In 1981, as a result of a Synod of Bishops specially devoted to further awareness of the (then) current understanding of marriage and the Christian family in the modern world, Pope John Paul II promulgated an apostolic exhortation entitled FamiliarisConsortio (On the family).
The well-known biographer of John Paul II, George Weigel, claims that in private conversations held with the holy father he came to learn that the pope regarded Familiaris Consortio as one of his favorite letters he had ever written as pope to the family of God (Witness to Hope, 385). The document is a wide-ranging and broad one in terms of the sheer breadth of the content covered therein, and it is therefore hardly any wonder that a prominent Catholic encyclopedia should say of the apostolic exhortation that it is one of the most important sources for the theological meaning of the sacrament of Marriage (Stravinskas, Catholic Encyclopedia, 628).
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Many writers who have taken this exhortation as their springingpoint to launch into various issues, which are ancillary to marriage per se,have nevertheless been able to employ specific portions of FamiliarisConsortio, owing to its vastness of content. What we will focus on in thefollowing pages is a kind of reception of the document by Catholics (whetherclergy or laypeople) and its teachings over the more than two decades since itspromulgation. There are certainly areas of overlap among those who havecommented on the document, and these ought to be paid attention to in coming toan understanding of an authentically Roman Catholic awareness of the variousaspects of married life among Christians.
Opening Observations Made in Familiaris Consortio
Sectionone of the document expressly opens up the contents and applications of thedocument to a broad audience. It is written for (1) those living in fidelity tothe Church’s extant teachings and practices in the area of matrimony, (2) thosewho have become bewildered by the contemporary challenges encroaching upon thefamily, and even to (3) those who live in unjust unawareness of the freedom andhuman rights guaranteed to them to have all the fullness that marriage mightoffer. In other words, the intended audience of the document is anintrinsically ecumenical one. It is not merely addressing Catholics in goodstanding with the Church, but the holy father reaches his hand out to assisteveryone struggling with the sundry difficulties in contemporary married life.This is significant, since most prior documents, whether Casti Connubiiof Pope Pius XI, Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul VI, or even documents of theSecond Vatican Council, the intended audience has been, if not exclusively,certainly mainly Catholics.
PopeJohn Paul II notes in section six of the exhortation that the situation ofmarriage and the family in contemporary life is an ironic one in the sense thatthere are both commendable advances being made in Western culture and enormoussetbacks. It is not so simple a situation as to claim that Western culture isdoing nothing other than attacking and hindering the family and married life.Some of the good understandings reached by the contemporary Western world arethe following: an appreciation of human freedom for both sexes, a promotion ofeducation and love for children, and a promotion of the dignity of women andresponsible procreation. However, some of the setbacks against the familyshould also be noted. They include the following: the respective freedom of thespouses has been carried to an extreme sense of autonomy, the misconstructionof authority and the handing on of values with respect to the relation ofparents to their children, and the ongoing scourges of abortion, growingdivorce rates, sterilization, and an overall contraceptive mentality. It is forthese reasons and many others besides that the Synod of Bishops met and wishedPope John Paul II to be the primary spokesperson for their conclusions reached.Everything is not well for the contemporary family, and Pope John Paul IIreasons that the family is not merely a part of an overall society(rather, it is the very foundation of all society, as we shall explore later),any attacks on its welfare must not go unanswered. Social injustices toward thefamily must be dealt with directly, and this is a primary reason for theappearance of Familiaris Consortio.
Building on Prior Teaching for Fundamental Precepts
Prior to the appearance of this apostolic exhortation, there hadappeared two very important documents on the nature of marriage and the family.They were the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae and an authoritativedocument coming out of the Vatican II Church Council called Lumen Gentium.Pope John Paul II, as all popes throughout history have done, takes the priorteaching on marriage and the family (especially that seen in the twentiethcentury) as his starting points on which to build. He references several timesthroughout his apostolic exhortation the encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV),especially when the content of his teaching has to do with the most explicitportions of HV on the conjugal act and contraception.
