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The Challenge to the Family: its Nature, Effects and a Catholic Response
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The Challenge to the Family: its Nature, Effects and a Catholic Response
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+ Jean Laffitte
Tit. Bishop of Entrevaux
Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family


Keynote Address: Conference for Educators & Catechists
Paco Catholic School Auditorium
Manila, May 13, 2014

Your Eminence,

Excellencies and Dear Friends, 

I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude to the organization team of this important Family Meeting, specially the Philippine Bishops Conference and his President H. E. Archbishop Socrates Villegas for bringing us all together during these days in regard to such themes which are each one at the heart of the preoccupations of the Church and with which we have to deal with as pastors, teachers, educators, guides and parents. 

The theme with which I have been entrusted concerns the institution of the family, which encounters difficulties and challenges such that could not have been foreseen only 30 or 40 years ago.  There are many ways in which the question of the family may be considered, a specifically Christian way considers and concentrates on the mystery of conjugal and familial love, when it is imbued with the love of God through the means of the sacraments.  This has always been the traditional approach of the Church up to Gaudium et Spes.  

In speaking to its baptized children, the Church necessarily speaks of an economy of grace rooted in baptism and poured out through sacramental marriage.  If we had the curiosity to consider the debates in the Church relative to marriage before the 1960’s, we would see the conglomeration of questions related to the unity of marriage, fidelity, fecundity, Christian education of children, all with by the call to the classic means of sanctification: prayer and sacraments, and in particular the Sunday Eucharist. Of course, a certain innovation had already appeared with Pius XI when he spoke, in Casti Connubi, of the sanctification of the spouses, thus directing the attention to the two people entering into the sacrament, and not anymore only to the sacrament in itself. In all of this, however, we recognize that marriage did not interest the theologian and the moralist except in so far as it had canonical consequences. No one could have ever imagined that what was accepted in the great majority of cultures, regarding the definition of marriage would soon be the object of a radical reconsideration.  From the natural law viewpoint, foundation of roman law in as much as common law, marriage designated for societies a stable union, freely consented to, by one man and one woman, so as to found a family. The sharing by the spouses of their two existences supposed a certain number of accepted realities: a readiness to welcome, raise and meet the needs of their children. In the countries where there existed for historical reasons a dual tradition, religious and civil, expressed by the existence of a religious marriage side by side with a civil marriage, this disparity did not implicate any difficulty regarding the content itself of that which was contracted: a reciprocal engagement to a common life, for all of life. 

The first blow inflicted upon this vision was without a doubt the introduction into the law of the authorization of civil divorce, which fostered the mentality that in certain extreme cases such a decision could be taken to end the life in common. In spite of the antiquity of this law, which goes back to the French Revolution, which then being extended to virtually all of the national legislations in the world, divorce for more than two centuries was still considered as an anomaly, a failure. The proof is that regarding the law, it was always pronounced on the basis of a fault or a grave incapacity imputable to one of the two spouses.  We know now, that it is not anymore like this.  Divorce can be pronounced by “mutual consent”: this is to say that there is a tranquil alternative to a stable conjugal life.  To emphasize this, I would say that today, from the view of civil laws, one could say that one has the choice between marrying without imagining that the marriage could end, or just as well marry in saying to oneself that if problems arise, there will always be the possibility to escape through divorce. It seems to me that we have not yet integrated the importance of this fact in the psychology of youth today who with good faith desire to marry.  We will later return to this question. 

Unfortunately the question of divorce is not the only one posed.  We could describe the last century as the one which in starting the sexual revolution has conducted us toward an ideology today that is still more grave, even if it itself is just a fruit, the ideology of gender.  It seems useful to me to delineate some milestone points within this evolution, as this will help us to better understand how we have arrived to the contemporary situation.  Sexual Revolution refers to all the changes which occurred in western societies and spreading out today there-from in all the continents, of the vision of sexuality and its exercise, such that there is a sort of moral emancipation.  This revolution is of philosophical, anthropological, moral, and social nature. 

