Has the church been in the family's way?

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Article Marriage and Family

The development of Christian family values is a central aspect of Christianity's ongoing self-interpretation in the 20th century. That development is linked to the growth of lay ministries, to the continuing reconciliation between the long-opposed body and the soul, and to the Vatican II shift toward seeing the church as being in service to the world (rather than the reverse). All of these changes are simultaneous, gradual, and interrelated.

Many Protestants assume that they long ago rectified the absence of Christian family values in the Christian tradition they reclaimed from Catholicism. Protestant Christianity did have a head start in the process of developing Christian family values, if only because its clerics for the last 400 years have founded families who in some limited ways were understood to model Christian family values.

Unfortunately, Protestantism squandered most of this head start. Protestantism was ultimately unwilling to rethink the suspicion of women, the ascetic understanding of spirituality, the equation of love and sacrifice, and the tension between the church and the world, all of which were inherited from Catholicism.

Clergy marriage could have only a limited impact on the larger issue of family values so long as family life-intimate relationships in general and sexual ones in particular-continued to be understood either as tinged with sin or at least as distractions from the solitary prayer and meditation that were understood as the path to salvation.

Strained relations
Unlike many other religions, Christianity cannot pull any system of family values out of the lives of its foundation figures. We have no information that Jesus Christ ever founded a family. About his birth family there is great dispute, although it is agreed that it was neither natural nor common: His "father" was a stepfather, who, depending upon one's version of Christianity, may have never had any sexual relationship with his mother.

Another indication of the family's lack of historical centrality in Christianity is that it took Christianity a thousand years to recognize marriage as a sacrament. Only after hundreds of years did the church first bless some marriages after the ceremony was complete and then begin to gradually move marriage ceremonies into the church and have clergy preside.

This slowness of the church to claim marriage was not accidental. The basic model of the Christian from the beginning was not as a member of a birth, much less a marital, family but as a single person. This model developed early in Christian history, perhaps in response to the total absence of information about the marital status of Jesus himself. He was long past the age when all Jewish males in his society would have been expected to marry, but we learn nothing in the gospels of a wife, living or dead, much less children.

Although Jesus' apparent singleness violated the pattern for Jewish men, and especially expectations for Jewish holy men, there is no indication of objections raised to Jesus' religious leadership based on his singleness. Some scholars think that Jesus' statement about some being eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:12) was meant as a defense of his singleness, but this is not explicit.

Not only did Jesus not found his own family, but he seems to have been estranged during most, if not all, of his ministry from his birth family. He refused to see his mother and brothers when they, fearing he had lost his mind, came to seize him and take him away early in his ministry (Mark 3:20-35). From that point on, his family is absent from the gospel accounts of his life until John depicts Mary at the foot of the cross (John 19:26-27). Even in John's account the implication is that Jesus' brothers are still at odds with him (although James appears later in the Book of Acts as the head of the Aramaic-speaking church in Jerusalem). If the brothers had not been still estranged from Jesus, there would have been no need for Jesus to assign the normal obligation of sons/stepsons to care for their widowed mother/stepmother to John, a nonrelative.

Even more telling than these hints from the evangelists about Jesus' estrangement from his family are the gospel accounts of what Jesus had to say about family, all of which are negative. The most common explanation for the negativity in Jesus' treatment of family is that Jesus did not reject family but rather rejected the conventions of his society that valued the smallest need of kinfolk over more serious needs of non-kin. When a man agreed to join Jesus as soon as he fulfilled his filial obligation to bury his father, Jesus replies, "Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:59-60).

When Jesus warned his followers about the persecutions and trials to come, he includes betrayal by family: "You will be delivered up even by parents and friends, and some of you they will put to death" (Luke 21:16). Jesus, perhaps based on his own experience, taught: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:34-38).

In teaching how his followers should demonstrate love of neighbor, Jesus said, "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they invite you back and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blest, for they cannot repay you" (Luke 14:12-14).

