Let’s talk about the family.
Over the last two years, there’s been a lot of talk about “family” in the Catholic Church. In October 2014 and again in October 2015, bishops and experts came together in Rome for two Synods – and before each Synod, great surveys were carried out concerning the reality of Catholic married life. Last month, the Pope’s reflections on the Synods were published, a document called Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love”.
Until now, I’ve said very little about this from the pulpit. I’ve been waiting for the dust to settle, and for our bishops and Pope Francis to set out “where we’re at”. Now is the right time, and over the next few months I’ll draw on a lot of ideas from the Pope’s document.
When I say the word “family”, do you automatically think of two parents with a small child? To be sure, raising children is an important part of family life, but families come in all shapes and sizes – those who have married may be widowed, separated, or suffering infertility. Some of us have never married – but we all come from families, belong to families, and are called to support family life. Even if life’s circumstances mean we are orphans, with no living family to call our own, parish is meant to become our “church family” – if you truly feel you are alone in life, do speak to me as your parish pastor so I can help you make connections in the church community.
Today is Trinity Sunday – the day when we celebrate that God is a family. God is love, and to borrow a phrase from Des Robertson, “We don’t do love alone.” God is love – if God were only one person, how could God be love? There’s nothing in our human experience quite like the God who is three-and-one, so we struggle to find the right language, but let me try.
The first person within God is the one we call “Father”, the begetter, the one who brings other life into being.
From the beginning of time – so early that there was no “previous” time when God was one Person alone – that love caused another Person to come forth. We call that second person the Word of God, the Word who took flesh and became Jesus, Son of Mary.
Before he died upon the Cross, Jesus spoke about a “Spirit of Truth” whom his Father would send. The Bible gives hints that this Spirit, the Holy Spirit, comes, we use the word “proceeds”, from the Father and the Son – in some mysterious way, the Spirit is the love which flows between them. The “Wisdom of God” in today’s reading from Proverbs is a hint towards both the Word and the Spirit who come from the Father and have always been with the Father.
Pope Francis sees in the Trinity an image of the family. First, a man marries a woman. The poetry in the Book of Genesis speaks of woman being made from flesh taken from the side of man – we can see a parallel with the way the Son comes from the substance of the Father. Then the love expressed between husband and wife causes a third person, a child, to come into being. The most important connection between the Trinity and a human family is that in each, love causes a new person to come into being.
The world around us now sees marriage as meaning “I want to be with the person who makes me happy”. What happens if that person is the same sex as yourself? What happens when the person who makes you happy isn’t the person you’re currently married to? Society has rewritten the rules to accommodate these situations.
Pope Francis has a different vision. For him, marriage isn’t about being with the person who makes you happy – it’s about raising the next generation. Every child has a right to be created by a husband and wife expressing their love for one another. Being husband and wife, they have already made a public promise to form a stable household ready to welcome children. The very best that we can want for that child is that he or she is raised by the two parents responsible for that child’s identity, in a home where each parent lives out self-sacrificing agape love for their child and their spouse.
Yes, of course, this doesn’t always happen. There are many orphans, absent parents, and marriages marked by the sad reality of infertility. When a child is conceived in unpromising circumstances, the Church can offer practical help for a mother wondering whether to keep it. But the vision of Christian marriage we want to pass on to the next generation is this: Before you have your own children, make a public promise to love your spouse in good times and in bad. Yes, in a committed family there are times of suffering, but perseverance leads to patience and to hope. Let your child be born to two parents utterly committed to life-long love. Isn’t that the kind of family you long to be part of?
Further thoughts for this Blog and the Parish Bulletin:
In a short sermon, it’s not always possible to cover every angle – and a sentence taken out of context can be badly misinterpreted. So when I say “don’t have children until you’ve made the commitment of marriage” that could be misinterpreted as a call to use contraception until you are married. For the record, I stand by the Church’s whole teaching and oppose sexual intercourse outside marriage, but I am merely choosing to emphasise one angle given the shortness of the homily. It took Pope Francis 325 paragraphs to cover everything!
In today’s homily (available through the parish website, with a link to catholicpreacher.wordpress.com) I make the point that marriage between a man and a woman deserves a privileged status because it has the power to bring new life into the world – it is meant to create a stable environment for the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of the next generation.
Modern technology allows two parents who could not naturally have a child, to create one in a laboratory. Pope Francis says we shouldn’t do that. We can try to make clever arguments about the destruction of “spare embryos”, possible genetic damage to the child conceived, or whether doing so is “natural” – but there are good counterarguments to these. What if we implanted every embryo? What if we did lots of animal testing to minimise the risk of genetic faults? What do we mean by natural – why is it OK to use medical technology to eliminate smallpox (a perfectly natural virus) and to correct disability but not to make a child by technological means?
Same-sex couples also have strong desires to create a baby which is made from both of them. Already, there are many cases where a woman donates an egg which is fertilised by donor sperm and then implanted in her partner’s womb; male couples have to resort to surrogate mothers. Doing so is arduous and requires a certain amount of self-sacrificing love. We’re not quite at the stage where a man can have one of his cells transformed into an egg, or a woman can have her genes fashioned into artificial sperm, but medical science is on the brink of making these techniques workable. If “family” is about raising the next generation, what if technology allows different kinds of couples to beget offspring in situations inconceivable before the 21st Century?
Ultimately, our Church leaders say “no” to test-tube babies because God gave clear instructions: a husband shall join with his wife, and they should be fruitful. Jesus himself quoted that part of the Old Testament, giving it even greater authority. Even though the sacred authors didn’t dream of our scientific abilities in the time when the Bible was written, we trust that God, who is all-wise and lives outside time, chose the words of Scripture to be relevant for all ages. Creating a new human life is not like any other practical problem – is is a sacred act, because it is the most God-like thing a human couple can undertake. As followers of Jesus, if we have chosen to live our lives in obedience to God’s commands, we have to accept that if we don’t receive the gift of our own child the natural way, we cannot receive that gift at all.
With this in mind, you may wish to re-read today’s Second Reading about sufferings leading to patience and then to hope; today’s Gospel challenges us to accept the truth which comes from God and is made clear by the Holy Spirit.
What help is there for Catholics who want to be faithful to the Church’s Teaching but suffer infertility within marriage? There are doctors and other healthcare professionals who can help maximise the human body’s natural fertility. You can learn more about this by visiting www.fertilitycare.net or lifefertilitycare.co.uk, or Googling the term “NaPro”.
Reading Amoris Laetitia: all references are to paragraph numbers.
- The creativity of the Trinity is reflected in marriage: 10, 11, 71, 314.
- Marriage, of a man and woman open to children, is God’s plan: 8, 9, 13.
- The family is special because it produces the next generation: 14, 52, 53.
- Why no test-tube babies? 56, 81.
- Infertile couples – why it is still meaningful for them to marry: 80.
- Adoption: 82.