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The Catholic Family in the Modern World

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

The Incarnation took place at the peak of Roman imperial history. As St. Luke tells us, it was in obedience to a decree of the Emperor Caesar Augustus that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to be registered by the Roman officials. It was the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, who finally condemned Jesus to death on Calvary. It was under the Roman emperor Nero that Saints Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome and it was the Roman Emperors, one after another, who for the first three centuries of the Church’s existence persecuted the Christians, beheaded them, threw them to the lions in the Coliseum and aimed to wipe out the very name of Christian from the Roman vocabulary.

Pre-Christian Paganism

What was the condition of marriage and the family in the Roman Empire at the dawn of Christianity? It was pagan, thoroughly pagan in every sense of the word. Contraception was so widely practiced that, we can say, it was universal in the Roman Empire. A Roman writer has one of his woman characters say, “what need have I of children? I live well, happily, peacefully doing as I please.” Unquote a matron from the first century A. D.

Contraception goes back to the earliest days of recorded history. Historians of contraception trace its practice to as early as 2800 B.C. By the end of the first century B.C., the Greeks and Romans had become masters of the art of contraception. However, they never really distinguished between contraception and abortion. The drugs that a woman used were calculated to not only avoid conception, but to destroy whatever conception in the womb may have taken place.

Abortion was correspondingly widespread in the Roman Empire. There were no laws prohibiting abortion. The one “effective control” was to allow the husband to impose the death penalty on his wife if she aborted a child without his permission. Every husband had the right to order his wife to abort if he did not want the child. The father had a legal right to demand that his wife abort if he told her to, and Roman law backed him in insisting that his wife abort the unborn child.

Familia was the Latin word for “family.” But familia did not mean what family came to mean with the evangelization of the Roman world. Among the ancient Romans , famulus was a servant and familia was a household of servants. In the classical Roman usage, the “family” hardly included the parents or children. It should be re-emphasized that the pagan family meant everybody in a given household which could include not only the servants, but the slaves, and the whole harem of women subject to the male head of the household.

No single word in the western world took on a more changed meaning than the word “family.” Certainly, Christianity adopted much of the vocabulary of the Greek and Roman society into which Jesus was born. But Christ changed the meaning of this vocabulary. In doing so, He did more than change the meaning of words; He elevated these words to a sublimity they had never known before.

Original Sin and Society

We have so far seen something of the condition of the family in the ancient world. So now we want to ask ourselves some questions. Why were marriage and the family in such a sorry state in the pre-Christian world? What did Christ do to redeem family life from its sad condition?

In one simple statement, we may say that marriage and the family needed redemption because they were both deeply steeped in sin. When we speak of the fall of man, we must remember this means not only the fall of man as an individual, but the fall of man as a social being. Or again, the fall of man means not only the fall of single human beings, but the fall of human society. Everything that we associate with original sin for the individual person should be applied also to what we may call the original sin of human society, and for our purpose, of the human family which is the basic unit of society.

Original sin has not only one, but two meanings. They are closely related; the one follows on the other, but the one is not the other. First of all original sin was the loss of sanctifying grace by our first parents. Since they did not have the grace to pass on, they passed on instead the lack of grace to their descendants. As a result of the fall of Adam and Eve all the descendants of that first pair (with the unique exception of the Mother of God) all human persons have come into the world without the grace of God. That is the first consequence of original sin on each individual.

Everything we believe that original sin has done to human beings, as individual persons, we believe is also done to human beings as members of society, beginning with the foundation of human society which are marriage and the family. What are we saying? We are saying that original sin has not only profoundly damaged individual persons. It has also damaged human society. As a result of original sin, human society had been deprived of supernatural grace and the consequent right to heaven.

Because of original sin, society has lost its gift of integrity. This means the loss of self-control by individuals and, we now add, self-control by societies. We are now subject to unthinking drives. Not only as individuals do we have personal tendencies that are sinful, but societies also, including our own, have irrational drives, and mad urges, incentives to evil.

This means that the same seven capital sins which are the main sinful urges that we all have as individuals are the same sinful drives of human society. I keep repeating the question “what do we mean?” We mean that we are naturally prone to sin. Note the adverb? Naturally. We are naturally prone to sin not only as individuals, but as societies. I am naturally proud. Let me change the subject of the noun, we are all naturally proud. All human societies are naturally proud. We, as social beings, are naturally lustful. We are naturally irascible. We are naturally given to anger. We are all fallen human beings, not just as individuals, but as a society, are naturally covetous and greedy, and naturally envious. What is envy? The sadness we feel when we see someone else have what either we lack or someone succeed where we have failed. I know of no single sin that divides more families than envy.