Freedom Versus Autonomy
There appears in this succinct encyclical Humanae Vitae a veryprofound line, which undoubtedly could be expounded upon. In section 21 of theencyclical, Pope Paul VI declares that selfishness is the enemy of true love. This recalls an earlier pointmade in our essay. John Paul II notes the dangerous tendency of contemporaryspouses to exemplify an isolationist and autonomous attitude in marriage (FC,6). In fact, for the problems listed above which are antithetical to marriageand family life, the Pope believes there is one problem most fundamentally thecause of the others. He writes, At the root of these negative phenomena therefrequently lies a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom,conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriageand the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often againstothers, for one’s own selfish well-being. And if selfishness is thought to bethe enemy of true love, then any spouse acting almost exclusively in his ownself-interest is destructive toward the very bond of his marriage to hisspouse, which bond is love itself.
There is an interesting irony involved in selfish individualismversus a flourishing and mutually reciprocating action of love toward anotheroutside of oneself. Whereas one would suppose that, as is often franklyadmitted, couples will tend to not want to marry because they simply want tocontinue enjoying the other person in the relationship without giving over to aserious commitment (Cf. Barbara Markey, Cohabitation: Response over Reaction).Or, further than this, some married couples will either put off childrenindefinitely or decide to not have them at all for the expressed purpose ofwishing to sexually enjoy the spouse in an uninhibited manner. The strangeconsequence though, as Pope Paul VI noted in Humanae Vitae, is that thiseventually leads to becoming overly self-centered sexually, which eventuates inman (or woman) coming to see the other as a mere instrument of selfishenjoyment and no longer as the desired companion for life (HV, 17).
Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo notes that the having of a family ina natural and ordered way (such as the Church teaches couple to do) does leadto the exact opposite of selfishness and isolationism in a marriagerelationship. And this is a necessary consequence (as in, it is intrinsic innature itself) of having children. Cardinal Trujillo offers some examples thatit is the nature of family to be other-centered in even the simplest ways. Henotes, Everyone has to help everyone else in thefamily, (FC and the Family, 3). It is simply a matter of beingpractically impossible to be rapped up in oneself in the context of a familywith numerous children. The older children will have to help the younger onesat times (e.g., to put on their shoes before they go outside), and the adultswill constantly have to help all of the children to grow into responsibleadults. It is simply intrinsic to the nature of having a family that one growsto be concerned with the well-being and interests of others around.
In these comments by Cardinal Trujillo there isan explication of the fundamental doctrines expressed in sections 42-43 of Familiaris.In these sections, Pope John Paul II notes that the daily life of a good familyis characterized by sharing and deep communion. The community of a family isthe very answer needed to thwart selfish isolationism. This type ofother-centered communion is seen in various aspects of which the Cardinal haselaborated. For example, the family is guided by an overriding principle offree giving, and this free giving takes the form ofheartfelt acceptance, encounter and dialogue, disinterested availability,generous service and deep solidarity (FC, 43). Children helping youngerchildren whenever there arises a need for such help is a ready example ofdisinterested availability. The older child helps the younger not because he isgaining something for it, but rather because when a child needs help,especially your own sibling, you simply help that child. This also fosters arecognition of the intrinsic value in each individual human being.
Love and Life the Very Foundation of Marriage and Family
In his recent speech Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo agreed with Pope JohnPaul II in seeing the family as that which forms societies. According tothe Pope, the family is society’s foundation, which continually bolsterssociety by being its continual giver of life (FC, 42). Cardinal Trujillonotes that this thinking is in opposition to current worldly sentiment mostreadily embodied by the United Nations in their recent conferences. The generalattitude expressed in these U.N. conferences has been to think that societiesare simply collections of individuals (Familiaris Consortio and theFamily, 3). But, nature seems to argue against this mistaken idea. Societiesare not the ones producing and nurturing and giving the individuals to thesociety. These duties are fulfilled by families, and the individuals producedusually repeat this fundamental cycle of nature by creating their own familiesand producing and nurturing their own offspring.
