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The Familiaris consortio (On the role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) thirty years later
Bologna, AMBER Association, 22 January 2012
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There are two questions which we should ask ourselves when we analyse a ‘dated’ document: How has today changed since the document was written? Is the document still able to guide and orientate us? I will attempt to answer these questions during my discussion. I have also divided it into two parts: the present situation of marriage, the family and the Familiaris consortio (or F.C. from on); the FC base-document of our commitment to marriage and the family.

  1. The Familiaris Consortio and the present-day situation
  2. I think since the publication of the FC, three decades ago, there has been and still exists a radical change in the attitudes towards marriage and the family in Western society .This has also been accompanied by a major turning point in Western culture. I shall try to describe this change in the following points now.

    Western society has had difficulty accepting the Christian belief on marriage and the family on a practical level. It is an attitude which I could summarise in the following approach: " this way of conceiving and proposing marriage is true, it’s beautiful but it cannot be practised in its entirety". In short: it is not its truth which is put into question but its practicability. The Christian doctrine on indissolubility has been judged above all in this way and also the doctrine on responsible procreation in the last century.

    This question, let’s say, has given rise to close examination and a constant search for a precise answer on the part of the Church and its doctrine.

    Ever since the times of Pope Leo XIII, there has been a succession of magisterial interventions on this subject which have continued until the impressive teachings of Blessed John Paul II.

    Over the last decades, there has been a dramatic change in our times. Past discussions focused on the practicability of marriage while today, the emphasis has switched to the question of the truth. The truth of marriage as such has given rise to a series of discussions. Therefore, I shall start my discussion from this point.

    The Western world has always considered the institution of marriage as something which had its own true nature albeit experienced and ruled by law in numerous forms. Not everything in marriage is conventional and therefore negotiable and at the heart of the matter there is something which never changes regardless of historical or cultural mutations.

    What has happened and what is happening now? Essentially, what is rejected is that there exists "something" in marriage that conventions cannot change. More precisely, it is now said that marriage is not by its own nature a legitimate heterosexual union with procreation- education of children; it can also be a homosexual legitimate union where procreation can be legitimately pursued separately from the conjugal sexuality. Who establishes that marriage is between persons of different sexes or otherwise? Generally, it is the individual’s decision and juridical laws who simply recognise all forms of union without discrimination of any sort.

    I hope I have been clear what the turning point consists of. What is not said: Christian belief is not impracticable; what is said: is false.

    Moreover, marriage is something singular in Christian doctrine. It is one of the seven sacraments which was and is not something "invented" by Jesus Christ. The sacramentality of marriage presupposes that what we can call a natural marriage is what I mentioned before "that which defined the institution of marriage as such". For it is this, what the Christian doctrine proclaims. The attack on the truth of marriage also involves Christian belief and which lies at the root of the question.

    I said "also", although this contentious subject does not just involve the Church but also – I would even dare to say above all – civil society and its supreme juridical organisation; that is the State.

    But, returning to the subject of the turning point in order to finish my point. The dramatic change in marriage has in turn, caused changes in the relationships in the family: paternity/maternity – filiation – fraternity.

    If I ignore for a moment the constitutional element of heterosexuality in marriage, eo ipso then I have to change the definition of paternity-maternity. The generation of a person and their genealogy are rooted in biology and from that they transcend. It is in the biology of the person which is inscribed in the genealogy of the person [John Paul II, Letter to families (2 Feb 1994) 9,1]

    The fundamental relationship paternity-maternity-filiation, must be re-defined ex novo if it is to be eradicated. Who is the father? Who is the mother? Who has given the seed or who the child is attributed to? Who has given the ovule or who cares for the child? The relationship is defined according to accepted conventions and legal transcriptions. Conventionalism has affected the institution of marriage and the institution of the family as a consequence.

    What is the situation of marriage and the family in Western society today? I will use an example to demonstrate this.

    One can destroy a building in two ways. One can destroy it with a bomb or one can de-construct it brick by brick. In the first case, I have only debris left and in the second case, I have still some pieces left but I no longer have a building. The second case resembles what has happened to marriage and the family. We have still all the pieces. We continue to speak about married couples, paternity/maternity while juridical laws continue to have their own institutions. But they are just pieces, that is, they are terms which do not convey univocal meanings because they have been extracted from the wholeness that defined them.

    I would like to consider now the causes which have led us to this situation.

