Coming to Terms: What is Family?

by Catherine Fournier

"What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be particularily good. It is something better than what is admitted to be good, that is the most excellent good." St. John Chrysostom, Virginity, X:PG 48:540

A few years ago, a popular saying was, "It takes a village to raise a child." The other night, I heard a character on a television program say, "Forget it, honey, the village is closed."

Both statements blithely overlook a historical reality. When a village did raise a child, the village was actually an extended family. It isn't the village that isn't working any more, it's the family. As a society, we've forgotten how family was made, what kept it together, and Who created it in the first place. Most families today don't follow the model God intended when He created marriage and families.

Nowadays, Heather has two Mommies, and most of the children in my children's classes have two dads, or a mom and a girlfriend, or a stepdad and father who abandoned the family at birth, or is living with an aunt, or is moving to a new city to take care of her new half-sister, or some tragic variation on these real life children I know personally.

Their families are arrangements, kaleidoscopes of people, places and things, all moving by some whim or force they do not understand. Their families are explained as being better than the alternative, the alternatives being living on the street, or in single parent poverty, or on their own.

But as St. John Chrysostom said, just because this is judged better than some alternatives, it is not yet "the most excellent good."

"Christian marriage and the Christian family build up the Church: for in the family the human person is not only brought into being and progressively introduced by means of education into the human community, but by means of the rebirth of baptism and education in the fatih the child is also introduced into God's family, which is the Church." (Familiaris Consortio, 15.2)

The sacrament of marriage is the only sacrament not administered by a priest. It is jointly administered by the couple, to each other. It could be mistaken as resembling the "comparative good" - a modern marriage, a private arrangement between consenting adults.

But marriage vows are sworn in the presence of God and witnesses. In those vows, the soon-to-be husband and wife pledge lifelong commitment, to become "one body in two persons", to be open to the transmission of life, to raise children in the light of faith, to be the other's way to reach fulfillment in Christ. Marriage and family are more than permanent. They are an eternal joining of souls into a completely new creation, as new and unique as the children which will be its fruit.

Family is also more than the biological ties between parents and offspring. There are many families, just as there are many souls and many vocations. A generous family with two parents, spinster sisters sharing a home, a barren couple, an adult child living with a parent, husband, wife and grandpa living together, a widowed father raising the children alone. There is one trait necessary to all - a family has its origins in the sacrament of marriage, a life-long commitment between a man and woman.

Every family has "its mission and role" in God's plan. The real sacramental presence of grace, the eternal vows of marriage and promises of baptism, and the presence of Christ living within each of us outlines that mission and role and gives the strength and confidence necessary to carry it out.

Family can't be a kaleidoscopic human arrangement, formed in private without regard for spiritual realities. It can only succeed as a God-designed institution to conceive and raise children in the light of faith and love, care for the sick and elderly, and for all to grow closer to God - to help each other get to Heaven. This, as the village knew, is the most excellent good.

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