Redeemer of the Family

God became man to redeem the world. But most of us, I believe, most of the time identify the redemption as the redemption of individual human beings. Did Christ come to redeem individuals? Yes, He did. The name Jesus, as we know, means Savior. Is our Lord the Savior? Yes. But Christ is not only my Savior, He is our Savior. He came to redeem not just individuals, but human society, the human family. We repeat the question, what did Christ do to redeem family life? In order to redeem the human family from the ravages of sin brought into the world, what did God do? He became man.

How did God, when He became man, go about redeeming, which means repairing, which means healing a fallen human family? He did so by revealing what family life should be, by teaching the truths by which human families should live and, by giving the human race the means to live up to what He taught families should be.

What a Family Should Be

Jesus taught that a family should be a lifelong union of persons who are united by profession of the same divine faith as He revealed to the human race. It should be a lifelong union of persons who are obedient to the teachings of the Church founded by Christ. It should be a lifelong union of persons who are nourished by the sources of grace provided by Jesus Christ. Needless to say, this is what the Redeemer wanted and still wants family life to be. We are not saying that all Christian families either fully reflect these standards of Christ or always remain faithful to His expectations. But we should know what the standard is.

Christ wants family life to be a lifelong union of persons who are spiritually united by the profession of the same divine faith as revealed by Jesus Christ. How many people, without a second thought, will marry someone who does not share their faith. The price they pay and the risk they take are known to God alone.

As envisioned by Christ, a family is a lifetime union of two persons who are obedient to the teachings of the Church which He founded and which alone is divinely authorized to tell Christians how they are to live their married lives. This includes the Church's teaching on marital morality and, with emphasis, her unchangeable doctrine on fidelity and procreative love in marital intimacy.

Everything which Christ taught His followers to believe somehow affects the family. But there are certain truths of faith that are fundamental. What bears emphasis is that these are divinely revealed truths that God became man to communicate to the human race.

Truths about charity. You do not begin to have family life as Christ wants it to be without the practice of selfless love.

Truths about chastity. Only chaste love can preserve a Christian marriage and only loving chastity can safeguard the Christian family.

Truths about patience. Our English word "patience" comes from the Latin verb pati, which means to "suffer." It is impossible to practice patience unless you suffer. Christ taught that families must be patient. The husband must be patient with his wife, the wife with her husband; the parents must be patient with their children; and children with their parents. Do members of families cause each other some suffering? That is what life is all about. Every human being suffers. We come into the world crying and, unless we are totally anesthetized, we leave the world in pain. Jesus taught patience and He taught patience not only by word, but especially by example.

Jesus taught truths about marriage. The Pharisees tried to trip Him, whether He would side with one school of Jewish thought or another on what grounds a man could discard his wife. There is no question in their minds that a man could divorce his wife and marry another woman. Jesus told the Pharisees, "you have it all wrong. You must remain one man, one woman until death." Understandably, because it was so new to them, even the disciples could not understand.

This revelation of Christ was meant for the whole world. Not only among Christians, but among Hindus, Buddhists and Moslems, if family life is even to survive, it must be monogamous. Christ therefore restored monogamy for all of mankind, and not only for Christianity.

Jesus taught some difficult truths about sexuality. He not only told husbands to remain faithful to their wives. He said that if a man even looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. This applies also to women. If they look lustfully at a man, they too commit adultery with him in their hearts.

Prayer, Sacraments and the Church. Having laid down the principles on which family life should be based, Christ also provided the supernatural resource which is necessary for living up to these revealed norms. These resources are mainly prayer, the sacraments and the Church.

Jesus insisted on prayer if we are to remain faithful to the graces of our state of life, here the state of matrimony. There is no choice.

Every member of the family must be faithful to the daily practice of prayer. It is not too much to say that the members of a family will remain united if they pray. There are so many divisive forces at work, and human nature is too selfish to hope for a stable family life without constant light and strength from God, to be obtained from devoted prayer. Without prayer, grace will not be available. Without grace, stable family life is impossible.

Moreover, Christ instituted seven sacraments in order to provide for the spiritual well-being of all His followers. But He made one sacrament especially for the married. We may say He had to do so, in sheer justice to Himself. Having set down His expectations for marriage and the family, He made these expectations practicable by supplying the resources of grace available in the sacrament of matrimony.

Finally, Christ founded the Church to preserve the truths He revealed, to explain them to the faithful, and to be for all mankind the universal sacrament of salvation. It is through the Church, of which the Bishop of Rome is the visible head, that Christ channels His graces of wisdom for the human mind and strength for the human will to know and live up to the mind and will of God. These graces are not only for individuals but for societies, and especially for families.


