Rediscovering God’s Vision For Family Life

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family on the Liturgical Calendar and in an era when the family has such on-going damage, we do well to review God’s plan for marriage and how the modern age has so systematically departed from that plan. It is the departure from God’s plan that has brought about devastating consequences for the Church, the nation and especially for children. On this Feast of the Holy Family we do well to call upon God’s mercy and, frankly, for miracles to restore a proper and Godly realization of family life.

It is not news that the family is in great crisis. The combined effects of divorce and never married single parents mean that nearly one-third of children in the U.S. (32 percent or 22 million children) were living with one parent, usually their mother (KIDS COUNT Data Center, 2009). The share of children in one-parent families has nearly tripled since 1970, when the rate was 11 percent (Amato, 2008). This trend has disproportionately affected impoverished children and also children of color: 65 percent of black children, 49 percent of American Indian children, 37 percent of Hispanic children, (KIDS COUNT Data Center, 2009). With these numbers go a great number of social ills manifest by such children including higher poverty, lower scholastic achievement, behavioral problems,  promiscuity, STDs, teenage pregnancy, higher school dropout rates, early criminal records and the like. It is clear, when the family is in crisis children suffer most. Only a return to God’s plan for marriage and family can reverse these trends.

What then is God’s plan? Actually it is spelled out quite clearly in the Book of Genesis in these verses along with my commentary:

  1. The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Gen 2:18)  The chapter goes on to describe the creation of woman. Notice that the text says that it is not good to be alone. Partnership is essential. A man should not be alone, a woman should not be alone. God intends woman for man, man for woman. The partnership is obviously complimentary in that a man brings things to the marriage a woman does not. A woman brings things to the relationship that a man does not. The sexes are not merely interchangeable, they each bring essential ingredients to the marriage and to being parents. Parenting is to be a partnership, not a solo act.
  2. For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they  become one flesh (Gen 2:24).  Notice here the pre-eminence of the relationship and its stability. It is preeminent  because a man leaves the most important relationship he has up until that time (his family of origin) in order to establish a relationship of now greater priority, his marriage. It is stable because he is to cling to his wife. “Cling”  is a strong word. It means to stick like glue. A man is to preserve union with his wife in a strong and decisive manner. Marriage is not to be a temporary relationship.
  3. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. (Gen 1:28) Here is the fundamental mission God gives to marriage: the procreation and raising of children. This verse also helps give reason to the first two teachings that the marriage be heterosexual and stable. Since children are the expected fruit of marriage it is obvious  that heterosexuality is necessary and essential. Further it is necessary and essential that the marriage be stable, for children need the stability and complementary witness of both their parents to best develop and thrive. Hence Adam is to cling to his wife and in the context of that stable union they are to conceive and raise their children.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that In creating man and woman, God instituted the human family and endowed it with its fundamental constitution.(CCC # 2203). Here then in a brief few verses Scripture details the fundamental vision of God for marriage and the family: One man for one woman in a stable, life long, complimentary relationship oriented to the procreation and formation of children. It is simple yet clear. But in recent decades we have seemed hell-bent (literally) on a systematic dismantling of every component of God’s plan for marriage. Let’s consider some of the modern trends that have dismantled God’s plan.