At the moral level, it acts as a reversal of ethics, lifestyles, and laws in many countries.  The expression Sexual Revolution, invented by Wilhelm Reich in the 1920’s, wished to extend a social perspective to the personal therapeutic work of Freud.  The discourse of sex was to become a subject of public discussion.  The revolution consists in changing the discourse regarding human sexuality and its link to procreation to focusing on human sexuality but in a purely dynamic way, physically gratifying and soon autonomous from the relation to the possible transmission of life.  Soon all considerations of sexual attitudes of men and women were to cease to be taboo.  Subjects never publicly discussed before became the object of common conversation, in particular:  the practice of feminine or masculine homosexuality, the search for maximum pleasure in the relationship, the re-vindication of a sexuality separated from all commitment and responsibility.  The sexual revolution is not only limited to interpersonal behavior:  it has become a true social revolution, radically placing in question all the foundations of civil and religious society.  One easily understands that the character of the publicity given to the idea of strict intimacy of persons carries with it a seed of radical dissent from the institution of the family, the only civil setting which had previously limited the exercise of the sexual faculty, and on the other side the opposition of the churches, as the moral authorities carrying the ethical and spiritual discourse of human love.  

We understand that a discourse which banalizes sexuality in its various forms and at times in a contradictory manner contributes to a reversal of all the values that have held societies together through the centuries:  exclusivity of the loving relation between spouses, veneration of human life, love of children, a sense of personal and familial history…. In a coherent way, the claim to a total sexual liberty, accompanies itself with a refusal of all norms of authority:  protest against the paternal figures, of that of the teacher or professor, thus against the figure of the moral and spiritual authority as such, beginning with the Magisterium of the Church.  

To conclude this introductory overview, the characteristics of the present day gender ideology should be noted.

What exactly is gender?  It is an ideology that attempts to affirm that the differences between man and woman, above and beyond their anatomical particularities, do not correspond to a fixed nature, but are the products of the culture of a particular epoch or determined place.  The difference between the sexes is considered as a social convention:  everyone can attribute to oneself the sex that they choose.  At the level of behavior, everyone can choose heterosexuality, masculine or feminine homosexuality, and bisexuality.  It becomes possible to change sexes.  The legislations of different countries, as much as the international organizations, attempt to establish and impose the recognition of new rights:  gender rights.  Permit me to refer to the United Nations Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which was presented to the general assembly of the United Nations on the 18th of December of 2008.  The declaration, which was to be adopted as a “resolution”, sparked a declaration of opposition from the part of the Arab League.  For the record, 68 countries supported the declaration with 57 countries opposing it, with the two declarations remaining open for new signatures, as neither of the texts was officially adopted by the General Assembly.  

The disassociation of sex and gender opens a divide between nature and culture.  It contributes thus to reduce the human being to mere individuality.  In this sense, gender takes the logic of the absolutisation of individual liberty to the extreme. Let us note that it does this through a negation of nature’s most fundamental determinisms.  We do not have the time to philosophize regarding the negative metaphysical content of this ideology.  It is enough now, to conclude this introduction by quoting Shulamith Firestone:  “Thus the 'natural' is not necessarily a 'human' value. Humanity has begun to transcend Nature: we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on grounds of its origins in nature. Indeed, for pragmatic reasons alone it is beginning to look as if we must get rid of it.”  (Shulamith Firestone, The dialect of Sex, Bantam Books, New York, 1970, 10).  

As one can already guess, the gender ideology operates to radically put in question the status of the institution of the family and all that it can mean for the common good of society.  

I. The Nature of the Problem

1. Anthropological Aspects and Moral Implications 

In all the elements that we have indicated regarding the deconstruction of the family, one can discern an ideological intention, aiming to totally change the very terms themselves of the conjugal and familial contract.  Such an enterprise, which seems to be increasingly accelerating, manifests an immense anthropological deficiency.  Before being a moral question, the problem regards the conception of the nature of man and woman, and thus of human love, which the desired changes reveal. That which characterizes all the ideologies of the world is the abstract character of considering the problems.  In that which concerns conjugal and familial love, the formidable gender ideology, the ultimate avatar of post-modernity, simply forgets that the family is not merely an idea but contrarily a practical experience. 

