancy prepares a child to serve God faithfully here on earth as the precondition for possessing and enjoying God in a blessed eternity.

Parents’ Responsibilities

Parallel with the parents’ rights are their responsibilities. The same God who gave them the privilege of bringing children into the world places on them the obligation to nurture the lives they have freely brought into the world. And the duty of religious nurturing is no less, in fact it is more grave, then the duty of providing bodily food and care.

Why is this such a grave responsibility? Because the supernatural life we receive at Baptism must be nurtured and nourished from infancy no less than the natural life of the body. And the parents are the ones who, before God, are the first in time; the first in dignity; the first in priority — to preserve and sustain and develop the new life of God which their children received in the sacrament of regeneration.

Although it may sound strange, I think it is worth stressing that the parents should cooperate with one another, father with mother, and not mother alone, and less still mother in one direction and father in another direction.

The cooperative responsibility between father and mother in the spiritual care of their children presumes that the parents are mutually in love. You do not cooperate with someone you do not love.

This cooperation also presumes mutual understanding of their respective roles in the religious and moral rearing of the child. Behind such understanding is their mutual sharing of the same Catholic faith; a faith kept alive by daily prayer; a faith nourished by frequent Holy Communion; a faith kept strong by the frequent reception of the sacrament of penance; a faith that is constantly deepened by learning through reading and listening to sound Catholic teaching.

As we get more specific about cooperative responsibility, I would like to identify the three ways that the parents personally nurture their children in things of the spirit. They do so

  1. by what they are

  2. by what they do

  3. by what they say

1. Parents living the ways of God

The most fundamental way the parents train their sons and daughters in the ways of God is by themselves living the ways of God.

There is more here than merely giving a good example. We are here in the atmosphere of divine grace. In God’s ordinary Providence He uses as the channels of His grace those persons who are in possession of His grace.

Believing parents are channels of His faith to their children.

Chaste parents are channels of His chastity to their children.

Prayerful parents are channels of His spirit of prayer to their children.

In a word, holy parents are channels of holiness to their children.

2. Actions speak louder than words

Parents nourish their sons and daughters spiritually by what the parents do. This may seem unnecessary after what was just said, that father and mother give religious upbringing by what they are.

On the contrary. In things of the spirit, it is not enough to be a professed Catholic. A person must act like one.

Why is this important.? Because there is in all of us a tendency to divide our lives into two compartments. There is the temptation to claim to be one thing and yet to behave like something else.

This Jekyll and Hyde separation in us is neither rare nor surprising. St. Paul confessed that, “the good things that I will, I do not do; and the evil things that I will not, that I do.”

3. Words and actions must agree

Parents nurture their children in the supernatural life by what they say.

We are here touching on the mystery of self-communication. And there is no communication that is more universal or more effective than the spoken word.

The child begins to ask questions: why this? what that? why now? why here? why so? Depending on how the parents answer these incessant questions — which are not always asked out loud — the children will be trained accordingly.

The fact that a child has questions and asks them is a law of life. The answers that the child receives will shape that life as we believe, not only for time but for eternity.

Parents’ Responsibility for Influences Outside the Family

In this our final reflection on the responsibility of parents toward influences other than the family, we enter the most difficult and delicate side of our subject.

All we have said so far stands. And we are now speaking of the responsibility or duty of the parents to give their children the proper religious training.

I would single out the four terms that I emphasized:

  • duty or responsibility

  • parents, both father and mother

  • their children

  • proper religious training

If Catholic parents are to fulfill their responsibility according to the will of God they most absolutely must be:

  • selective as to whom they will choose to assist them in the religious and moral nurturing of their children.

  • convinced that the schools or religious instruction programs for their children are really and not only nominally Catholic.

  • courageous in insisting that what their children are taught by others corresponds to what they, as Catholic parents, believe is good for the children whom God has placed under their care.

  • generous in giving their children all the time they need, all the patience this will take, and all the sacrifice this will call for. Gone is the day when parents can simply turn over to others the spiritual training of their offspring.

Let me be as clear as I can. Parents must be alert, and aware and, I would say, aggressive in making sure that other people, no matter how powerful, are not contradicting the religious formation which they, the parents, have the first and foremost duty before God to provide for their children.

Before God, parents have received a sacred trust. No one has a higher trust than they. No one has a higher responsibility than they.

But, I must add, no one can take either the trust or the responsibility away. It belongs to the parents because it is given to them by God. The children they call theirs are first of all His. They came from Him and they are destined for Him.

That is why God became a child: to teach us how simple it is to reach heaven, if only we are humble enough to listen to His words, and for parents, courageous enough to lay down their lives, if need be, for the souls entrusted to their loving care.

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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