Family Provides Ample Homework on the Give and Take of Love"
From the 6th World Meeting of Families
Mexico City, Mexico
January 14, 2009
"The Family and the Values of Human Life"
In 1995, in his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae," Our Holy Father John Paul II
wrote that you and I are the "people of life because God, in his
unconditional love, has given us the Gospel of life, and by this same Gospel
we have been transformed and saved." (EV 79) Over the last 40 years in
particular, several of our beloved modern popes have repeatedly urged
Catholics to understand themselves as created with a call, an orientation to
revere life itself, to guard it, from the moment of its first conception
unto natural death. Just last month, on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe,
in the instruction "Dignitatis Personae," we were exhorted to give
"unconditional respect" to the "fruit of human generation," "to the human
being in his bodily and spiritual totality" from the first moment of its
existence." (DP4). Often these exhortations have a joyful tone. They also
convey a sense of urgency.
Occasionally, even secular journalists marvel at the Catholic Church's
willingness to speak so unequivocally and so inclusively about the value of
human life. In the United States, for example, when Pope John Paul II issued
"Evangelium Vitae," several leading newspapers -- even those which supported
legal abortion, could not help but grant that the pope had put his finger on
a profound truth when he identified a prevailing "culture of death," as "a
veritable structure of sin," fostered by powerful cultural, economic and
political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned
with efficiency," a "war of the powerful against the weak."(EV 12). And on
the occasion of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Washington DC last year, a
prominent Washington DC journalist gave thanks for the Roman Catholic
Church's constant expression of the equality and dignity of every single
human person across the globe, and urged readers to do the same in the name
of world peace, no matter their disagreements with the Church on any
If you reflect at greater length upon this call to respect human life, and
particularly if you see it against the backdrop of the world's situation
today, it appears even more remarkable. The word "countercultural" is almost
not strong enough to capture its effects. It is rather like a call which
feels out of time or from another world. Why do I put this so dramatically?
First, because this call is a demand to respect each and every human life.
As Our Holy Father Benedict XVI said so plainly and so poignantly in "Deus
Caritas Est" -- as if answering our interior skepticism that it is possible
for us to give love to so many: "Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give
to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look
of love which they crave." Second, I speak in this way because this call
encompasses human lives at every moment of their existence -- from the first
moment of fertilization until their last breath. Third, this call by its
nature requires us to extend ourselves -- in a sacrificial matter -
precisely on behalf of persons in situations that most challenge us, that
most defy or exhaust our sense of competence.
With rare exceptions, other national and international institutions simply
do not speak this way, do not make such passionate, or sweeping statements
in defense of the great good of human life itself. Rather, as observed both
by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the world seems to respond to the call to
respect human life in a distinctly bipolar manner. John Paul II observed in
"Evangelium Vitae," for example, that nations' and international bodies'
noble proclamations about human rights are "unfortunately contradicted by a
tragic repudiation of them in practice. The denial is ...distressing,
indeed...scandalous precisely because it is occurring in a society which
makes the affirmation and protection of human rights its primary objective
and its boast." (EV 18). Now the Church is not blind to progress. We
recognize that there are influential voices resisting precipitous moves to
warfare. That voices are more united in opposition to various weapons of
mass destruction. That there is a growing call to abolish the death penalty,
and a growing resolve to put racism and sexism unequivocally behind us.
There is a genuine crisis of contradiction, however, between the teachings
and the aspirations of the Catholic Church regarding welcoming a new life
into the family, and the respect owed to nascent human life, and the
policies and rhetoric of powerful national and international governments and
organizations. There is also a commensurate crisis in the hearts of women,
men and couples, who more and more seem to believe that their limited reason
(and worries) about accepting new human life are sufficient for their needs,
and for the needs of the world. Many reject, or ignore the possibility of
received wisdom, of objective truth, and of any religion's acting as a
graced, chosen instrument for helping to reveal God's plan for the human
person. Many women, men and couples reject in particular interventions
pertaining to the meaning of their own bodies in the world, the meaning of
intimate love, and the meaning of God's choosing to bring new life into our
world by means of this love.
