John Paul II and the Family:

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April 16, 2012 6:32 pm

The Family: A Communion of Persons

Among the thematic concerns of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate have been the restoration of Christian Unity and the fall of Communism, and increasingly a plea to the West to abandon its materialistic ways. He has been working actively to advance these goals. Indeed, he played a major role in the fall of Communism, progress has been made in various ecumenical endeavors and arguably World Youth Days have begun to direct the youth of the world away from consumerism to supernatural realities.

A concern of seemingly equal importance for John Paul II has been the promotion of the Christian understanding of the family. He has expressed repeatedly that “at [this] moment in history, …the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it” (Familiaris Consortio 3). Thus, he seeks to fortify the family to withstand these attacks so that it can perform its vital role for the good of the individual, society, and the Church. John Paul II’s numerous and profound writings on sexuality, marriage, and the family are shaped by theological, philosophical, and political perspectives. From his pre-pontifical years, we have the philosophical, incomparable Love and Responsibility, and from the early years of his pontificate we have his elaborate theology of the body set out in a series of Wednesday audiences. The family is comprehensively treated in Familiaris Consortio and his Letter to Families; these are complemented by lengthy passages in his writings on women and also his writings on the laity and social justice. There are few portions of his thought that are not touched by concern for the family.

The first portion of this paper presents in a sketchy form some of the philosophical principles that undergird John Paul II’s thought on the family. A brief history of competing views of the family and of the human person will serve to set those views in high relief. The second portion of the paper lays out John Paul II’s particular vision of the Catholic understanding of the family.

Part I

Views on the Family

Here let us take a brief look at a few other views of the family. While the necessary simplification may involve some distortion, nonetheless this exercise should allow us to construct a sharper and clearer picture of the views of Pope John Paul II. The view of the family in the Old Testament is one of the nation, tribe, or clan. One belongs to a body of individuals who have a corporate destiny. While God communicates with particular individuals, He does so to direct His chosen people. Sons carry on the project of their fathers and the sins of the fathers are visited upon the heads of the sons. In the New Testament, salvation extends to all, to Gentiles as well as Jews, and we now speak of the brotherhood of all mankind. This view of the family, of course, remains in the thought of John Paul II especially when he calls upon particular families to extend their apostolate of love, when he calls upon them to have a preferential option for the poor. But I am getting ahead of the story.

Plato’s view of the family has disturbed many. In the fifth book of the Republic, he argues (one wonders how seriously) for a dissolution of the family for the aristocratic class. He proposes that “wives and children” be held in common. That is, the highest quality warriors will mate with the highest quality women — not in a monogamous way –and their children will be raised in a group fashion without knowing who their parents are. This proposal was made not because of a suspicion about the value of the family; rather it was made so that the rulers of the state would think of themselves as one big family and have the love and unity that characterize a family.

Aristotle in his Politics rejects this proposal as being totally incompatible with human nature. Among other objections, he notes that human beings care much more for what is their own and if they can identify no spouse or children as their own they will not be able to show the proper care for them. (Politics, 1261b35) Aristotle believed that the family was a natural institution; in the Nicomachean Ethics he states, “The friendship between husband and wife is thought to exist by nature; for men by nature tend to form couples more than to be political, and they do this to the extent that a household is prior and more necessary than a state …” (1162a17) Aristotle recognized that the relationship between family members was one of love and friendship: “parents love their children as they love themselves… and children love their parents as being born of them… brothers love each other by having been born of the same parents…” (1161b28) The family provides for the physical, psychological, and social needs of the individual who then has a base from which to serve the common good.

Aquinas, of course, built much upon Aristotle but went beyond him. He shares Aristotle’s understanding of the naturalness of marriage and family and holds that love is the proper bond between the members of a family. Marriage was established as a natural institution before original sin. After the Fall, marriage served as sacrament of the Old Law as a remedy for the sin of concupiscence. Under the New Law it serves as a sacramental sign of the mystery of Christ’s Union with the Church and provides spouses with the graces enabling them to perform the good works proper to marriage (ST II-II, Q. 42, a. 2-3).

