The Family in God’s Project

Archbishop Roland Minnerath | PASS Academician

The Family in God’s Project

Speaking of God’s project on families should be understood as finding out what makes a discourse on families possible in a world where so many models of families have existed and continue to exist. It also implies that such research does not demand a commitment of faith, but the use of reason and common sense. On the one hand, the Church is criticised for her doctrine and practice of marriage and family; on the other hand, she arouses incomprehension in explaining that her teaching is universal and grounded on the very nature of human beings.

Yet our understanding of the word of God and human experience must enrich themselves reciprocally. Those of us who hold God as the Creator of the human being consider the whole creation as his first manifestation accessible to human intelligence and reason.

Speaking of family should not put us in a position of apologists, in a time when the very idea of a universal definition of families is no longer accepted.

I.               The challenge of the family today

Until the middle of the last century there was no doubt that a family is based on the marriage of a man and a woman who beget and educate children. We are presently witnessing an anthropological revolution which not only allows different kinds of family structures, but tries to legitimate them ideologically.

Family structures vary according to cultures, economic and social development. Families vest a different shape according to place and time.

The recent challenges to traditional views of marriage and family can be briefly mentioned: they began with civil divorce, chemical contraceptives and abortion as a right, assisted reproduction for non-married couples or women alone, surrogate pregnancy, gender ideology and same-sex “marriages”.

However, in many parts of the world the intergenerational family has survived, grouping around the paterfamilias, sons and their wives, daughters with their husbands and the children involved. These family communities are social cells bonded by solidarity, maintained by strong feelings of belonging and a traditional code of values. These kinds of families offer better resistance to ideological or political influence.

The modern nuclear family (father-mother-children) appears with the industrial revolution and people living in large cities.

In the West, many couples raise a family out of the institution of marriage. The disaffection with marriage and the increase in civil divorce, have produced a growing number of single-parent families. Free cohabitation of couples can be more frequent than marriage. Adoption has been allowed to non-married couples and single persons. Same sex couples adopting children or resorting to surrogate pregnancy or fertilization receive legal recognition.

Nobody would mix into the subjective feelings of persons who are living these new forms of family life in their research of love and their expectation of happiness.

Two new elements are at stake which call for further research: families can be set up through artificial means of procreation, resorting to a third-party gamete donor, and same sex unions are legally identified as marriages.

  • Resorting to technological means in the process of fertilization makes void the necessary relationship of love of a man and a woman in generating a new life. Assisted reproduction for extra marital couples, surrogate pregnancy and now the perspective of an artificial uterus pave the way to a new definition of human sexuality, married life and family.
  • The new challenge is the extension of the institution of marriage to homosexual unions, under the pretext of equality. “Same-sex marriages” have now received legal recognition in 29 states. Not even a legal recognition of homosexual couples would be the problem, but the reversal of the very notion of marriage and of marriage-based family.

Society is implicated in such a confusion about the very notion of marriage. People who discover that they have a homosexual inclination must be protected from social discrimination. But there is no discrimination when the law refuses to confuse states or conditions which are in themselves diverse. A homosexual couple would not be discriminated against if it is excluded from the institution of marriage defined as the legally recognised union between a man and a woman.

It is not a question of idealizing families. Many persons would dislike to evocate their experiences with their own family, ranging from sex abuse of children, lack of affective education, and poor relationship of children to both parents.

It is well known that the institution of marriage has always been questioned by philosophical systems which consider binding oneself for life to another person as a contradiction to human freedom. It is presumed that freedom cannot assume lasting consequences – even though a lasting commitment is one of the givens of human existence. But in this individualist perspective, to be free means being able to do what one wishes at any moment, so to shed previous commitments, without concern for whatever harm may be caused to others. This assertion of the absolute autonomy of the will stands in contradiction to freedom understood as the ability to commit one’s self to fundamental long-term choices.

II.            The Jewish-Christian understanding of marriage and family

Until recently the Jewish-Christian understanding of marriage and family was basically accepted in the Western civilization even when expressed in secular terms. From the Bible we can enucleate the following structuring elements which belong to marriage and family:

  • family is based on the marriage of a man and a woman,
  • with the scope of generating and raising children
  • in a reciprocal faithful self-donation.

According to Genesis, the union between man and woman belongs to God’s creative act. The Hebrew uses the word Adam for “human being”, the Mensch or Anthropos, while it uses other words for male and female (Gn 1, 27; 5, 1-2). At the beginning is created the human being, made male and female in God’s image (Gn 1, 26). Immediately male and female are made for one another, in order to be fertile and prolific (Gn 1, 27-28). They will be “one flesh” (Gn 2, 24) so re-establishing the human fullness of Adam.

In the Jewish and Christian tradition (and even Islamic) the core of marriage and family is man and woman united as procreators in the image of the Creator himself. Adultery is forbidden, protecting the wedlock as a sanctuary.

The Old Testament tolerated polygamy and repudiation with re-marriage, even though the paradigm of marriage was given in the union of a single man and a single woman on a basis of equality in their mutual commitment.