In fact, the gap between the Church's call to respect the "language of the
human body" and the gift of human life, and positions assumed by influential
groups and governments about marriage and children, is nothing less than
alarming. Tens of millions of nascent human lives are annually terminated by
abortion because the child would interfere with somebody's plan of life. An
untold number of embryos are made to order out of a desperate demand for
children. Many, many embryos are de facto abandoned in storage. Others are
created overtly as "research material," with not the slightest
acknowledgement of their co-membership in the human race. Among even those
who oppose abortion or destructive embryo research, there is what can only
be described as a fear of caring for "too many" children. There are many
possible explanations for this -- among them economic and psychological ones
-- but certainly we cannot exclude an impoverished and incomplete
appreciation for the meaning of life itself: loving service, death to self
as the path to "finding oneself." Marriage and childbearing are a privileged
symbol of and path to this wisdom, but leading bodies appear to be drifting
away from or denying this truth. On the contrary, a growing body of nations
insisting even that it is a matter of "human rights" to confer state
benefits upon intimate adult relationships which are by nature sterile. This
is a move destined to further distort the already fragile human perception
that authentic love must always in practice, and in its very structure, move
beyond the me and the you, and overflow onto another and many others.
Still, as John Paul II pointed out in Evangelium Vitae -- there is something
overtly ugly about the demand for "rights" to kill family members at the
weakest points of their existence, whether we are speaking about abortion
before birth, or about euthanasia or assisted suicide when a family member
is ill or disabled. A more subtle, and seemingly less ugly, undermining of
respect for human life comes by means of calls to defer to, to respect, and
sometimes nearly to worship human technological prowess instead, even as it
embraces research upon human embryos. Similarly, respect for life is subtly
undermined with the insistence that we view the human populace primarily as
a threat to a cleaner or sustainable environment. While there is truth in
the calls to marvel at nature, or to marvel at what the human mind can do,
these messages, in their overt or subtle forms, fail to mention, and
sometimes contradict, the preciousness of human life. When we observe the
gulf between these equivocal evaluations of the worth of the human person,
and the Church's celebration of the same, we are more than a little tempted
to despair. In fact, like Our Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, we
may find ourselves "deeply troubled" (Lk 1:29) by the words of the Church.
We might find ourselves saying "how can this be?" (Lk 1:34), given our
opposition by powerful forces in the world today. It remains for us, like
Mary, to come to understand how with man alone, this is impossible, but with
God, "nothing is impossible." (Lk 1:37)
And so I come to the heart of my presentation to you today. How are we to do
what we have been asked of us regarding fostering respect for life, within
our own circles of influence? And -- for those with a vocation to go out to
the world -- how are we to approach the institutions wielding worldly power,
with the argument, with the demand to respect all human life. I am here
today to urge you to consider that one possible, one promising, one
ingenious way given to us by God, is through the family. Why and how is this
so? An attempted answer will constitute the remainder of my presentation,
according to the following points:
-- First, the family as the place where, ordinarily, and for the vast bulk
of the human race, one learns to love, or not. In John Paul II's words, the
family was designed to be the "school of love."
-- Second, this school of love provides essential human and social skills.
Skills necessary to realize the meaning of our own lives in loving
relationships with one another and with God.
-- Third, family as the place possessing the real potential to transcend any
political "dividing up" of issues or causes in favor of human life and
dignity. Another way of putting this: the family has the potential to
transform political obstacles when it comes to questions about the respect
owed human life.
Beginning with the first point: for most people, the family is the place
where one learns to love, or not. We can see this most clearly by
distinction. We most likely do not learn to love from our school, or from
our place of employment, or from our interactions with the government. Now
we might, when we are older, learn a lot about love from our friends or a
romantic love. But at crucial developmental periods prior to adulthood, if
we do not come to understand the contents of attentive, secure, sacrificial
love from our family, we will likely be impaired in ways difficult if not
impossible to transcend in the matter of giving and receiving love.
Like other "schools," the family provides ample -- some might ironically
say, "relentless" -- homework on the subject of the give and take of love.
The day-to-day life of a typical family means that graduates will not be
launched into the world in the situation of a popular American cartoon
character who opined: "I love humanity; it's people I hate." The school that
is the family -- assuming of course that there is not significant conflict
or even violence there -- determines that you will have learned to love
actual people before you "graduate."
