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

The family as a group of persons of common ancestry began with the human race. But if we are to understand the meaning of the Christian family, we should know something of the family in pre-Christian times. The reason is that Christ elevated the family to a dignity and stability that simply did not exist before He came into the world.

We can say that the prevailing form of the family before Christ was monogamy, with one man and one woman together with their children. But this must immediately be qualified. Many of the peoples practiced polygamy, especially those of Semitic origin. It was therefore more common in the Near East and less common among the people of India, the Greeks or the Romans. However, even among those nations which practiced polygamy, it was generally restricted to a minority of the population, as kings and chiefs, nobles and the rich. On the other hand, divorce with the right to remarriage was practically universal among all pre-Christian people.

The Roman Empire in the first century of the Christian era is typical. Husband and wife could separate almost at will. One result was widespread instability.

In all the nations, and not only among the Romans, the position of women was very low. Among barbarians, a woman became a wife through capture or by purchase. Among the most civilized, like the Greeks and Romans, the wife was generally considered the husband’s property, in fact slave laborer. The husband was nowhere bound by the same law of marital fidelity as the wife. Moreover, he was seldom bound to give her equal rights in the matter of divorce. Abortion and infanticide were practically universal. Roman law gave the father the right of life and death over even his grown-up children.

These facts of history need to be kept in mind as we begin to look at the origin of the Christian family.

When God became man in the person of Christ. He literally changed the course of human civilization. Among the changes He introduced none was more radical than what He did to marriage and the family. The standing miracle of religious history is that Christ’s teaching on marriage and the family was accepted by so many peoples. For two thousand years it has remained a miracle of grace among those who believe in the power of His name.

Marriage Becomes a Sacrament

The most fundamental change which Christ introduced into the family was to raise marriage to the level of a sacrament.

When two baptized people marry, they receive the sacrament of matrimony. This means that their marriage is no longer merely a contract between themselves. It becomes a sacred covenant which they make with Christ and He with them. He becomes a partner in their marital relationship. He assures them the lifetime assistance of His divine grace and through them to their offspring. He provides them, as husband and wife, and as father and mother, with all the light they need for their minds and all the strength for their wills to live up to the naturally impossible expectations He has of His married followers.

What are we saying when we say that Christ elevated marriage to the dignity of a sacrament? We are saying that the marriage of Christians has certain qualities which two millennia of the Church’s history have shown to be attainable through the merits of Jesus Christ. These qualities are stability and unity, equality and the practice of selfless charity, and a sanctity that prepares husband, wife and children for a blessed eternity.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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