The biblical conception of marriage is accessible to reason and human sound feeling. It may be recorded here that the study carried out by Prof. Hans Küng through all world religions and philosophic systems – Weltethos christlich verstanden (2005) and Wozu Weltethos? (2006) – singled out four ethical requirements common to most religions and world views, namely: no murder, no theft, no lie, no adultery.

Christ came and dismissed repudiation and divorce saying that “from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19, 8). Indeed, “have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female… ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19, 4-6).

Last but not least: the lasting reciprocal commitment of a man and a woman is supported by a new understanding of love, which the New Testament calls agapè. Agapè includes eros and philia and reaches the fullness of the humans’ capability to love, by giving up their life for the other, as Christ did for us.

Christ does not envisage a new understanding of marriage and family. He acts as the one who brings them to their fulfilment by adding the request of faithfulness and of reciprocal permanent commitment. Christ delivers an appeal; he addresses one’s freedom; and helps through his grace to really live from inside the requirements of God’s project.

Christ and the Christian tradition with him do not establish a new structure of marriage based on faith. So marriage in the order of creation is a monogamist union of a male and a female person, open to parenthood and supposed not to be broken arbitrarily.

The core of the biblical message is that family is made of three elements: a man, a woman, a permanent commitment to mutual love and to raise and educate the children who perpetuate the family. When these elements are given, we have natural marriage, perfectly in accordance with God’s project. The Church will consider that such a marriage contracted between two baptized persons has a sacramental dimension, which means that it enjoys Christ’s grace which enables the spouses to carry on their commitment thoroughly. Sacramental marriage is a natural marriage between two baptized persons which reaches the fullness of meaning of natural marriage. A secular marriage of two non-baptized persons is indissoluble by the fact that it is a natural mutual commitment of a man and a woman.

So the teaching of the Church about marriage and family addresses all human beings as created by God and not as believers. The whole Catholic social doctrine is based on both a distinction and a connection between faith and reason, nature and grace, believer and citizen. Faith in God does not suppress the given reality, it sheds light on it. It does not create a parallel world; it investigates this world in depth.

When the Church speaks of a universal law of nature inherent to creation, she implies that this law of nature is discernible through natural reason and feeling. Even persons who do not believe in God or in a created order are able to discover in themselves the law of their human nature.

The Church speaks of creation from the point of view of redemption: it is the same reality, but apprehended in its fullness. To understand the project of God about Adam, the human being created in his image and likeliness, we need to watch the new Adam, Jesus Christ. In the order of creation, all human persons are equally involved; in the order of grace, believers understand the project of creation through a personal commitment of faith.

The social doctrine of the Church considers the family as being prior to the State whose duty is to protect it. In the social construct the family is the fundamental element from which society grows and reaches the ethnic group, the nation, the community of nations. The family belongs to the created order. Once the political power disrupts the primacy of the family, it opens the way to totalitarianism. Connected with the primacy of the family is her right and duty to care for the education of children. This right is also stressed in international law. The reason for this position of the family in society is anthropological. As such it belongs to the law of nature. In the framework of a family the human person receives affection and loving care to develop its potentialities. A child needs the loving presence of a father and a mother.

All cultures consider that the union of a couple in marriage, with its promise of a new family, is not just a private matter, but a concern of society. In many cultures, marriage remains an arrangement between families, without a free choice for the bride and groom. This practice, while still widely accepted, does not take account of the dignity and equality of the man and the woman. If marriage is to lead towards a genuine interpersonal communion for the couple concerned, it seems to be possible only through the mutual and exclusive self-giving of two persons.

III.          Marriage and family at law

Until the middle of the last century, the Christian view on marriage and family was only challenged in some countries with the legal possibility to divorce.

Living in the Roman Empire early Christians did not demand a change in current marriage practices. Monogamy was requested by Roman law. Marriage was a contract, the manifestation of two wills to which each party could put an end. In fact, the early Christians continued to marry according to civil law. In the West the whole institution of marriage passed to the Church only in the 12th century. In the East the Orthodox Churches even maintained Roman rules such as divorce and remarriage. A rather complicated canonical discipline of marriage was gradually settled. But these developments do not affect the core of the structure of human marriage.

After the Revolutions of the 18th century marriage fell back under the jurisdiction of the State. It was decided that it was a contract but with no reference to a natural given order. Gradually, divorce was permitted. But it was only in the last thirty years that the legal definition of marriage began to be altered in the Western world. Until recently international law paid strong attention to families. The international covenant on civil rights (1966, art. 23, 2) clearly affirmed that “The right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and to found a family shall be recognized”. It also stipulated that “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State” (art. 23, 1). So does the European Social Charter which consider the family “as a fundamental unit of society” (art. 16). The American convention on human rights (1969, art. 17), the African Charter on human and people’s rights (1981, art. 18), the Asian Charter on human rights (1998, art. 6, 2) all stress the central status of the family in the social order.