  1. A subtle but sure moving away from the understanding that children are the essential purpose and fruit of marriage to a rather subjective notion that marriage’s essential purpose is the “happiness” of the spouses.  Many decades ago when I was a child, divorce was uncommon, even shocking. Unhappy marriages surely existed in those days prior to 1969 but there was an accepted understanding that you stuck it out “for the sake of the kids.” Commitments had been made and they should be honored. Children should not be exposed to the shame and sorrow of divorce. Or so the thinking went. Civil law backed these notions and made it difficult to get a divorce. But, through the 1950s and 1960s as the first celebrity divorces began to hit the news the shame of divorce began to erode and a notion that people shouldn’t have to stay in unhappy marriages grew. A happy marriage is surely something to be desired but notice that God did not say anything about that as an essential end of marriage. It is true that spouses ought to provide one another mutual support by sharing duties and thereby work for each-other’s mutual good, but happiness is another matter. Life in general brings with it both happiness and sorrow, joys and hardships. That is the nature of life and marriage is no different. While it is generally hoped that spouses will bring each other happiness that it not always the case even in the best marriages which have an admixture of pleasant and unpleasant qualities as does life in general. How else can we explain the vow “for better or worse?” So what was happening through the 1960s was as subtle but sure “redefining” of marriage, a replacing of the good of children with the preeminent notion of happiness. In recent years the Gay community has insisted that since marriage is just about two people being happy they should be allowed to marry since they deserve this happiness too. While Gay marriage should be opposed, it remains true that opponents are caught a bit flat footed when children are now only a way of “accessorizing” marriage and happiness is the overarching principle in the minds of most Americans. Only if children are an essential end of marriage does limiting marriage to heterosexuals really win the day.
  2. Increasing contraceptive use and a shunning of marriage’s  greatest gift– Contraceptives were all but illegal in this country until the 1950s when they gradually became “respectable.” At the heart of contraceptive use is the notion that somehow children are a burden more than a blessing; that they limit happiness, freedom, and the share of resources in a family. From Biblical times until very recently children were considered a great blessing and large families were sought for. But a modern notion of Children being a burden swept the western world and contraceptive use dramatically reduced family size. Here too, a redefinition of marriage was taking place wherein God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply was being set aside in favor of the wishes and happiness of the couple. And most couples began to see children in larger numbers as a hindrance to their happiness. This was getting very far from God’s plan.
  3. No Fault Divorce – In 1969 California Governor Ronald Regan signed the first “no-fault” divorce law in the country. The fundamental purpose of such a law was to make divorces easier and quicker to get. Why should people be “forced” to stay in unhappy relationships? Why should the government care? These were notions underlying no-fault or streamlined divorce. Of course the government SHOULD care since higher divorce rates have terrible effects on many things, not to mention children. As we have seen high divorce rates are directly tied to issues of poverty, public health, crime rates, the overall performance, productivity  and success of children as they grow older and so forth. But here too, God’s plan that a man should cling to his wife, that marriage should be a stable, lasting union, was set aside. Marriage was being redefined.
  4. General promiscuity – with the wider availability of contraceptives it is not surprising that promiscuity skyrocketed. The notions that sex was tied to the procreation of children and hence to marriage was set aside. Generalized promiscuity weakens marriage for many reasons. First it takes a reward and pleasure that was the privilege of marriage and distributes it to any who want it. Thus an important incentive to marriage is lost. It is not surprising that the average age of marriage is now approaching the 30s for most young people. They see little “need” to get married. It is more of a formality for many of them who routinely fornicate and even have children apart from marriage. Many young men routinely quip: “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?” And many young women seem unfazed by such thinking. It seems many of them too prefer the “less complicated” world of casual dating and hooking up (with sex included) to the more “complicated” world of marriage. The unique privilege of the marriage bed has been given away and an important draw that God intended for marriage is lost. Over and over again God forbids fornication (pre-marital sex). The texts are too numerous to reproduce here (I have posted them here: Fornication) but the clear will of God is that he intends sex for the marriage bed alone, not because he wants to limit our fun but because he wants to protect marriage. There is a clear correlation between the rise in promiscuity and higher divorce rates along with the single and never married parent phenomenon. Promiscuity amounts to an attack on marriage. Scripture says, Let the marriage bed be honored in every way for God will judge fornicators and adulterers (Heb 13:4). All this has led to the final facet of dismantling that I would like to mention.
  5. Casual tolerance of single and never married parenting – Here too is a major trend in our modern society. Single never married parents used to be a rare and rather stunning thing.  Today it is commonly held that such situations are not only acceptable but that they should even be considered on par with other “arrangements” like the traditional family. And once again we are redefining the family as God has set it forth. God clearly had a stable, heterosexual union in mind for the rearing of children. The sexes are not just interchangeable. A male father has important things to teach and model for his children. Likewise a female mother. These cannot simply be set aside without detriment, even harm to the children. Children need both the male and female, the mother and father, this is what is best for them and what God intends. Further that the influence of both parents be consistent, not just an on-again off-again influence based on visitation rights.  Once again the Gay community in insisting that they be on equal footing for adopting children runs afoul of God’s plan. But their demands have become harder to resist after years of heterosexual misbehavior.

In the end it is the children who suffer most. God’s plan for the family is best and we know it.