    Cultural phenomena like these are quite complex historical processes. To pinpoint exactly the origins of their causes we could risk an oversimplification of the whole question. However, we have a need to understand but we can only fully comprehend a phenomena when we know the causes.

    To me, it seems that the main causes are, above all, three closely connected reasons: the individualist progressive declination of human fundamental experiences [the myth of self-fulfilment and of the subjective supreme right]; the obscurity of the truth and of the meaning of sexual diversity; freedom defined and expressed as pure self-determination.

    I shall explain these causes briefly.

    A) Marriage life is an expression and realization of the condition of human beings, its fulfilment lies in the relationship with two spouses. The relationship between two spouses can be better termed sociability and as such can be experienced in two different ways and therefore be declined in two paradigms.

    If one thinks that the relationship with the other is a congenital dimension or as a natural human "good" then society will be lived like an integral fulfilment of its own humanity. Its perfection is a relational good which in other words, it is a good that it consists of a relationship.

    If one does not consider the relationship with the other as a congenital dimension but solely as the fruit of a convention or a reciprocal contract then the relationship will be experienced and considered as a necessity for the pursuit of one’s own individual happiness.

    Relationships cannot be considered "good" for they are characterised by a mere utility for one’s own wellbeing. I mentioned earlier the myth of personal wellbeing and that of the supreme of subjective rights.

    If I call the first paradigm "personal paradigm" and the second "individualist paradigm" one can see how the second has had a clear victory over man’s conscience in Western society. This victory has impeded the vision that Western society once had previously thought of marriage. This change meant that communio totius vitae has become a contract between two supreme rights in search of individual happiness and subjective self-fulfilment. And each contract is made on the basis of "give and take" and on equality of respective partners. Should the case be the contrary, the contract is broken. Here, we find one of the reasons of progressive equality (in juridical terms also) where marriage has moved to a free cohabitation and of the progressive legitimating of such.

    B)The individualist declination of humanum has also been caused by progressive obscurity of the truth and goodness of sexual diversity. "We, post-modernists, are at a time of cultural difficulty where we see the other as different what difference is so insurmountable than that of being male or female? Difficult, but, not as strangers. There is a temptation to resolve the problem as a homologation with no differences. [Committee for a Cultural Project of CEI, The Demographic Change, Laterza, Bari-Rome 2011, 9].

    The sexual diversification has always been seen by personalist thinkers as one of the fundamental symbols of the truth of a human being, of what the human being is. The second chapter of the Genesis makes reference to this in a suggestive and meaningful way.

    Why the symbol of the human being? Because sexual diversification says that humanum does not coincide entirely with masculinity and femininity; nor does it coincide with the homologated reduction of the two. But, rather, it consists in the affirmation of what is right and proper for each of the two. The relationship is orientated and is based on an equal level of dignity where the man and the woman can live to the full their humanity.

    The institution of marriage derives from this belief though not in the way which is completely clear as a right of assertion of sexuality was exclusively thought of in terms of a procreating function and a non-complete recognition of the equal dignity of the woman.

    I f I place myself in what I call the individualist declination of the humanum; if I lose sight of the fact that a human being is a man and a woman: if I can add – procreation is uprooted from a right of assertion of sexuality, then one can no longer understand the heterosexual definition of the institution of marriage and as a result the idea of a homosexual definition would cease to be inconceivable. This is exactly what is happening today.

    However, I would like to briefly describe the initial cultural processes which have influenced family relationships as I think it deserves some attention.

    The first one being that a child today is seen as a right and no longer as a gift. It is a person expected as part of oneself and for oneself and something we need in order to fulfil ourselves.

    The second process has more serious implications; it has made it more difficult for the generation of children to take place [= a demographic change]. In order to safeguard it in fact, "generation can ultimately be accomplished when there is a system of sharing, recognition or reciprocity without an exchange of do ut des. Only then there will be growth and fulfilment in toto of the persons" [1.c.]

    C) The third process regards how freedom is experienced and conceived. I think this is the basis of man’s dramatic situation today. It is a concept of freedom which has been uprooted from the truth and where good and bad are no longer distinguishable, where freedom is a primary reality and where it is experienced more and more as something spontaneous..