With the enlightenment, however, there came to be a radical challenge to the understanding of marriage and family as natural unions, let alone sacramental unions. Many examples can be given, but perhaps that of Rousseau suffices for our purposes. As he said, “Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains.” He sees the family as a natural society, but one that serves largely to meet the temporary needs of the human being. Once a child no longer needs a father for survival, “the children are released from the duty of obeying the father, he is released from the duty of taking care of them, and they all become independent.” All future association is simply voluntary. The state is much like the family; it is a union required by needs of survival but it is legitimate ultimately only if it is a voluntary association. Even at their best, in many respects the family and the state are deleterious to the individual since they require a conformity of the individual to corporate rather than individual goods.

With the acceptance of the theory of evolution, the malleability of the family has become a constant theme. The family is “natural” in the sense that it has served certain purposes of survival of the human species, but it, along with all institutions, is still evolving. There is nothing to prevent other means of nurture and education from performing the functions of the family and in fact from performing them better. There is no reason to envision the family as a basic unit of father, mother, children and other related persons; rather it can be constituted by any collection of people living with and caring for each other. Hence we now have calls for recognition of homosexual unions as marriages and any grouping of individuals as families.

Over time the individual rather than the family has become the focus of legal protection and public policy. The individual now is largely seen as an atomistic entity in need of maximal opportunity for the actualization of his or her preferences without interference from others, including the family. General enthusiasm for an ever-proliferating set of rights seeks to protect individual rights threatened by such institutions as the family. This shift from focus on the family to focus on the individual is not as much actuated by respect for the rights of the individual as one might hope; rather it is accompanied by a desire to transfer power from the family to the some other group. Mary Ann Glendon has observed:

In one sense, the current attacks on the family represent a new version of a story that is as old as politics itself. Those who seek power have always known that the more that individuals can be detached from families and other mediating groups, the more easily they can be subjugated, and their allegiances shifted to the state, the party, or the charismatic leader. Contemporary movements to “deconstruct” and delegitimate the family thus have implications for human freedom far different from those imagined by hardline feminists and homosexual activists naïve enough to believe they would be better off without strong families and vibrant religious groups

It is against this background that John Paul II’s understanding of the family should be seen.

Views of the Person

Still, in expounding John Paul II’s understanding of the family and its importance, one should not begin with the family. Indeed, one cannot speak of any elements of the thought of John Paul II without reference to his personalism and that is particularly true in respect to his understanding of the family. It is as impossible to do a full review of the many views of the human person that have been proposed throughout the history of philosophy as it is of the family. Yet we must provide a least a sketch of various views for they also constitute a background and a useful foil to the thought of John Paul II.

As a philosopher, Karol Wojtyla has a keen awareness of the philosophical challenges to the Christian understanding of the human person. He formulated much of his own philosophy in the context of a response to Marxism with its utterly utilitarian evaluation of the human person; for Marx individual persons could and would certainly be sacrificed to the march of history. Karol Wojtyla was no less cognizant of the reduction of the horizon of the human person produced by enlightenment philosophers. They valued man largely for his rational capacities, capacities in their view to be exercised within the limits either of the material world or within the limits of the contents of the human mind, that is, without reference to anything supernatural.

For Wojtyla, of course, the human person has an inviolable dignity and a transcendent destiny. These features of the human person are knowable both through the discoveries of reason and through revelation. Yet, while Wojtyla accepts the scholastic definition of the human person as an individual substance of a rational nature, his analysis of the human person does not focus so much on man’s cognitive capacity, on his ability to understand universal truths. Rather, he concentrates primarily upon the person’s powers of self-determination, hence his book The Acting Person. Indeed, Wojtyla does not take as his point of departure the AristotelianThomistic movement from sense data to universal truths. Rather, he begins his analysis of the human person, with the very modern vantage point of the contents of the human mind, most particularly the experience of self-consciousness and particularly the consciousness of a self that knows itself to be a self-determining entity. (This does not mean, of course, that Wojtyla rejects a role of experience in ethics. Indeed, he objects to all ethical systems that do not make experience a starting point for the ethical act.)