Law follows practice

The evolution of legal standards appears in the 2000 Nizza Charter on fundamental rights (art. 9) which only speaks of “The right to marry and the right to found a family shall be guaranteed in accordance with the national laws governing the exercise of these rights” without specifying that marriage means the union of a man and a woman.

Case law has registered the evolution of mentalities. The example of the European Court of Human Rights is patent. While Art. 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) recognizes that “men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right”, the evolution consisted in putting a new emphasis on individual feelings rather than the permanent structure of marriage and the family. Emotional attraction, whatever it consists in, legitimates social recognition. The Court rules that these issues belong to the private realm (Art. 8) and not to commonly accepted institutions.

The Court considered the right to “personal fulfilment” should not meet any institutional limit. The desire to have a child through “medically assisted procreation” (MAP) is an expression of privacy. The personal sphere becomes a legal no man’s land. Individual conduct must not be disputed. As far as a behaviour enjoys some popular backing, it becomes a new right.

The same Court threatens those reluctant to follow the evolution of mentalities with the accusation of intolerance and discrimination. The transhumanist movement will strengthen these new approaches to human rights. There is no way to oppose it, as the powerful media prepare the public for more radical changes. Artificial Intelligence will gradually replace human decision making, so that the dominion of the mind over the body will be left to artefacts rather than to Courts of Human Rights.

IV.          The failures of individualistic anthropology

The constructivist anthropology has gradually replaced the anthropology common to Christianity and European culture. The commonly accepted view on marriage and family has been challenged under the pressure of individualism supported by powerful lobbies.

Individual-centred societies are progressively losing sight of the formative importance of the family. The functions of protection, education and upbringing previously carried out by the family have largely been taken over by society. Consequently, the State imposed new ethical norms.

Technology replaces natural transmission of life. Gender ideology undermines the complementarity of man and woman; changing feelings rule out permanent commitment. From a realistic given order we jump to constructivist social models, as Donati puts it.

Current trends dissociate sexuality from personal identity, as if the identity of a person could be separated from his or her bodily existence. According to such views, one is free to construct one’s own personality, including one’s sexual identity, rather than accepting it as a given. Recent ‘gender’ ideology claims that one’s gender is so independent from personal sexual identity that it is purely a social or cultural construct.

The Filial Relationship

A family is built around two types of connections: that which exists between parent and child – which is absolute; and the marital relationship – which can be broken. If the marriage bond becomes unstable, the parent-child connection is bound to suffer as well. The grand totalitarian utopias, beginning with Plato, all began with the dismantling of the family, in order to more effectively dominate each member of society.

The fundamental social reality, preceding the very formation of society, is the filial relation of children to parents. This is what links the generations. At the origin of all human society is the fact that we receive our existence from a father and a mother. All members of society owe their origin to parents. It is not as though anyone asked to come into being. This demands of society that it recognises the bond which unites parents in the generation and education of their children. It is not brought about by human choice but remains the foundation on which people must build their family life.

Liberal societies, which give legal recognition to de facto and same sex unions, are oriented towards a definition of the family that depends on parent-child relationship, and not on marriage. Social and tax laws are gradually normalising different models of family that are deemed to be equivalent.

Medically assisted procreation now extended to all women beyond the privacy of a confirmed couple, and gestational surrogacy do affect the question of filiation. Until recently the law protected the child as non-available to his parents’ arbitrariness. Filiation was recognized as following natural parenthood. As long as marriage was considered as a given fact prior to positive law, filiation escaped any attempt at manipulation. Now, filiation registers the individual will. Children are subjects of rights, not objects at disposal.

Education and Economic Life

The first years of life are crucial to the balanced upbringing of the child. The family home provides values, forms the character and awakens the child to the world. It forms citizens. It demands family stability, love and duration.

There is a strong link between family and work. Work should provide a living, not just for the individual worker, but also for his or her family. Working conditions must not be such that parents are forced to renounce their wish to have more children. In balancing the needs of children against a professional career, the child must always have priority.


In our post-modern culture, the notion of truth is suspected (but legislation imposes norms of behaviour based on the compulsory assumption of no-truth). We suggest that positive law can be founded only on givens that resist arbitrariness. Law should consider as inalienable the body and the sexual identity of persons. These are the objective conditions of marriage and procreation of children. The law has as its object, not the individual, but relationships between individuals. The objective structure of this relationship is inscribed into the sexually determined bodies that human beings receive from nature. That some persons have a problem with their gender, does not affect the commonly admitted structure of human sexual identity.

The Church is fully aware that rediscovering the core of marriage as suggested by God’s project would not be imposed by restrictive legislation. This time is over. Our times give us a chance to address the freedom of persons who would witness that living marriage and family in a spirit of inner acceptation is a source of joy and true love.

The mission of the Church is to convince. Amoris Laetitia is a vigorous call to a personal commitment to marriage and family and, at the same time, to a renewed pastoral attention to those families who try to overcome failures and desperation. Even when human law gives support to extreme individualistic claims, God’s call remains unchanged, inviting human beings to engage in lasting love and making families a never-ending process of humanization.