    In this way of living one’s freedom, the Christian faith on marriage does not become impracticable but unimaginable. For what reason? Because freedom and definiteness are thought of as something inversely proportionally great: because freedom is no longer thought of as a capacity for self-giving but as a capacity of affirmation of oneself which makes no room for the other. The Western world’s history of liberty has been marked by three great events; the liberation of the Jews from Egypt and the gift of the Law that followed it, the experience of the Greek polis, and the discovery of a res publica carried out by Rome of which each and everyone is responsible.

    Basically, all three had the same fundamental idea; freedom is a good to be shared because it is a good by its relational nature. In Christianity, Paul brought to an extreme the idea of freedom: it is service, it is a gift; it is altruistic but not possessive. The institution of marriage finds nutrient in this terrain. Once uprooted from this, it ceases to live.

  3. The Familiaris Consortio permanent base of our commitment
  4. So far, all of what I have said was in progress when the F.C. was written and promulgated and those processes had not shown the effects of marriage and the family at that time. The F.C. has therefore, risen to the challenge but has also indicated the guidelines for the answers.

    I shall briefly explain two points for clarity: the answer concerning method and the answer concerning content.

    1. The F.C. has indicated a method i.e. a way to "proclaim the Gospel, that is the "Good News", to all people without exception, in particular to all those who are called to marriage and are preparing for it" [F.C. 3]. The method is shown in the first part of Apostolic Exhortation.
    2. It is the simultaneous conjugation, three perceptions together or if you like, three spiritual attitudes. The first, is the knowledge of the "problems that affect marriage and family life today" [F.C. 4]. The second one is the deeper and wider knowledge of Christian doctrine on marriage and the family. The third one is the interpretation of the situation in the light of the doctrine of Faith through a true evangelical discernment. It is operated by the supernatural sense of the faith [no.5 of F.C. has dedicated it to evangelical discernment].

      In simple terms, if I place two electric poles together, a spark is created. If I place the knowledge of the situation and that of faith, then there will be a spark of discernment.

      If I thought that the Gospel’s proclamation on marriage and the family was based on the spirit of time, I would limit without a doubt the Gospel to the needs of the man and the woman who marry. If I transmitted the doctrine without a profound knowledge of the spouses’ day-to-day lives, the doctrine of the faith would, in the best of cases, be learnt but would not truly answer the real questions of the man and the woman who marry.

      "This discernment is accomplished through the "sense of faith" which is a gift that the Spirit gives to all the faithful and is therefore the work of all the Church…. The laity,moreover, by reason of their particular vocation have the specific role of interpreting the history of this world in the light of Christ, in as much as they are called to illuminate and organize temporal realities according to the plan of God, Creator and Redeemer"[F.C.5]

      It is along this path, that is the method, that the Church is called to walk down towards New Evangelisation.

    3. I would like now to run through the fundamental parts points that the theological and anthropological vision the F.C. has on marriage and the family [cf. Second Part 11-16], in order to show you how it can and must constitute the basis on which to build our pastoral in today’s times. The F.C. remains a document for foundation.

On closer reading, the theological-anthropological part of the F.C. [cf. Second Part, 11-16], we can pinpoint some basic certainties in the pontifical text. It is their harmonious entirety which infers the theological-anthropological vision of the F.C.

The First Certainty. Marriage and the family are "natural" realities. They are deeply rooted in human nature itself. First, we should clarify something which could interfere with this formulation. It does not mean that the human being must marry to fulfil himself/herself.

What is the precise meaning of this statement? It depends on the concept of the "nature of the human being" that the F.C. has.

The incipit of the second part of the F.C. states : "God created man in His own image and likeness: calling him to existence through love, He called him at the same time for love". Human nature is constituted by his being "His image and likeness" to God. When Thomas writes: "praeposito...."ad" accessum quemdam significant, qui competit rei distant" [[1, q, 92, a.1c], expresses a common idea to Greek fathers. Human nature is "tendential in reference to". What makes it a unicum in the created visible universe is that the term of this being- tendency is God himself.

Yet the F.C. goes beyond this and states that the whole nature of humans is defined by His "vocation of love". The text affirms: "God is love and in Himself lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in His own image....God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is, therefore, the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being" [11, 2]. Man is constituted in order of love: his nature is orientated by love. As John Paul II wrote in the Enc. Redemptor hominis(The Redeemer of Man), "Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself,, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experiment it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it" [10,1;EE 8/28].