One might suspect that this emphasis on the self-determining powers of the person would suggest that Wojtyla has a highly individualistic understanding of the human person. After all, as we have noted, much of modern philosophy places rather extreme emphasis on the human person as a free individual with inalienable rights. Indeed, John Paul II has taken care to express repeatedly his affinity for the modern commitment to freedom and the modern doctrine of fundamental human rights. He was reportedly one of the driving forces behind the Vatican II document, Dignitatem Humanae which argued for a freedom in religious matters that some find nearly radical. In Veritatis Splendor, he acknowledges that “the right to religious freedom and to respect for conscience in the journey towards the truth is increasingly perceived as the foundation of the cumulative rights of the person” and speaks of this “heightened sense of the dignity of the human person and of his or her uniqueness, and of the respect due to the journey of conscience” as one of the “positive achievements of modern culture.” (31)

In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II praised the growth of the modern understanding and commitment to universal fundamental human rights. There he states:

…the various declarations of human rights and the many initiatives inspired by these declarations show that at the global level there is a growing moral sensitivity, more alert to acknowledging the value and dignity of every individual as a human being, without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class. (18)

In spite of all his admiration for the modern concern with the rights of conscience and with other inalienable rights, John Paul II detects dangerous trends regarding both.

John Paul II’s fears concerning the modern doctrine of fundamental, inalienable, universal rights are 1) that there has been a “tragic repudiation of them in practice” (EV, 18) and even worse 2) that attacks against life “tend no longer to be considered as ‘crimes’; paradoxically they assume the nature of ‘rights’. What were once considered crimes, such as abortion and assisted suicide have now come to be considered fundamental human rights.” (11) John Paul II finds the roots of these problems to be in a “perverse idea of freedom”:

When freedom, out of a desire to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority, shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth, which is the foundation of personal and social life, then the person ends up by no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his selfish interest and whim.” (EV 19)

He finds that this same perverse idea of freedom corrupts the modern emphasis on the primacy of conscience insofar as it tends to give an absoluteness to freedom, a freedom to be exercised without submission to the demands of objective truth. He observes:

…the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “being at peace with oneself,” so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.” (VS, 32)

The exercise of freedom detached from the truth is a misuse of freedom. As Veritatis Splendor also states:

Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. (50)

It would be difficult to find a modern thinker who has a higher regard for the dignity of the human person than John Paul II but that regard is predicated on the power of the human person to know and to act freely in accord with the truth.

Relationality

The human person’s freedom does not make him free from the obligations and demands of truth, nor does it make him free from the obligations and demands of his relationships with others. When defining human nature, Karol Wojtyla stresses not only the human person’s rationality and freedom, but he also his relationality or his need for being in solidarity with others. This relationality is not simply defined by the need of the human person for others to supply his physical needs nor by the need of the human person for others to help him accomplish his goals. Rather, Wojtyla finds man’s need for others to be deeply constitutive of his very being. He argues that the human person can discover himself fully only by the “sincere giving of himself.” Evangelium Vitae states that

…God entrusts us to one another. And it is also in view of this entrusting that God gives everyone freedom, a freedom which possesses an inherently relational dimension. This is a great gift of the Creator, placed as it is at the service of the person and of his fulfillment through the gift of self and openness to others; but when freedom is made absolute in an individualistic way, it is emptied of its original content, and its very meaning and dignity are contradicted. (19)

John Paul II argues for this understanding of the person as essentially a relational entity, both philosophically and theologically. It surprises and troubles some that Karol Wojtyla cites regularly the enlightenment philosopher Kant for the philosophical grounding of his understanding of the person. The understanding of the person that Wojtyla shares with Kant is not so much metaphysical as it is anthropological and ethical. While Wojtyla acknowledges that anthropology and ethics require a metaphysics and while he acknowledges the basic truth of an Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics, again, he does not use such a metaphysics as the point of departure for his anthropology and his ethics. What he adopts from Kant has no serious conflicts with Aquinas’ view of the human person, but one suspects he begins with a Kantian principle rather than a Thomistic one for pedagogical as much as philosophical purposes. In Kant we have a “pure philosopher”, one who eschews revelation as a source of philosophical insight and one who rejects nature as a source of norms. (Needless to say, Wojtyla does not accept these limitations.)