Perhaps the strongest statement by Jesus refuting the priority of family was his reply to the woman who cried out to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that gave you suck!" For Jesus denied that salvation flowed from fulfilling family obligations such as childbearing: "Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!" (Luke 11:27-28).

There can be little doubt that whatever the situation in his birth family, Jesus did not present his followers with a model of discipleship that had family anywhere near its center. Rather, the band of his followers, and the church that would develop from them, was a kind of surrogate family. Many early followers of Jesus were expelled from families of origin-even from spouses and children-for following him and needed the church as surrogate family.

The image of the Christian as single and unburdened by the obligations of family life was further strengthened by both the imperative to evangelism and the perils of that work in the early church. While scripture leads us to think that some apostles' wives did accompany their husbands on missionary travels, Saint Paul's advice to Christians to remain single if they can do so without being tempted to sin makes eminent sense when one considers the number of apostles and disciples who were martyred and the extensive travels they made before their deaths.

Second-class Christians
What seems to have been most responsible for relegating family to the periphery of Christian concerns, however, was the interpretation given to Jesus' own death in the wake of the first three centuries of the persecution and martyrdom of Christians. The world came to be understood as an evil place not to be trusted. The Christian response was to accept suffering, even to invite it and to inflict it upon oneself, thereby sharing in the sufferings of Jesus and the martyrs in the expectation of participating in Jesus' Resurrection and everlasting reward in the kingdom.

Already in the second century, the anchorites, who withdrew to solitary prayer, fasting, and meditation in desert caves, represented the beginning of the ascetic model of Christian spirituality. This model would become not only the dominant model of spirituality in the church but continued without serious challenge for a millennium and a half.

This ascetic spirituality became the spirituality of the monasteries. It understood that following Jesus-the path to salvation-required withdrawal from ordinary life in the world into personal solitude. The community that existed within monastic life was a kind of shared solitude. Individuals were supported in their commitments by the parallel presence of others engaged in solitary prayer, meditation, and ascetic practices designed to discipline the body and focus the mind on the things of the spirit.

By the fourth century the vocation to vowed celibacy was accepted as the exemplary Christian life, with marriage and family understood as appropriate for less ambitious Christians who were morally and spiritually weaker.

So strong was the disdain for marriage and family life in this early period that Saint Clement became known as the defender of marriage for insisting that married couples may not be living in sin if they: 1) learn not to feel desire for each other, 2) only have sex for procreation, and 3) abandon sexual relations for set periods so as to be able to develop the ability to pray. After all, he reasoned, they offer God the good of children.

Saint Augustine diminished even this good by insisting that the divine command to increase and multiply had been intended to hasten the generations that had to precede the coming of Christ; because Christ had come there was no need for procreation, for there were already enough souls to populate heaven.

Saint Jerome, who urged the young to be virgins and the widowed not to remarry, maintained that the only good marriage produced was to furnish new generations of virgins for the church. Virgins he likened to the hundredfold yield the sower in Jesus' parable obtained from the good soil, widows to the 60-fold yield, and the married to the 30-fold yield.

To the celibate monastic intent on achieving the total domination of the rational soul over the body, the vocation of marriage and family appeared as an almost complete preoccupation with the dangerous things of this world, beginning with the body itself. Husbands and wives who had to earn food, shelter, and clothing for themselves and their children and do the many tasks of maintaining bodily health and home did not have the quiet solitude for prolonged prayer and meditation. They could not afford to allow their bodies to be weakened by the prolonged fasts, sleeplessness, and bruised and lacerated flesh that disciplined the concentration of the devout monastics. Any participation in sex was assumed to have rendered spouses unable to pray at all and unworthy of receiving the sacraments.

So long as monastic spirituality was the model of Christian spirituality, those who chose marriage and family were inevitably second-class Christians.

The problem with the Holy Family
The need for images to serve as inspirational models for families in popular Christian piety inevitably turned to Jesus' birth family. There were few other possibilities. The individuals lifted up as model Christians through the centuries-the saints-did not offer any guidance for families.