It is necessary at this point to establish a firm concept. The definition of man we are describing must not be understood in the light of a statement of the primate of ethics on ontology. Man is not defined by a need; by a duty; by a vocation nor is it defined by being made in a way that love indicates perfection, the ultimate good. It is within this strong concept that we have to understand the deepest statement made by the Vatican Council II on man: "This likeness [= a certain likeness between the union of the divine persons and the union of God’s children in truth and in love] reveals that man ...cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself [ Cost. Past. Gaudium et Spes 24,4]. Man can lose his proper "self": he can, that is, dissipate his humanity and therefore carry out pseudo-self-fulfilment. Such dissipation can happen when the man does not fulfil himself in the gift of himself.

We are now able to grasp the full meaning of the first fundamental teaching of the F.C. Marriage and the family are rooted in human nature because man is able to express the intimate orientation of the gift of himself which defines it (human nature). Marriage and the family cannot be "extraneous" to human nature but consentaneous to its intimate structure.

The Second Certainty of F.C. is that marriage and the family are basically part of the history of salvation. They are a reality of the event of salvation. This place is decisive in order to understand the theological-anthropological vision of the F.C. It is described in the following way: "The communion of love between God and people; a fundamental part of the Revelation and faith experience of Israel, finds a meaningful expression in the marriage covenant, which is established between a man and a woman. For this reason the central word of Revelation, "God loves His people" is likewise proclaimed through the living and concrete word with whereby a man and woman express their conjugal love. Their bond of love becomes the image and the symbol of the "covenant which unites God with His people" [12, 1-2].

Its place itself seems to be above the "likeness": the conjugal experience enters the event of salvation as it a means of expression of itself, as a humanly possible language of the mystery of the Covenant. Moreover, it is of a true and proper participation of which conjugality has in the move towards the mystery of the covenant. It is this essence of sacramentality of marriage with two baptised people. From the participation derives the "likeness" and not the contrary: the participation defines the ontology of the sacrament, and the likeness defines the ethics. This order should be guarded carefully.

Every participation consists of possessing in part a perfection that is in itself ever wide reaching. The perfection which the F.C. refers to is the love of God for His people [12, 2].The Covenant which unites God and His people [ib.], the Bridegroom (Christ) who loves and gives himself [13, 1] to the Cross. The perfection is in the gift of what Christ did on the Cross: "li amo eis telos" [Gv 13,1]. The gift "de quo magis cogitari nequit". The limit of this perfection in the spouses, despite their true participation towards perfection, might be due to two reasons. Is it due to the obvious fact that a human being is a "creature form" and therefore, has moral imperfection or is it due to the form of the conjugality as a limit of the participation to the love which moved Christ to give Himself on the Cross? The question, as you will see is not a detail of little importance.

My view of conjugality, is that it is limiting but not in the sense that it is extraneous or extrinsic to the love of Christ quite simply, it is only able to express one dimension [cf.16,1]. In other words, all the colours of the iris are present under the light but it is necessary to have a spectrum in order to see them all. All forms of love, of the gift of Self, are present in the self-giving of Christ on the Cross. But the richness of all needs a fragment for it to be recognised and known. At the same time, however, the fragment relates back to all: the conjugal love relates back by its same nature something beyond itself and moves towards a fullness of being that the conjugal love can neither promise or fulfil [cf. 1 Cor 7,29].

We also posed the question of how the F.C. considers and places marriage in the economy of salvation. This is seen in the three dimensions which are actually present in the sacrament. Firstly, it has a place in the history of salvation because marriage is a memorial to the central event of the event of salvation, the death-resurrection of Our Lord. Secondly, the first and immediate effect of the sacramental celebration is the Christian conjugal bond . It is the true participation in the reciprocal affiliation of the love of Christ with the Church. Thirdly, it is the prolepsis of definitive accomplishment when Christ will be one in all [cf. 13, 7-8].

The Third Conviction regards essentially the relationship between human nature and marriage [see First Conviction] and the marriage-sacrament [see second conviction]. I shall start by using two quotes from the F.C: " In this sacrifice [ = that of Christ on the Cross]there is entirely revealed the plan which God has imprinted on the humanity of man and woman since their creation" [ 13, 2: note cited Ef 5,32]. Few lines later: "Conjugal love reaches that fullness to which the spouses are interiorly ordained, conjugal charity which is the proper and specific way in which the spouses participate in and are called to live the very charity of Christ who gave Himself on the Cross" [ib.].