The Concrete Experience of the Family

The family experience teaches us something about love between a man and a woman, but it also raises the deepest questions at the heart of each of us. John Paul II was accustomed to talking about fundamental human experiences, what he sometimes referred to as elementary experiences: among them, he mentioned the deepest inspiration of the human heart: the desire to love and be loved, to which other experiences are tied, such as suffering, fear of death, mourning, the desire for children, the desire to leave something of oneself to one’s loved ones, the desire to be useful, and other desires.

The term ‘experience’ should be clarified. It means an experience lived, what the German call an Erlebnis. In short, we can say that the human experience includes both the sensitive aspect of humankind, which it stimulates, and its own intelligibility. 

Notice how, at all levels of the experience of love, the presence of a truth and goodness is revealed. We are familiar with the theological aspect of this truth of love. One of our main duties as educators should be precisely to show to the young we are in charge of the beauty and greatness of human love in the high meaning. Saint John Paul the second believed it to be rooted in God’s design for human love, taking inspiration from the conversation, in Matthew 19, between Jesus and the Pharisees on the indissolubility of marriage: to those who referred to the certificate granted by Moses to dismiss their wives, Jesus argued that at the beginning (apo arche) when God made man and woman, it was not so. The beginning here is the principle of love. 

It is interesting to see how John Paul II’s successor expressed this intrinsic link between love and truth: after having proclaimed, with a certain boldness, the existence of a divine eros, Benedict XVI sees the truth of love in a balance between eros and agape, and not in the separation of these two aspects: Eros and agape – ascending love and descending love – can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 4-9). 

Caritas in Veritate emphasizes the oblative aspect of love that finds in gift its true aspect, not cut off from its transcendent scope: Charity in truth places man before the astonishing experience of gift. Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often goes unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension (Caritas in Veritate, 34).

In order to understand the true nature of family, there are two transitions that must be made: from love to marriage and from marriage to family. The fact of marrying lends the experience of love its social aspect. It takes it beyond the boundaries of interpersonal intimacy and enriches it by equipping it with a new significance. The very existence of the conjugal union (civil or religious) means that society retains an interest in what happens between spouses and considers their relationship to be a good; it will, therefore, by the authority it holds (the authority of the civil society or the church), grant it the means of stability. Society incorporates as a new piece of information the fact that, within it, this particular man and this particular woman have been joined in a unique way that not only commits them for the future but also requires society to take note of this union, to demonstrate its interest and esteem, to help it establish itself or grow stronger, and to view as an enrichment the possibility that it might expand to become a family. From the point of view of the individuals in question, takings steps publicly that will commit them in the future lends their own union maturity and objectivity. Is there, in fact, better evidence of a person’s love than to promise his or her beloved not only the present, but also the future? And is there a better gauge of this desire than to have God as one’s witness (religious ceremony) or, in any case, human society? The second transition is from marriage to family. The family experience can be understood from the point of view of the child, of the spouses themselves as they become parents and, finally, of society itself.

Let us examine the experience of somebody gradually discovering that he or she is a member of a family. It was the experience of the vast majority of people until a few decades ago: an experience of which we are aware from early childhood. How can we not think at this point of John Paul II’s famous Letter to Families (Gratissimam sane), in which he referred, on the subject of the conception and birth of a child, to the genealogy of the person: Bound up with the family is the genealogy of every individual: the genealogy of the person. The personal aspect of the event found in its full meaning, in his eyes, in the fact that every person is created in the image and resemblance of God: Every act of begetting finds its primordial model in the Fatherhood of God. Nonetheless, in the case of man, this “cosmic” dimension of likeness to God is not sufficient to explain adequately the relationship of Fatherhood and Motherhood. When a new person is born of the conjugal union of the two, he brings with him into the world a particular image and likeness of God himself: the genealogy of person is inscribed in the very biology of generation.(Gratissimam sane 9). The genealogy of the person, it is said, provides a link between every person’s natural desire to start a family and the more hidden and original aspect of man: each human being perceives himself or herself as the fruit of a mysterious love. 