The dictum of Kant that Wojtyla most often cites is his claim that one should always treat persons as ends and never use them solely as a means to an end. In Love and Responsibility he explains what he considers to be the foundation for this principle:

…a person is a thinking subject, and capable of taking decisions: these, most notably, are the attributes we find in the inner self of a person. This being so, every person is by nature capable of determining his or her aims. Anyone who treats a person as the means to an end does violence to the very essence of the other, to what constitutes its natural right. Obviously, we must demand from a person, as a thinking individual, that his or her ends should be genuinely good, since the pursuit of evil ends is contrary to the rational nature of the person. This is also the purpose of education, both the education of children and the mutual education of adults; it is just that – a matter of seeking true ends, i.e., real goods as the ends of our actions, and of finding and showing to others the ways to realize them.

A person is an “end” and not a “means” because a person is not determined to be this or that, like a cow is determined to be a cow and a tomato plant is determined to be a tomato plant. Certainly, a human being is determined to be rational, free, and relational, but this very freedom allows the human person to be self-determining in the way that is unique and the source of his dignity; the human person determines him or her self to be morally good or morally evil. The human person’s greatest achievement is to make moral choices that give him or her a good moral character, that align him or her with what is good and true. This is to become perfect as one’s heavenly father is perfect; this is how the human person shares in the divine. Wojtyla makes the important observation that not even God uses a person as a means; he states,

God allows man to learn His supernatural ends, but the decision to strive towards an end, the choice of course, is left to man’s free will. God does not redeem man against his will.

Wojtyla claims that there are two ways to treat things; to use them as means, or to honor them as ends. He elaborates on this distinction at considerable length in Love and Responsibility. In his Letter to Families, Pope John Paul II distinguished the Christian view of the person and marriage from the more prevalent contemporary one by speaking of a contrast between a “civilization of love” and a “civilization of use”. There he states:

Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of “things” and not of “persons”, a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used. In the context of a civilization of use, woman can become an object for man, children a hindrance to parents, the family an institution obstructing the freedom of its members. (13)

The family has as its mission the creation of a civilization of love. But, again, this is to get ahead of the story. Let us continue to explore the Pope’s personalism.

While Wojtyla draws a great deal upon Kant’s imperative forbidding the use of persons, he goes beyond Kant in counseling not only against maltreatment of the person as means. He states that the person requires more; the person requires “affirmation of the person as a person.”

His ethics is based upon what he calls the personalistic principle that the person is “the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end.” Again, he gives a positive cast to the norm derived from this principle; he formulates the personalist norm as: “the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.” Wojtyla speaks of this norm as a requirement of justice; love is what we owe other persons.

This being just to other persons, this loving others, is not only demanded of us because of the needs of others, because of their good; it is demanded of us because of our needs and our good. We must love, we must be self-giving in order to actualize our being fully.

Here, perhaps, the point is best made not so much through Wojtyla’s philosophical deliberations (though this can be done) but through John Paul II’s meditations on scripture, most particularly Genesis. John Paul II has developed what he calls a “theology of the body.” One of his most striking phrases and terms is his reference to what he calls the “nuptial meaning of the body.” By this he means that the very make-up of the human body, the very fact that we are all creatures of one sex or the other, indicates that we are “made for union with another.” This is so both physically and spiritually. John Paul II has spoken movingly of the human person’s “existential loneliness” that is eased by the relationship of marriage. He observes the deep joy and satisfied longing that is expressed in Adam’s utterance upon seeing Eve: “Here at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” We are made to give ourselves to another and to receive another; our very physiological make-up demonstrates that. And this mutual giving and receiving is to issue forth in new life. Thus we are all, in the depths of our being, beings that require a spouse and children for the fulfillment of our being, whether that spouse be a flesh and blood spouse and the children be biological children, or whether the spouse be the Church, the bride of Christ, and one’s parenthood be a spiritual parenthood.

For John Paul II the body is the visible expression of the human person. Our need for another is not simply physiological. Here we move to an even more transcendent level of revelation. He speaks of the human person being made in the likeness and image of God not only in our possession of rationality and free will, but, again, in our relationality. God is not only rational and free; God is a trinity; God is a loving family. Thus the human person images God in being a part of a family, in being made to love and be loved.

