Opening the Word: Why do families exist?

The family today, in many ways, is under scrutiny and even under attack. Some of the questions are about the very nature of this most ancient and central institution: What is a “family”? What is necessary for a family to exist? For what purpose do families exist?

Just over a year ago, Pope Benedict XVI gave a Christmas address to the Roman Curia that focused on the family. He noted that “there is no denying the crisis that threatens it to its foundations — especially in the western world.” The family is important, he explained, because within the family exists “the authentic setting in which to hand on the blueprint of human existence. This is something we learn by living it with others and suffering it with others.”

He then said something that is worth pondering on this feast of the Holy Family:

“So it became clear that the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself — about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human.”

Put another way, the reality of the family is rooted in the truth of man: He is created by God so he can have eternal and life-giving communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The very first sentence of the Catechism makes this clear: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” And how is God going about the business of saving us? “He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church.” This is why the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, became man. This is why the Holy Spirit, through the sacraments, makes us God’s “adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life” (CCC, No. 1).

This is heady stuff, no doubt. Which is one reason the reality of the Holy Family is so important, for it reveals how true theology is lived out in true charity, in the daily work and rhythm of family life. Thus, the exhortation from Sirach: “Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them.”

And similar words of wisdom from the Apostle Paul: “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Wives are to acknowledge the proper leadership of their husbands; husbands are to truly love their wives; children are to be obedient and respectful. This is not about simply following “the rules,” but about giving oneself to others in selfless love, for it was the overflow of God’s selfless love that brought about creation. This means recognizing the dignity and worth of others, while also recognizing our proper relationship with one another.

Benedict noted that today there is a serious crisis when it comes to “the human capacity to make a commitment,” which is essential to true family life. The Son committed himself to the work of the Father and was born of Mary the Virgin. Mary committed herself to the word of God, trusting completely in the divine plan. Joseph committed himself to Mary and Jesus, obeying God despite the efforts it required. And Jesus, on the Cross, cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). Christ was willing to die for a lost family, bringing into being a new family, in which we can become authentically human.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.