The Importance of the FamilyZENIT
The newly published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church dedicates one of its first chapters to the institution of the family, described as "the vital cell of society."The
opening number of the section of the family begins with how Sacred Scripture repeatedly
underlines the importance and centrality of the family. The book of Genesis narrates
the creation of the first man and woman, and the family is portrayed as having
a central role in creation. Other Old Testament books speak of the love to be
found in the family, which is also where children are taught wisdom and the virtues.
The Compendium recalls Paul VIís words during his visit to Nazareth
in 1964, when the Pontiff spoke of Jesus being born and living within a family,
"accepting all its characteristic features, and he conferred the highest dignity
on the institution of marriage." (No. 210)
The Church, continues the
text, sees in the family "the first natural society, with underived rights that
are proper to it, and places it at the center of social life." (No. 211) The family
founded on marriage between a man and a woman is important both for natural reasons,
as the principal place of interpersonal relationships, and also for supernatural
reasons, as a divine institution.
The Compendium then explains
the importance of the family for society. For each individual the family is the
cradle of life and love where they are born and grow. (No. 212) The climate of
affection that unites the family is also where we learn about truth and goodness.
Moreover, the family unit is a community of persons where moral values
are taught and the spiritual and cultural heritage of society are passed on.
The family is also essential in ensuring people are strong in their commitments,
and promote both social responsibility and solidarity.
Given its vital
importance the family has priority over society and the state. "Every social model
that intends to serve the good of man must not overlook the centrality and social
responsibility of the family." (No. 214)
Invoking the principle of subsidiarity
the text affirms that public authorities must not take away from the family tasks
that it can carry out by itself, or in association with other families.
- foundation of the family
With regards to marriage the Compendium
explains that the family is founded on the free choice of spouses to unite themselves.
The institution of marriage, while it is regulated by human institutions and laws,
is, even more importantly, a partnership established by God and endowed with its
own laws. (No. 215)
Marriageís divine character, and the natural right
to marriage, places limits on what society can legitimately do in regulating marriage.
The dignity and specific characteristics of marriage must be safeguarded. The
fundamental characteristics of marriage are: totality, in which the spouses give
themselves to each other mutually; unity, created by the union of the couple;
indissolubility and fidelity, which a definitive mutual self-giving requires;
and fruitfulness, to which marriage is open.
An important part of marriage
is the transmission of life through the birth and nurturing of children. Nevertheless,
number 218 adds that procreation is not the only reason for marriage and that
when a couple is unable to have children the value of communion between the spouses
The Compendium also deals with the sacrament of marriage,
explaining that it unites couples within the Church according to Godís plan. In
fact, the sacrament makes the family a sort of "domestic Church" in which the
family is called to be a sign to the world. And the love of the married couple
is also raised to a new level by the sacramental grace.
and the family
The role of love within marriage and the family
is another theme dealt with in the text. The family is a place where communion
is brought about, and thanks to love each person is recognized, accepted and respected.
Love, affirms the Compendium, is essential for human
beings. But marital love is more than just emotions or sexual expression. It is
a full and total gift, marked by unity and fidelity. Moreover, the nature of conjugal
love requires the marital union to be stable. The introduction of civil divorce
"has fueled a relativistic vision of the marriage bond" and can be termed "a plague
on society." (No. 225)
For those couples who have divorced and remarried
the Compendium adds that the Church does not abandon them. "She prays for
them and encourages them in the difficulties that they encounter in the spiritual
life, sustaining them in faith and hope." (No. 226) Nevertheless, they cannot
receive the Eucharist until they obtain reconciliation through the sacrament of
The text also rejects attempts to redefine marriage through
the introduction of new concepts that see gender as dependent merely on social
and cultural factors. "Physical, moral and spiritual difference and complementarities
are oriented towards the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life."
(No. 224) It is therefore incongruous to demand that same-sex unions receive the
status of marriage. At the same time the Compendium calls for homosexuals
to be fully respected in their human dignity, but also encouraged to exercise
chastity. (No. 226)
The Compendium is also critical of de facto
unions as they are based on a false conception of the freedom to choose. Marriage
is more than a simple agreement to live together but is a social instrument and
the principal means for helping each person to grow in an integral manner. (No.
A sanctuary of life Another
section addresses themes related to life matters within the family. "Conjugal
love is by its nature open to the acceptance of life." (No. 230)
is particularly the case for Christian families, that by virtue of the sacrament
should be witnesses of the gospel of life. The Compendium acknowledges
the weight of this responsibility, but encourages couples to take decisions based
on "a generous acceptance of life." (No. 232)
Excluded, as being morally
unacceptable, are anti-life means such as abortion, sterilization and contraceptive
methods. Couples, however, may decide to use methods based on periodic abstinence
to regulate the number of children, based on a consideration of the personal,
family and social factors.
On the other side of the coin the Compendium
excludes the idea that parents have a right to children. A desire for children
at any cost leads to the use of reproductive techniques that are ethically unacceptable.
also explains the familyís function in bringing up children, "a completely original
and irreplaceable role." (No. 239) The parentsí love is placed at the service
of their children and animates all educational activity. Parents have both a right
and a duty to educate their children, which the state should respect. The text
also insists that to carry out this function parents have a right to found educational
institutions and that the state should provide economic support to these non-public
The primary role of the parents in education is particularly
the case when it comes to religious and moral formation. But it must also be respected
in the area of sexual education. The Compendium stresses the importance
of linking sexual education with an instruction in moral norms and the human values.
Childrenís dignity must also be protected, first of all by protecting
their right to be born within a real family. As well, the Compendium draws
attention to problems such as child labor, lack of health care and sexual exploitation.
The concise and complete treatment of the family in the Compendium
provides a useful resource for pastors and lay people interested in knowing more
about the position of the Church regarding many of the fundamental issues touching
marriage and family.
of the Social Doctrine of the Church, here.
ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission
is to provide objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues
emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially
Reprinted with permission from Zenit - News from Rome. All rights
Copyright © 2005 Zenit