Part II

As we shift to consideration of John Paul II’s understanding of the family, let us briefly summarize John Paul II’s understanding of the human person. The human person is a rational, self-determining, relational entity whose dignity resides in his ability to choose freely in accord with the truth. The human person who does so will fulfill his nature as a self-giving loving being. As Familiaris Consortio states, “Love is…the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” (11) Later in Familiaris Consortio he cites a passage from Redemptor hominis:

Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. (18)

With this background, we can begin to see why the family assumes a position of such importance in the thought of John Paul II. The family is the natural school of love and thus is essential to enabling human persons to achieve the fulfillment of their fundamental dignity. In Familiaris Consortio he describes the family in many ways beginning with using a phrase from Gaudium et Spes: the family is an “intimate community of life and love.” (FC 17; GS 48)

Sexuality

The family is clearly the outgrowth of the love between spouses. Thus, of course, a few things must be said about marriage and the sexual union from which children issue. In his Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla carefully describes what must be true about the sexual relationship for it to be raised to the level of the person. He explains how only an exclusive, indissoluble commitment properly expresses love of the person; any other type of sexual relationship involves an element of using the other, of not respecting the other. Wojtyla constantly counsels how the human person must always act in accord with the truth and a fundamental truth about the sexual union is that it may result in a new human life. To act without regard for that possibility is to use another and to allow oneself to be used.

One must regard one’s spouse, one’s sexual partner, as the possible parent of one’s future children. In Love and Responsibility, Wojtyla states:

[the sexual union] is raised to the level of the person only when it is accompanied in the mind and the will by the acceptance of the possibility of parenthood. This acceptance is so important, so decisive that without it marital intercourse cannot be said to be a realization of the personal order.

Without this ordination, the sexual union tends towards bilateral enjoyment rather than towards unification. Wojtyla states that the “willingness for parenthood” serves to break down egoism and opens spouses to the creative power of love. Further we read “Responsibility for love…is very closely bound up with responsibility for parenthood.”

These claims appear in a chapter entitled “Justice Towards the Creator”. Wojtyla maintains that since God is a personal being, He has certain rights and man has certain duties in respect to Him. “Man is just towards God the Creator when he recognizes the order of nature and conforms to it in his actions.” But even more, man is a particeps Creatoris, that is, he is a participant in the very creative work of God. Through the act of becoming a parent, spouses become participants in God’s creation in a most incredible way; they become cocreators with God in the bringing forth of a new human person, of an immortal entity. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II cites a portion of his Letter to Families:

In affirming that the spouses, as parents, cooperate with God the Creator in conceiving and giving birth to a new human being, we are not speaking merely with reference to the laws of biology. Instead, we wish to emphasize that God himself is present in human fatherhood and motherhood quite differently than he is present in all other instances of begetting ‘on earth.’ Indeed, God alone is the source of that ‘image and likeness’ which is proper to the human being, as it was received at Creation. Begetting is the continuation of Creation. (43; citing Letter to Families, 9).

As Wojtyla states, “Man must reconcile himself to his natural greatness.”

It is a matter of philosophic truth that God must be present at the conception of each and every human being, because only God can create an immortal soul; the human parents provide the matter necessary for human life and God provides the immoral soul. Scripture takes this insight further and through story after story stresses the loving attentiveness of God to each new soul. Perhaps this is best said in Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” (cited in EV, 44). Spouses, then, are persons, who cooperate with God in bringing forth new persons. As parents, they are to be the symbol and representatives of God’s unconditional love for those whom He has called into existence.

Tasks of the Family

Perhaps now it is easy to understand why John Paul II teaches that the family plays a key role in the economy of salvation. In his Letter to Families, he speaks of the family as “the first and most important path” on our way to Christ. He realizes that it is within the family that human persons are first schooled in virtue. In fact, he calls the family “the school of social virtues” (Familiaris Consortio, 42). He also speaks of it as “a school of deeper humanity” (FC, 21), “a school of social living” (FC, 13) “a school of following Christ” (FC, 39).