The two statements can be articulated and linked to one another. The first one is ontological; it states the being of man and woman defined as "the design of the Creator". The second one is ethics; it speaks about fullness, perfection of conjugality defined as love. In theory, the ontological view is the most important.

The end towards God the creator seen in the very moment when He created man, was "the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made of himself on the Cross for His Bride". This event is the "gravitational point" of human beings.

One should note that the text does not speak about human beings in general, but about "humanity of man and woman". This theory would support the idea that masculinity-femininity in the mystery of Christ find their unity to safeguard diversity. The nuptial mystery of Christ-Church expresses the truth of a human being and the participation to which the nuptial mystery carries out humanity as male-female.

The transcription on the ethics dimension of this ontological affirmation means that marital love, in the sense I have spoken of before (see 1, 1), is orientated and carried out as conjugal charity. That does not mean one greater obligation because the marriage sacrament is more indissoluble than marriage without a sacrament. It means that love, understood as the gift of oneself to another cannot be perfect until it is elevated to conjugal charity. Unfortunately, time does not allow me to continue on this point.

The Fourth Conviction fundamentally concerns the relationship between conjugal love and responsible transmission of life [cf. no. 32]. In substance, the F.C. and further studies have shown an inseparable connection between conjugality love and the gift of life. Conjugality involves the essence of communio personarum itself,the orientation of the gift of life and likewise gives life to a new human being through (and only through) the act of when two spouses become una caro and as a result is the ultimate expression of communio personarum.

This view shows how false the opposing theories are. On one side, conjugality is simply a "means" for procreation and, on the other side, it is an extrinsic or cohabiting relationship placed between conjugality and the gift of love.

Conclusion: Prophecy of a vision

Finally, I would like to conclude my presentation by explaining why the F.C. can be a foundation Document of every matrimonial pastoral activity.

Back in 1974 K. Wojtyla wrote: "An honest understanding of the reality of marriage and the family on the basis of the faith requires a close examination of anthropology of the person and the gift but also a close examination of the criteria of the community of persons ("communion personarum").

F.C. has introduced a forceful and lengthy anthropological reflection as an unavoidable need in order to understand and help people understand the Christian doctrine of marriage.

The last three decades (since the promulgation of the F.C.) has shown how prophetic this vision was.

The need for an anthropological reflection as an essential dimension of Christian belief of marriage, has assumed a rather increasingly vital role, primarily (and also) from a theoretical point of view. What has been given is a reconstruction of the vision of man which generates from faith and which can truly respond to questions which man asks himself and about his destiny.

But in order for this reconstruction to take place, Christian belief must rise to three fundamental challenges which are present in today’s time: the challenge of metaphysical nihilism, the challenge of moral cynicism, the challenge of asocial individualism.

The Challenge of Nihilism

This consists of negation of the "original" relationship of our reason with reality. Such negation results in a consideration of reality itself similar to an illusion or a game whose rules are the fruit of pure convention. What is needed is the challenge of the realism of the faith because it comes from the negation of the capacity of reason to go beyond something verifiable. If Christian faith cannot rise to this challenge, it will not escape from conventionalist constructive ways in which civil doctrine of marriage has fallen.

The Challenge of Cynicism: When every consistency to reality is denied, the meaning of essential diversification between good and bad vanishes and with that a certain predilection for free choice. Every choice has the same meaning and therefore no choice has a meaning. Ethics, understood as the passion for the custody of man is extinct. What is needed is the challenge of the realism of hope for it comes from a negation of an ultimate aim in life. If Christian faith cannot rise to this challenge then they will never be able to show the incomparability of that good which is called conjugal love. It will assume a vague and ascetic meaning of love which can no longer be defined and equal to any form of conviviality.

The Challenge of Individualism. It is the outcome of the three abovementioned challenges. The human conviviality has been thought of as a co-existence regulated by opposing egoisms. It is the challenge of the realism of Christian charity because it comes from the pure and simple negation of the ethic-anthropological category of approximation. If Christian faith cannot rise to this challenge then there will never be a possibility of speaking in a reasonable and comprehensible way about Christian marriage.

Marriage and the family are one of the privileged paths to a theological and philosophical knowledge of the truth of man. And along this road, it is inevitable not to be affected by these three challenges.

I would like to conclude now by saying I have known your activity for more than thirty years. It is very precious because it has always placed particular care in following humanum in a search to knowing the truth regarding human sexuality. You have followed the road of the F.C.