The capstone of a truly Christian family is that it forms a community. A good synonym would be "togetherness." But we had better know what kind of togetherness a family should have. It is a togetherness that is not of merely human making or of human ingenuity. It is a community born of God.

According to Pope John Paul II, we are "at a moment in history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it" (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, 3). These forces are especially hostile to the unity of the family. If this unity is even to survive, it must be fostered by the conscious effort to avoid whatever is divisive and to cultivate whatever unifies the members of a family.

Centuries of Christian wisdom have shown that certain features are typically unifying, and their opposite are divisive. This means that the family:

Lives together. Certainly there are circumstances in today’s world that may require husband or wife or children to be physically separated from one another for longer or shorter periods of time. But living together under the same roof promotes unity and must be given high priority.

Talks together. Conversation is the normal way for human beings to exchange their thoughts and desires. Our Lord told His disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, because the servant does not know what his master does. But I have called you friends, because all things that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you” (John 15:15). If there is anything that unites the members of a family it is their talking to one another. No doubt some people are more talkative than others. But the practice of sincere daily conversation is indispensable for sound family life.

Prays together. It is no cliche, but an axiom of revealed wisdom that families that pray together stay together. The reason is not hard to see. We need two kinds of grace from the divine mercy: grace for ourselves as individuals and grace for the society to which we belong. On both levels, we shall obtain the grace needed if we pray for it individually and corporately. The corporate graces that families need require corporate prayer. When Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I shall be there with them” (Matthew 18:19), He was giving us the most powerful motive possible for family prayer.

Works together. One of the liabilities of an industrialized culture is that people work away from home. Moreover, the common sense of the business world is to make money. It is secondary as to how the financial prosperity of an industry or business affects the families of the workers. Given this attitude, it is advisable for the members of a family to find ways of becoming co-workers. By working together on some common enterprise they will develop the virtue of cooperative charity.

Discusses together. This is different from talking together. In every family, there arise needs to be resolved and plans should be made that affect parents and children. The discussion need not be formal and should not be artificial. Nor does it mean that every one has to be involved in every discussion. But periodic, even regular, interchange of ideas has been the practice of generations of Christian households since the apostolic age.

Worships together. Again this is different from just praying together. The Church's liturgy is, by definition a corporate form of prayer. Every opportunity should be taken for husband and wife, parents and children to attend Mass together and to receive the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist with one another. As we saw from the Acts of the Apostles, this was the way believing families at the dawn of Christianity worshiped. When they met “for the breaking of bread," this was for the Eucharistic liturgy.

Reads together. A recognized effect of the media, especially television, is to discourage good reading habits. As a result the literary heritage of two millennia of Christian wisdom is becoming a closed book to millions of still believing Catholics. Moreover, the electronic media tend to isolate the viewers and listeners who can become addicted to what they are seeing and hearing. Some reading together will provide nourishment for their believing minds. It will also give the family the opportunity to share ideas and insights that a stimulating book will inspire.

Eats together. Some of the most revealing truths of our faith were taught by Christ while He was eating with others. It was especially at the Last Supper that He opened His Heart to the world and instituted the sacrament of His love. During family meals, it is not only the body that is being fed, but the souls of those at table are nourished by their interchange of spirit.

Recreates together. In leisure cultures of the Western world, a large amount of time is spent in what people generally call entertainment. A better term would be recreation. This can be the means of fostering family unity if wife and husband and children sincerely try to refresh their bodies and minds as a family. It will also provide the opportunity for the practice of a charity that many people overlook. “If you have no need for recreation for yourself,” St. Francis de Sales advised, “you must help to make recreation for those who need it” (Spiritual Conferences, 2).

Suffers and Rejoices together. Like the members of a human body, the members of a family are to share in one another's sorrows and joys. This is the theme of St. Paul's inspired teaching about the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. "If one member suffers anything," says the apostle, "all the members suffer with it or if one member glories, all the members rejoice with it" (I Corinthians 12:26). So too in the family. Nothing so unites the members of a family as their companionship in suffering. Nothing, too, so bonds a Christian family as their spontaneous happiness over the well being or achievement of any of its members.

We have no illusions about the price that a family has to pay to fulfill these conditions for being a community of love. So many forces are at work in the world to separate and divide the family in the name of individual liberty. The exaltation of individuality is camouflaged as personality.

Only a deep faith in Jesus Christ and trusted hope 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, while making us believe it is not there at all. This is the root cause of the breakdown of family life in so many materially developed 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, where need be, back to life.

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 future of the Christian family is most promising, but only for those who really believe that Christianity is the religion of civilization.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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