Underlying the teaching of the family as the ultimate antidote toisolationism, are the two most fundamental realities of marriage: love andlife. The two are hardly mutually exclusive, reasons John Paul II. On thecontrary, conjugal love expressed as it out to be expressed according to thenature of man tends toward the creation of life. Procreation is a naturalfruit of the conjugal act, according to Humanae Vitae. Many thinkerssince have latched on to this fundamental Catholic point, including John PaulII in this exhortation. According to Catholic teaching, man is a hylomorphicunity. That is, he is composed of matter and form, which for man correspond tothe body and soul, which are fundamentally united. That is, what it is to bea human is to be a soul-body unity (FC, 11). But, man is also created inthe image and likeness of God, who is love. It follows that Love is thereforethe fundamental and innate vocation of every human being, (11). In marriage,the love that man longs to express is done so most fundamentally in conjugallove, the mutual and complete self-giving of a man and a woman. So sexualitycould never be seen, on this understanding as something purely physical, norpurely psychological either. It is the whole human who engages in the sexualact, so the act itself is intrinsically physical and spiritual. This is how onecommunicates his or her love for another, by the mutual self-giving in theconjugal act.
However, love is not the only principle intrinsic to conjugal acts.This fact is easily demonstrable by noting that birth control contraceptionamounts to little more than artificial means of birth prevention. But since itis ever thought that this or that birth is needing to be prevented, it must bethe case that there is a natural product of conjugal love. So, Donald Ascireasons, this is the other aspect of Pope John Paul II’s theology of theconjugal act. The body by its very nature in sexuality is fecund – it is opento fertility (The Conjugal Act as a Personal Act, 138). Totalunion occurs with the giving of one’s body and all of its finalities. In maleclimax, a finality is the releasing of semen, in which is contained thepossibility of forming a new human life (if united with the gift of thewoman-the ovum). There is a principle of totality inherent in this reasoning -the giving of one’s total self – his spiritual, physical and (innatelycontained within the physical) his fecundity.
But, if by some various means the conjugal act is not completedaccording to its intrinsic order something like a contradiction takes place,according to Christopher West who cites section 32 of Familiaris Consortio.West argues that one cannot possibly hold that he gives his entire self to theother if at the most important (i.e., climactic) moment of intercourse – thevery moment when the unity between the two ought to be felt most of all – onewithdraws him or herself from the union. Fecund is what adults are bynature. Therefore, when one does such a thing as what West describes, he isengaging in a type of lie – a serious contradictory statement which says, Igive you all of myself except my fertility. I receive all that you are exceptyour fertility, (Good News about Sex and Marriage, 108). Thus, as JohnPaul II reasons in this section of FC cited by West, the innatelanguage of the total and mutual self-giving inherent in the conjugal actbecomes overlaid with a contradictory idea when man acting as the ultimatearbiter of his own being and sexuality decides in a moment to nottotally give of his self (since his whole self includes, as Asci has shownabove, his fecundity as well).
The Essential Tension of Becoming What You Are
The discussion thus far leads naturally to what many later came tosee as a profound and highly important teaching of Familiaris Consortio:Families, you are to become what you are! This passage so often quoted runsthus,
The family findsin the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what it is,but also its mission, what it can and should do. The role that God calls thefamily to perform in history derives from what the family is: its rolerepresents the dynamic and existential development of what it is. Each familyfinds within itself a summons that cannot be ignored and that specifies bothits dignity and responsibility: family, become what you are” (FamiliarisConsortio, 17).
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Of course, such anexhortation is paradoxical at first blush. As David Michael Thomas remarksconcerning this papal principle, This pope is a complex blend of realism andidealism. The tension between the two is not relaxed for a minute (Pope JohnPaul II’s Advice for Families, 7). And Cardinal Trujillo asks, how cansomething become what it is? (7) More specifically, how does a family becomewhat it already is?