The lesson that begins the family is about the love of a spouse. In the
words of the philosopher and theologian Vladimir Solovyov, loving one's
spouse leads us to understand how someone else might occupy the center of
the universe, might be a gift from God to the world. We appreciate the total
importance of the spouse -- body and soul -- and the totality of gifts they
have to share.
Marriage also leads us toward grasping the value and meaning of procreation;
we find ourselves, are taken aback at the remarkable feat of our love giving
forth new life, and at the mystery of God's deciding to bring new life into
the world via an act of love, when He could have done it any way he wished.
There is no mystery therefore regarding why married couples feel themselves
able to welcome new life, and choose abortion so rarely as compared with
single persons, who are uninitiated into the adult aspects of this school of
love. Of course, too, the circumstances that correlate with and constitute
marriage make it the place where new life can be given its most
full-throated welcome. In marriage, we find the long-term commitment
necessary to rear relatively slowly-maturing human infants to adulthood. We
also find in marriage greater economic stability, extended families
well-disposed to assist the new parents, and social satisfaction with the
married couples' initiation into the ways of sacrifice, long-term planning
and care for the next generation.
On the other hand, non-marital unions are unsuited by their very natures to
offer a similar welcome to new and vulnerable life. Cohabitation, for
example, because of its instability, its association with later divorce in
many cases, and even its higher rates of infidelity and violence, is very
poorly suited to welcoming a child. The poverty and instability correlating
with single parent households, and the absence of necessary role models
there, also render this situation difficult for children and parents alike.
There are influential voices today, however, who insist that children are as
well (or better!) served by non-marital or one-sexed upbringing, as they are
by being reared by their own married, biological parents. These voices point
to the increasing numbers of children born or reared without the steady
presence of their parents and insist even that laws and cultures which
prefer marriage, actively discriminate with public resources against such
children. To this they will sometimes add that since marriage is an
inherently sexist institution, which devalues women and their service, it is
just as well that we move to overtly or implicitly de-institutionalize it,
and concentrate rather on the mother-child pair, if, of course the woman
alone chooses to become pregnant, or to carry the child to term. This
argument concludes, therefore, with the remarkable claim that marriage is
not the cradle of respect for life, but the actual enemy of respect for the
lives of women and children.
Even if we set aside our initial incredulity at such a hypothesis, we find
that it is not supported by a substantial, credible body of research.
Indeed, there are many and increasing numbers of children born or reared
without the benefit of married parents, and they most definitely command our
attention and our help. But it appears that the Church's (and still,
generally, the world's) intuition is correct: children made by love, and
reared in low-conflict, stable home environments, with knowledge of their
heritage as well as the presence of their heterosexual parents, are
significantly advantaged in this world. Of course, some fragile families
overcome the odds. Of course, sexism continues to happen in some marriages.
These are reasons to affirm the Church's constant teachings about the
equality of the woman and the man, and our insistence that fragile families
deserve the assistance of the state, not reasons to deinstitutionalize the
historically, globally constant role of marriage as the place in which human
life can thrive.
A second, and more brief point on the relationship between the family and
respect for human life has to do with the particular lessons learned in the
family. So many of these are the stuff of daily life, that they go
unremarked. But their importance cannot be overlooked. The family is where
we first see the building of a bridge between males and females, between
younger and older, and between diverse personalities. In the close-range
give and take between family members, we learn to model male or female
traits and gifts. We learn the meaning of compromise, sacrifices and
sharing. We learn what religion "looks like" when it is lived out. Culture
and values are transmitted, social capital is exchanged, and the practical
skills necessary for living independently are acquired.
In the family, we learn -- because we experience it totally with our bodies,
our minds, our emotions and our spirits -- the relationship between adult
love and the blessing of children. No matter how often this happens in
history, every one who experiences it marvels at it.