Married couples with children, on average, have a higher standard of living and greater economic security than one-parent families (Thomas & Sawhill, 2005). Parents raising children together tend to have more money, more flexibility and more time to supervise their children, offer emotional support, take an active part in their  education, and arrange other activities for them. In contrast, one-parent families are more likely to experience economic hardship and stressful living conditions—including fewer resources, more frequent moves, and less stability—that take a toll on adults and children alike. When economic hardship and stressful living conditions are present, children are at greater risk of poor achievement as well as behavioral, psychological, and health problems.  (Amato & Maynard, 2006).  Quote from the Document Kids Count by the Annie Casey Foundation, July 2009)

While it is true that many very good people have struggled to fully realize God’s plan for marriage and family it also remains true that we cannot fail to announce it and insist upon it as the norm, the model and goal for everyone on this planet. Too many priests and other teachers have grown silent on this and worry too much about “offending” people who are in irregular situations and so we fail to point clearly to what God teaches. No one will follow an uncertain trumpet. On this Feast of the Holy Family it is time to trumpet God’s plan. We will ALL admit we have fallen short but this is no time to abandon the vision. God has a plan, we have only to follow it.

21 Replies to “Rediscovering God’s Vision For Family Life”

  1. It’s funny how people say Jesus never taught about homosexuality, pornography, rape, or other offenses against marriage, yet, given what Israel believed about marriage and family at the time, Jesus did teach about these things when He quoted Genesis. For the Jews, family was essential for life and for the survival of Israel; hence, any obstacle to reproduction or to the pleasure of the couple was forbidden, and a number of things the Romans did that modern man allows – contraceptives, abortion, porn, homosexual acts, rape, etc. – the Jews considered sins. This fact is driven home with Jesus’ geneology, with the title “Son of David,” and with Jesus’ Divine Sonship.

    1. A good point, we often forget that Jesus assumed a basic knowledge on the part of his hearers when he quoted scripture. It requires a little more sophistication from us moderns. It seems to demand that Jesus explicitly address every modern problen with a perfectly crafted phrase lacks proper sophistication. Thanks for your insight

  2. I think another factor that contributes to the erosion of the family is the dramatic increase in the proportion of working wives. Employment is a factor contributing to changing gender roles that blur the distinction between the differences in the roles and qualities of men and women. I have strong opinions regarding the importance of maintaining and developing unique masculine and feminine qualities. Men were designed to be the providers and protectors. Women are made to be care givers and nurturers. And each should develop the innate qualities that help them in those roles. Nowadays, I think we often nurture the man right out of the boy, with talks about expressing their feelings and embracing their weaknesses rather than emphasize the need to also pull yourself up by your boot straps, suck it up and face your fears. We talk to our girls about being strong enough to do it all on their own- not needing a man for anything. If society doesn’t think each gender have important and distinctive qualities, then why are programs like Big Brothers (and other like mentoring programs) regarded as positive? We are on a path to becoming a gender neutral society.

    1. Yes, I strongly agree with your observations. We surely have lost any innate appreciation of masculinity and femininity and we pressure boys and girls to be what they are not. I strongly object to the feminization of boys that I often observe in school settings.

  3. Ouch. The truth can be depressing. I think I’ll continue to embrace my belief that God is smart and good wins over evil – we’re just not privy to His timeline.

  4. Nice post on how marriage is connected to human rights and sin. Indeed, it is true that if we do not deal with the basic building block of society, how does one expect to solve the problem when it spreads towards the whole structure? It’s true that our culture says otherwise, but it’s completely in denial, that’s for sure.

    –JTD ( )

  5. Ouch. I am a working mother and it hasn’t affected our family. For us in fact it is a necessity with 7 children and we are frequently told it is our own fault for having so many children even among Catholics.

    1. I have 6 kids and also hear comments about having so many kids from others- “What do you expect when you have six kids?!!” I’ve learned to never publically gripe about anything familial.

      I won’t presume anything regarding your family- I do understand it does sometimes take two incomes to support a family. I also take note, however, of the number of my friends who say they “must” work to provide for their families. So often I see what is on their lists of “must provides” and wonder if their children might not be better served with one parent’s full time presence. Many of my friends have children who come home to an empty house after school, others have young children in daycare for up to 11 hours a day. But it isn’t PC to question mothers’ choices regarding working or to suggest it may have a negative impact on family. Personally, I look at food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education as “musts” and pretty much all else is subject to scrutiny regarding the value added. I drive an old car, for buying a new one now would require my getting a job. I took three of my children out of Catholic school, for paying tuition required my getting a job. We live in a home where my children share bedrooms, though it would be great for each to have his own space, but, again, that would require a second income.