Some of the saints chose virginity-and martyrdom-out of defiance of their families, who had, according to the custom, arranged marriages for them. Many other saints renounced families to become founders and members of religious orders or celibate popes, bishops, and priests. A few were kings and queens known for prayer, charity, and distaste for their marriages.

The very few saints who have ever been married tend to have been canonized not for the example they set in their families but for the lives they led after they became widowed or separated from their spouses and even children. Although there are a few men such as Saint Thomas More, who was canonized as a martyr but recognized also as a devoted family man, I can find no female examples of nonroyal married women being canonized.

Artistic depictions of events in the early life of Jesus came to encourage Catholic devotion to Mary, but the Holy Family became a prominent Catholic devotional theme only in the modern period. Until a century or two ago, the way many popes and bishops attempted to invoke the Holy Family as a model was by urging couples to adopt Josephite (sexless) marriages. They had little success. But beginning in the modern period, especially during the last two centuries, the church has invoked the Holy Family in new ways.

There have always been problems with the use of the Holy Family as a popular model of family life because the virgin birth makes Joseph the stepfather, not the father, of Jesus, and scripture is unclear about the parentage of Jesus' brothers and sisters. But, sexuality aside, these "unnatural" aspects of the Holy Family actually fit the modern-as opposed to the premodern-family.

As the Industrial Revolution took men and production out of the home and put them in factories, men's principal contribution to the family came to be economic support, especially because that support usually required many hours of paternal absence from the home. The family unit at home consisted of mother and children.

When production (of canned food, cloth, clothing, candles, soap, and so on) moved to the factories, women were increasingly urged to consider child-rearing as their principal occupation, instead of viewing offspring as people they and their husbands supervised while engaged in their "real" work of production. Women and children became more dependent upon men at the same time that men's work increasingly estranged them from the intimacy of the family hearth.

Joseph, the materially necessary but biologically and emotionally unnecessary father, made sense as the exemplar for the modern factory worker. And Mary as the young, dependent, and maternal housewife also worked to support family stability.

Papal sermons from the late 19th century to those of John Paul II have depicted the marital role of men in terms of paternal economic support and protection for the intimate bond that connects mothers and children, in return for which men obtain access to the "mysterious warmth" (John Paul II) that connects mothers and children as well as submission and obedience from wives and children (Pius XI, Pius XII, and John XXIII).

This interpretation of the Holy Family can no longer serve as a model for Christian marriage. At a material level, global economic pressure for two-wage earner families has ended the earlier "fit."

And at the spiritual interpersonal level, now that traditional Christian fear and hostility toward sex and the body has begun to be explored and rejected, lay Catholics reaffirm and reinterpret the long-standing theological teaching that sacramental love between wives and husbands is the basis of family. That sacramental love is reinterpreted not as merely instrumental for parenting, but rather as an end in itself, as a psychological, emotional, and spiritual relationship.

Increasingly we see equality-which need not imply sameness-and shared decision making, not dependency or purely pragmatic arrangements, as necessary for the intimate partnership of marriage.

A modern experiment
The last few centuries have seen the beginnings of the possibility of an alternative model of Christian spirituality. But it has been left to the 20th century, and especially the Second Vatican Council, to pull together earlier experiments and focus the attention of the whole church on the need for a model of Christian life that engages the world rather than withdraws from it.

There can be no doubt of the achievements of the monastic model of Christian spirituality. That model is not defective or outmoded. It has given us scores of great saints and masterpieces of sacred literature. There have been, of course, as with any set of practices that have been followed by millions over many centuries, problematic interpretations and deviations. But the ascetic monastic path has proven without a doubt that it can lead humans to God.

The new claim is not that the traditional path fails to achieve salvation, but only that it may not be the only path to salvation. In the Catholic Church today we are seeing if we who have chosen family life over that of the monasteries can reach our common Christian destination equally well. Can we-have we-produce(d) saints, too?