Is it any surprise, then, as John Paul II has said so often, that the family
is where we get our first and most important glimpse of the character and
quality of God's love? First with our spouse -- maybe the first person we
have truly understood to be as important as ourselves, and indispensable to
our happiness -- and then in our children, understood similarly. The world
understands this part of our teaching perhaps the least. Rather,
increasingly marriage is labeled by courts and legislatures as a purely
human institution, alterable at will by the state. There is resistance,
maybe disbelief, in understanding the link between physical union,
procreation, and the very meaning of our lives as destined for permanent
union with God. In the world today, physical union often understood is a
free-floating event, a category with no meaning beyond what we ascribe to
it, and a choice without implications for the rest of our lives. Whether
observers hold sex to be too humble, too earth-bound, or too marred by
dysfunctions, infidelities, passions, and other failures, there is real
resistance to linking the language of our bodies to the meaning of our
lives. Catholic teaching brings it all together. It "rescues" the body and
the meaning of spousal unions and of procreation. It elucidates the contents
of the family as the school of love.
A third and final point about the precise relationship between the family
and respect for human life. It seems to me that the family transcends a
common tendency to divide up as between competing political parties, various
issues or causes, all of which issues or causes should be seen together to
support the overall cause of life. To explain: I feel that I have been
searching for years for the "Holy Grail" of messages to communicate
effectively the inseparability the cause of the defense of life and the
cause of guaranteeing to every human person a dignified way of life. Our
Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has commented upon the troubling evidence that
many people and political organizations take sides as between these causes.
Bishops' conferences around the world have spoken similarly.
I have regularly made the case in my own country about the need to extend
our moral imaginations so that those easily condemning injustice they can
see -- violence, racism, sexism, and more -- could come to understand the
injustice happening in places they cannot see such as in abortion clinics,
and in the storage tanks housing hundreds of thousands of "spare embryos." I
have exhorted those who were not in the thick of the struggle over abortion
to understand the legitimate claims of those suffering poverty or violence
or discrimination, whether they were the victims of others' individual
choices or of sinful social structures.
Recently, though, I have wondered if there is perhaps no one messages or set
of messages guaranteed to open up people's eyes of people to the entire
panoply of causes on behalf of human life. Perhaps, instead of a message,
there is a place. Perhaps there is a group of people, and a way of life,
that can do this better than any message. I am suggesting, in other words,
that perhaps the family -- the family which cares automatically for both the
sanctity of human life, and its dignity -- can and will mediate respect for
human life at all times and in all conditions better than any verbal
formula. In the family we practice loving the human person in his or her
entirety -- their body, their soul, their gifts, their promise, their hopes
- and we love persons from the first moment of their existence to their
last. We do not say we want our spouse or our children or our mother to have
life but not dignity, or dignity but not life.
Perhaps, it is living in this reality which is the key to helping people
understand what other people's children, what all God's children, must mean
to us . . . and to God. I can never forget bringing my first child home from
the hospital when she was one day old. A tiny, wrinkled creature in a car
seat that seemed giant in comparison to her fragile body. I guarded her
little head against every movement of the car. It came to me in a flash
during this short ride home: this how every mother, every parent feels, how
every mother in history has probably felt, in every place in the world. As
my children grow closer to the age of my grown students, I have now begun to
see in my students' faces, the traces of the small boys and girls they were.
It is all I can do not to address these hard-working, seemingly
self-sufficient, smart graduate students, as if they were my own children.
And I have considered the possibility that this is just another lesson in
the school of love that is the family.
To conclude then. Several weeks ago, a doctor I had just met asked me about
the nature of my work. I told him the subjects about which I taught and
wrote: "marriage, family, children," I offered. "Very controversial stuff,"
he replied. Internally, I mourned at this instinctive characterization. I
mourned that the beautiful realities that are romance and marriage and
children and human love, could be seen more in the light of controversy than
as gift, mystery, joy. I mourned that God had given us our spouses and
children, and the institution of marriage, as crucial parts of His plan for
our happiness, only to watch as many tried to turn their meaning
upside-down. But then, of course, I remembered, as I urge you to remember,
that we do not alter God's plans.
Marriage and the gift of children remain among the greatest blessings God
has given us. Human beings in history will always glimpse God's face in such
love. The unique constellation of total union, commitment, fidelity, and
openness to new life that is marriage, will continue to offer the safest
haven for the children God entrusts us. Like our Mother Mary, our human
exemplar, we must heed God's words, "Do not be afraid" as we recommit
ourselves to God's causes in marriage, motherhood and fatherhoo
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