Donald Asci has some insight to share on this front. It isessentially a cart-and-horse dilemma. It is not always easy, in terms ofaction, to identify which is the horse that is pulling the cart. The family hasa nature, and it is given this by God. However, it also has a mission, which isalso given by God. These are two dimensions of the same reality: namely, the family(Asci, 126). The family has a static nature, but it also has a dynamic mission,which is to be realized. But the mission is never realized without an alreadyextant family, which has the necessary nature to realize the mission. Nofamily; no mission. However, part of the mission is the having, nurturing, andpromulgating of good families. No fulfillment of mission; no families. It is ascenario of interrelation and reciprocation. Each gives rise to the other.
A phrase that first appeared in recent times in the Second VaticanCouncil document Lumen Gentium with reference to the nature of thefamily was that of ecclesia domestica (the domestic church). As DavidMichael Thomas notes, the Council got this phrase from the writings of theChurch fathers, and rightly so since from the very beginnings of the Church ithas always been comprised of those who wished to convert together with all[their] household, as the official Catechism of the Catholic Church states onthis matter (413). The metaphor to describe this in the Catechism is that thefamilies of converts were as little islands of Christianity lived out in apagan world. Leon Suprenant offers the biblical metaphor of the body of Christ(which is the Church, according to St. Paul) being comprised of the littlecells of families. Furthermore, for those Catholics living in fidelity to theteachings of the Church and having children as the natural result of conjugallove, they have as their primary responsibility the education and formation ofthese children according to the Gospel of Christ (The ‘Real Presence’ of theMarriage Bond, 253). Surely, individual parishes in union with the Holy See ofthe Catholic Church contribute to the education and formation of children, butthis is primarily to be done in the home – which is one of the qualities thatmake it the domestic church.
In continuity with all this, Pope John Paul II in FamiliarisConsortio employs the phrase with some frequency and further elaboration. Itis a result of parents begetting in love and for love that they procreate newoffspring, for which they in turn take the responsibility of educating thesenew beings who stand in potential of great growth and development (FC,36). It is their duty, but more to the point of love, it is their solemnprivilege to be able to take the sacred product (i.e., their own child) oftheir mutual love for each other and see its development through to completion.In this way, the parents fulfill their own duty and honor to be the firstevangelizers of their own children in teaching them of the love of Christ.
As wasstated at the outset of this brief essay, the apostolic exhortation FamiliarisConsortio is a document rich in depth and broad in the topics to which itextends its teaching. However, we have only tried here to give what seem to besome of the most important and widely commented on portions of the text. Itcertainly seems to have had a welcome reception by many of the most well-knowncontemporary Catholic writers on marriage and the family. It also appears tohave filled a void that existed to some extent in the wake of Catholic teachingon conjugal love and marriage prior to the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.One can reasonably expect that future pontificates will continue to focus onthe theology of the body so ably developed by Pope John Paul II in FamiliarisConsortio.
Asci, Donald P. The Conjugal Act as aPersonal Act: A Study of the Catholic Concept of
the ConjugalAct in the Light of Christian Anthropology. SanFrancisco: Ignatius Press, 2002.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2d ed. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.
John Paul II, Pope. The Theology of theBody: Human Love in the Divine Plan. Boston,
Pauline Booksand Media, 1997.
Familiaris Consortio.Vatican Translation. Boston: St. Paul Books, 1982.
Markey, Barbara. Cohabitation: Responseover Reaction. The Priest, November, 2000,
19-24. Availableonline from Catholic Culture.
Thisencyclical in its entirety is contained within a work listed in ourbibliography. The Theology of the Body, which is a compilation ofvarious teachings of Pope John Paul II on marriage and conjugal love, has HumanaeVitae as its first appendix. The reader may freely find the encyclical hereand many places elsewhere (including the Vatican’s official website).