      To say that your working, whether it is a need or not, does not affect our family isn’t reasonable. All of our choices as parents affect our families. My mom had to work and it very much affected my family. As a teen, I spent a lot of time alone, unsupervised- and that wasn’t a good thing. As a younger child, I remember thinking that her work was more important than me. Of course, I now understand that it wasn’t, and I’m grateful for what she provided, but, from a child’s perspective, when she missed a game or couldn’t come to something at school, I didn’t have the maturity to understand. In my child’s mind, I thought she chose something else over me. I had this sense that I had to compete with some outside entity for her attention. It definately affected my self esteem.

    2. Virginia, I too suppose there are times when there is little choice about needing to work. But would you not still agree it is best for the mother to be able to stay home whenever possible? Also, I am surprised a little at your remark since I did not raise the issue of working mothers as I recall. I DO think such a phenomenon is problematic in general but understand that at times it is needed.

  6. I don’t know that working wives are a problem per se, but I will note that one of the consequences of women entering the work market in large numbers a few decades ago is that it greatly increased the supply of available labor. And, according to the so-often-accurate law of supply and demand, the increase in people competing for the same number of jobs did result in wages coming down. Consequently, whereas in the past it was possible to raise a family with a single earner (including paying Catholic school tuition), now it is increasingly necessary to have two earners in the family. But the problem there, of course, is that often anything the second earner makes is taken away in paying for child care. Thus, having a second earner still isn’t enough, and you have the situation of children spending more of their waking hours with some stranger than they do with their own parents.

  7. Employers also have a duty to help families, not just their bottom line. What happened to the “living wage?” If couples have more than 3 kids, it becomes a financial necessity form one to stay home, and mom is best equipped in most situations. Parishes do not even pay their employees “living wages” in most instances. What is missing is that in the business world, to often employees are seen as a commodity, not as persons. When one hires a person he also taken on the duty of caring form that persons well being to an extent.

  8. If more Catholics would practice NFP, I think a lot of married couples would have more communication about how many children and when in their marriage they are ready to have children. If it’s 1 or 10, NFP is the way to go, but it does require discipline and self control (men). smile

  9. How did I miss this story? Now I’m late into the discussion and I have so much to say on this subject that I could write a book – but, for now I will limit myself to this: men and women should not, in general, be working in such close proximity in such large numbers. It takes an extraordinary amount of will to maintain a ‘hands-off’ approach to others and so very many times we fail. I know a lot of women have to work to support or help support the family, but the reality is that it isn’t the women with 5 or 6 or 7 kids who are working, it’s the ones with one, two, or three. They want the ‘stuff.’ The too-often consequence of this is that infidelity rules and marriages and families fail.

    1. More people are having affairs than in the past, and the office is no exception. Society is preoccupied with sex, so why wouldn’t an office be as sexually charges as any other area?

      The simple fact is that, on average, people spend over 50 hours each week on the job. The means that men and women often spend more time with co-workers than with their family. The number of hours together creates an opportunity and likelihood of developing friendships. Many women, in particular, confuse feelings of closeness in a male-female relationship with sexual feelings. Those friendships have potentially disasterous results for a family.

    2. You think you’re late? I totally missed the boat.

      Anyway, I agree about working women. I used to work full-time (before our first child arrived), including lots of international business travel with colleagues, lunch meetings, late dinners with customers, and the like. Total marriage killer. It’s a relief to be at home with my kids, and away from all of those men now. It’s something nobody talks about in public, but I’ve had a few female friends tell me the same. And I’ve known faithful married men who were literally hounded by women at their workplace. Some have even had to change jobs just to get away from them.

      And pretty much everyone can afford to be at home, even with a large family. We’ve recently started cutting our budget down to the bare minimum and we’ve been surprised at how “low we can go”. There’s a lot of wants in our needs, nowadays. We don’t have a large family, though, only 2 kids.

  10. My only concern about this article, which I enjoyed very much, is the reality of abusive – physically, emotionally, psychologically – relationships and marriages. How would I address this reality when promoting the Catholic view of marriage, which I hope God will give me many opportunities to do? Thank you for your posting Msgr. Pope. I appreciate your insights. May He continue to bless you and all of us who need his grace.

    Matthew Wade

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