We must note that John Paul II not only speaks of the family as a school for the children but also as a school for the parents. As his says in the Letter to Families, “While [parents] are teachers of humanity for their own children, they learn humanity from them.” (16) Indeed, it is through giving of themselves to each other and their children that spouses grow in virtue and holiness. (FC, 34)

In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II identifies four tasks for the family:

  1. forming a community of persons;
  2. serving life;
  3. participating in the development of society;
  4. sharing in the life and mission of Christ (17)

Forming a Community of Persons

We have already spoken to some extent about how the family is a community of persons. Perhaps here it would be appropriate to speak somewhat of the role of women in the family, for women, as persons with what John Paul II, calls a special “genius” make a unique contribution. While John Paul II clearly recognizes that women have the full range of abilities and talents as men and while he promotes their right to access to a role in the public realm, he mourns that modern culture has tended to devalue the important, indeed irreplaceable and indispensable work of wives and mothers in the home. The “genius” of women of which he speaks is a genius that is linked to the female capacity to bear children. He speaks of the love that a woman has for the child in her womb which gives rise to a special attitude “not only towards her own child, but every human being.” He states,

It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man – even with all his sharing in parenthood – always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own ‘fatherhood’ from the mother.

This passage reflects several of John Paul II’s themes concerning women. In his Letter to Women, he identifies the special “genius” of women as being a readiness to engage in services of love. (10) In the above passage he maintains that the readiness is rooted in the maternal nature of women, of the love they have for their own children extended to others. He also makes the interesting point that in many ways the man must learn fatherhood from the mother. Moreover, he speaks about how the burden of parenthood is greater for the mother and draws the conclusion that this creates a “special debt to the woman” and says “No program of ‘equal rights’ between women and man is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account”. There he implies almost mischievously that equality between the parents weighs out in favor of the mother!

We recall that Pope John Paul II holds that the ultimate achievement for the human person, the human person’s fulfillment comes from being self-giving. Here we learn that parenthood, both motherhood and fatherhood, because of the instinctive love that parents have for their very needy children, are designed by nature to foster selflessness in the parents and clearly selflessness is essential to being able to be self-giving.

In his Letter to Families, John Paul II cites the words of the apostle Paul, “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every fatherhood and motherhood is named ‘that he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man” (Ephesians 3:16). He then states “The family is the first human setting in which is formed that ‘inner man’ of which the Apostle speaks. The growth of the inner man in strength and vigour is a gift of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” (23) Karol Wojtyla’s philosophic thought greatly emphasizes the “subjectivity” of the human person; the sense that the human person has of his own unique unrepeatability and of himself as a self-determining, responsible agent. The family is the first place where the human person begins to develop this sense of himself or herself. This development is essential to the full flowering of personhood.

Serving Life

The second task that John Paul II identifies for the family is “serving life”. We have already spoken about the tremendous privilege and responsibility spouses have in being cocreators with God of a new human person. This in itself is an element of human dignity that is inestimable in value; as the opening line of Humanae Vitae states “God entrusts to spouses the extremely important mission of transmitting human life” and all the responsibilities of parenthood that come with it.

In Evangelium Vitae John Paul II bemoans the fact that man has lost “sight of the mystery of God, [and] also the mystery of the world and the mystery of his own being.” (21) He goes on to stay that this loss of the sense of mystery has led to a “practical materialism, which breeds individualism, utilitarianism and hedonism.” (23) Here we find the marvelous phrase “The values of being are replaced by those of having.” The service of the family to life includes loving persons primarily and simply for the fact that they exist rather than for how useful they may be to us. It is only the natural love that arises in the family supplemented by that appreciation of the supernatural destiny of all souls that will enable us to resist the forces of the Culture of Death.

The family by God’s design is meant to be the “sanctuary of life. Our culture has earned the title “Culture of Death” precisely because the crimes against life in our society are often “carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the family.” (EV, 9) That is, it is because abortion is had by a mother (and often abetted by the father if only in his abandonment of the mother) and because assisted suicide is frequently performed in accord with the wishes of the family, that Evangelium Vitae calls ours a “culture of death.”