We recall the extraordinary writings of the Philosopher Gabriel Marcel about the mystery of family in his work Homo Viator. He writes: under the abstract words of paternity and sonship, I have gradually come to guess at occult and forbidden realities which make my soul dizzy [...] At the very least, I come to believe that, far from being endowed with an absolute existence of my own, I am, without having originally wished or suspected it, that I incarnate the reply to the reciprocal appeal which two beings flung beyond themselves to an incomprehensible power whose only expression is the bestowal of life.

The second point of view is that of the spouses: the coming into existence of one or more children changes the nature of what they have experienced thus far: not only does the child introduce one to the new experience of fatherhood and the other to the new experience of motherhood, but they discover themselves to be father and mother through each other; so it is that their love takes on a new, far broader dimension, taking them well beyond their limits as a couple, to a family unit that transcend their relationship. The transition from marriage to family is therefore a transformation of the spouses’ love, not a replacement of that love with something else that would essentially bring with it burdens and restrictions on their previous freedom. Let us make clear here that the experience of this kind does violate the spouses’ subjectivity. For, before becoming parent, they were those children discovering that they were members of a family, objects of an unconditional love that kept them secure: the essence of fatherhood and motherhood can be seen only in the context of a filial anthropology. 

Finally, society’s point of view is leading us towards the end of this relationship. Up until the last few decades, it was commonly accepted in all legislations that the family was founded on a public commitment between a man and a woman. The recent extension of the terms family and marriage to other forms of social reality: reconstructed families, free unions (with no other basis than the will of the partners) and, in some countries’ legislation, unions between people of the same sex, has undoubtedly weakened perception of the structural and founding tie between marriage and the family. Nevertheless, the rights granted to a family founded on the conjugal union have always suggested recognition of the fact that the family unit is a good for society: that a unit of this kind aids the gradual socialization of future adult citizens through their upbringing; that the support given to children and adolescents by their parents helps to ensure the stability of social ties. This brings to mind Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1946, which states that: ‘the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’ A statement of this kind, in a text with no religious basis, made clear that, while the family is of such great importance, it is because it meets a public interest and was evidently linked to the common good in the opinion of legislators at that time.

In 1981, the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio was promulgated by the Pope Saint John Paul II and in the text was a recommendation, that a document on the Rights of the Family should be elaborated. I cannot insist here on the contents and the importance of the document that would be published some years later, as it will be the precise object of tomorrow’s lecture that has been entrusted to me in the context of the panasiatic International Congress.

To relativize the family institution is to weaken an essential foundation of life as a society. This is achieved by the absolute privatization of the family, which becomes the realm of privacy, in which people find instant gratification for their emotional desires. The legislative viewpoint is shifting in this regard: civil authority has the right (or rather the duty) to guarantee the freedom of individuals’ private choices, not to support the union that provides society’s natural basis and cohesion.

Certainly, at the beginning of this millennium, the family institution retains a presence in a number of societies that it binds and unifies. It is, however, suffering dangerously at the hands of Western Countries that are constantly attempting to impose and export their social and cultural models. Instead of any specifically ethical consideration of the matter, it is with an anthropological model that we are now confronted: one that consists of thinking about people solely in an individualistic manner, as an isolated entity with absolute freedom, ignoring their original social aspect and no longer viewing marriage and the family as a natural society rooted, specifically, in the natural sociality of men and women. The risk socially is the political disregard for safeguarding the conjugal and family institution, which, in the eyes of governments, would no longer be strongly linked to the common good and therefore worthy of being defended and championed. We should also consider here what the disappearance of stability could mean in terms of population and the replacement of generations.