It is only through the development of lay spirituality that family can possibly move to the center of Christian life and a set of values can be identified that is both Christian and familial. Is it possible for family to be ritually important in our tradition?

One troublesome aspect of post-Vatican II Catholicism is that in the reemphasis on Sunday Mass as a community celebration, other traditional rituals that were possible within the family, without clergy-Rosary, novenas, home altars, May processions, and a host of others-were discouraged or allowed to fall into disuse.

Contributing to the problem, many sociologists of American religion believe that degree of religiosity is connected to domestic practice, and that Catholics score lower than evangelicals due to parental overreliance on religious schools and parishes to inculcate religion in their children.

Today we need to ask, as one mother not so naively asked at a recent Call To Action conference, why we don't have rituals for children going off to college or to their first home of their own. Not to mention rituals for couples suffering miscarriages or stillbirths, for infertility, for women entering menopause, and for parents with newly empty nests.

Families need to hear again and again the language of grace used to describe innumerable aspects of family life. Many of us have come to understand childbirth as a sacramental moment, partly because the women's movement pushed hospitals and doctors to make childbirth more "family friendly." Many of us need ritual and homiletic help in realizing the mutual forgiveness lacking in relationships between all too many couples and their adult children. In my own life, grandparenting has appeared as overwhelming grace and confirmed for my husband and me the sacramentality of children in a way that we only dimly realized when we were so busy raising our own.

It is tragic that so many are still shocked to hear lovemaking after a marital spat called "reconciliation" and its effects described as "grace." We need to be reminded that marital sex can be where some of us do our best praying and where others of us are beyond conscious prayer and feel our deepest experience of direct communion with God. We have done a better job of honoring those who, through hard work, grace, and luck, have managed to grow old together in love. Perhaps recognition is easier because we assume the absence of sex?

We need to hear the life of Jesus compared to our own struggles. Married couples juggle long workweeks, the coordination of children's schools, day care, doctors, dentists, meal preparation, and bedtime routines with the needs of children and spouses for attention and affection. Jesus struggled to deal with the real and important demands of the people who followed him: that he heal their bodies and their spirits, that he feed them, forgive them, and give them hope.

Many parents among us can empathize with Jesus' trying to run away from the crowds hounding him to find some private time of his own. Jesus' work in the world, serving the real needs of people, was his mission and call; it was not a distraction from his "real" work of praying.

Yet Jesus did periodically need to get away from all the demands on his time and energy and replenish himself by going off alone to commune with his Father. Husbands and wives-even children-frequently need this time off for communion with God, with self, and with each other.

Family life is not only shorter on quiet and solitude than monastic life, it also offers us less control over our life. Children's bodies have schedules of their own for food and sleep and changing that must be met and that do not allow parents the luxury of planning and prioritization.

The dependence of children upon parents, severely increased by modernity's delayed adulthood and mobile populations in large urban centers, confronts parents with the challenge of finitude.

We need to hear the first steps of our children interpreted as a reminder that our children are not ours to own or keep, that we must prepare them for freedom from us. Parents, like the first apostles, are called to inculcate the gospel in others so those others can guide their own lives and communities as the apostle/parent passes on.

Married people are beginning to do theology in some numbers for the first time in the history of the church, and their new perspective and language can enrich the ongoing reinterpretation of old truths. As we continue to work on this project of developing Catholic lay spiritualities and identifying and supporting Christian family values, we should be humbled by the realization that we are clearing and mapping a new and somewhat revolutionary path for the imitation of Jesus Christ.

We need humility. This path is no more normative than the previous monastic path, nor is it any more final. Not all laypeople are married. Some are in families but not married, and some are single but not vowed celibates. Just as monastic spirituality encompassed Franciscan, Dominican, Benedictine, and many other spiritual paths, so we should expect a variety of lay spiritualities. But we should also be emboldened by the tremendous service that these lay spiritual paths can be to the great majority of Christian faithful.


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