Education in Human Sexuality

In the service of life, one of the primary tasks of the family is to teach children the truth about human sexuality and to prepare them well for marriage. The Vatican has issued several documents in recent years attempting to lay down guidelines for education in sexuality and in preparation for marriage. John Paul II insists that in accord with the principle of subsidiarity, schools must respect the principle that parents are the first and foremost educators of their children and that all sex education must be education in chastity. Moreover, parents must be attentive to the three states of marriage preparation. Remote preparation takes place in the home as the child from a very young age observes how his or her parents interact. Proximate preparation takes place as young people learn about the various sacraments and vocations. Immediate preparation is that which takes in the months and weeks prior to the wedding ceremony as the couple come to appreciate how their marital relationship must be lived in a Christian way. Given that so much dysfunctionality in our culture comes from divorced households, preparation for marriage assumes a very great importance, for intact households give children the stability and self-confidence they need to be leaders in solving the world’s problems

Participating in the Development of Society

The Christian way of life is a way that is open to life, not only to the life brought forth from the love of the parents but also to all human life. The family is the “first cell of society” (FC 42) and is the “school of the social virtues.” (FC 44) The reach of the family is to be an extended one:

Families…either singly or in association, can and should devote themselves to manifold social service activities, especially in favor of the poor, or at any rate for the benefit of all people and situations that cannot be reached by the public authorities’ welfare organization. (FC, 69)

The family is called to a special “hospitality” for the needy; it is to have a “special concern for the hungry, the poor, the old, the sick, drug victims and those who have no family.” (47)

The family is also called to work for the rights of the family. Familiaris Consortio presents a fairly lengthy “Charter of Family Rights.” (46) In a day, when many social and political forces are destroying the family, John Paul II finds it ever more imperative to implore families to fulfill the unique charisms of families and to work to form societies and governments that make this possible.

Sharing in the Life and Mission of Christ

The fourth task belongs to the family is its dimension as the Domestic Church.

It is as a community of love that the family participates in the prophetic, priestly, and kingly mission of Christ. (FC 50)

It fulfills its participation in the prophetic mission by being a school of evangelization; the parents are to grow in their knowledge of their faith they are to catechize their children in the faith, and the family is to be “animated in its own inner life by missionary zeal” for those who do not live by the gospel. (FC 54)

The family participates in the priestly mission of Christ by aiding its members in responding to the universal call to sanctity, (FC 56). Families are to develop a reverence for the Eucharist, they are to make ample use of the sacrament of reconciliation and they are to participate in family prayer. In his comments on prayer in his Letter to Families Pope John Paul II returns to his concern for the development of the inner person. He states, “It is significant that in and through prayer, man comes to discover in a very simple and yet profound way his own subjectivity: in prayer the human ‘I’ more easily perceives the depth of what it means to be a person. This is also true of the family, which is not only the basic ‘cell’ of society, but also possesses a particular subjectivity of its own.” (4) This talk of a “particular subjectivity” of the family achieved through prayer is fascinating; John Paul II is saying that the family gets a sense of is own identity, its own uniqueness, its own blessedness by God through family prayer. As the individual person gets a sense of that he or she is individually beloved by God and has a special unique calling, so too does the family as a unit get that sense.

The family participates in the kingly mission of Christ by working to bring about the Kingdom of God through lives of service, through spreading the love of the home to the needy and by working for justice.

As we can see, John Paul II’s philosophy and his understanding of the family stems from and continually return to his understanding of the human person. Ultimately, achieving full personhood means becoming Christ-like, for “Christ reveals man to himself.” It is because it is a community of persons, a community of love and life, that the family is a “school of following Christ.”

John Paul II recognizes this as an age when there is a near obsession with the value of the individual and the individual rights and an age when those rights are depicted as even extending to the mastery over life and death. He has judged that the proper antidote to this situation is an emphasis on the dignity of the human person as made in the image and likeness of God , on the dignity of marriage as a symbol of the relationship of Christ and His Church, and on the dignity of the human family as the image of the Holy Trinity and Holy Family. It may be impossible to overstate the importance of these themes to his pontificate.


A Celebration of the Thought of John Paul II (1998) 85-103 ed. by Gregory R. Beabout St. Louis

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