I am married and am immensely grateful for being part of several families: the family I was born into (since, even though I am a first child, my parents were a family already before I was born or even conceived), multiple extended families, and the family my spouse and I form with our children. And that’s only as far as biological ties go. I am also a member of the Church - the family of Jesus and (some of) his followers. In many ways I also consider the relationship I have with close friends to be like that with brothers, sisters or parents and I strive to extend this circle whenever and with whomever possible.
What is it that is so special about the family? I believe it is the fact that it mimics the relationships of the persons of the Trinity, where each loves the others without limits and with complete self-noughting,1 to the extent that the three become one. In my families I have often experienced love that is selfless, self-sacrificing, generous, gratuitous and unconditional and that invokes Jesus’s promise: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew, 18:20). This love makes the family a place of peace, trust, safety, stability, openness, growth and joy and a place where I can most fully be myself. I can rely on the support and love of other family members and also on their desiring only the best for me. I don't have to look out for myself, as it is the others who look out for me and I can instead focus on them and on others. My families have also been safe havens that have protected me from state-organized oppression, from the negative influence of others, from erroneous tendencies of my own and that have also looked after me in illness, bad moods, uncertainty and fatigue.
Is this to say that there are no challenges with living in a family? Certainly not, since even though the model is perfect, its instances are often not, even to the point of breaking. Does that make the model any less worthy of following? I don't think so, since even when not lived to perfection, the ideal of the family provides a clear direction of what to aim for.
For me, as a Christian (and for others too), the foundation of a family - its birth, is in marriage, where the spouses each make an indissoluble gift of themselves to one another, which they do in front of God and which they aim to sustain with His help and in His presence. The day I got married was one of the sacred, lived in great simplicity (I remember polishing shoes in the morning and sending a couple of emails to close friends who couldn't be with us and being filled with great joy and a delicious lightness of being,2 not even to mention the rest of the day that you would expect to be joyous). The years that then followed and persist into the present have been filled both with everything I said about the ideal of the family and with challenges, trials, difficulties and suffering. To me, as a Christian, these too are very much part of being married and of living in a family, just like they were very much part of Jesus’ life. They are always an opportunity to recognize Jesus’ presence and to start again to seek forgiveness, forgive and love and I am deeply grateful to God for my spouse, children, parents, siblings and all with whom I have family-like relationships.
There would be a lot more to say, but I believe I managed to give an idea of why marriage and the family matter to me. This reflection was very directly motivated by many recent pronouncements by different representatives of the Church who have spent paragraphs upon paragraphs talking about what threatens the family and how it needs to be opposed and which have always left me wondering: ‘But what is it about the family that you see worth protecting? How do you see the things you oppose as threatening? [beyond stating them as such] And what positive proposal can you make as an alternative to the ones you oppose?’ I am not saying that opposition alone isn’t worthwhile, but it is very much a level zero approach and I was certainly hoping for more. The closest I have seen to an acknowledgement of this trend is a statement made two days ago by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin:
“The Church’s social doctrine must always be animated with charity and must be accompanied by charity and will only really be understood through the lens of charity. When the Church’s organizations simply become lobbying bodies alongside other lobby organizations or social commentators alongside other social commentators then they loose their real originality and therefore their original contribution to the debate about the formation of society.”This is exactly what I have been looking to hear from many others and I hope that Archbishop Martin will follow up this call to a focus on love and apply it to the various issues being so hotly debated these days.
Lest I be misunderstood in a way that is most repulsive to me, let me be explicit about one thing: I believe there is the potential for good in all human relationships, regardless of who their protagonists are or what their status is. What I have said about the family and about marriage was in no way meant as suggesting that the things which I value about it cannot also take place under other circumstances. In no way do I mean to suggest that the family built on marriage has a monopoly on all the good that it is capable of. Compassion, commitment, selflessness, caring, support and love are the potential of any human relationship and my seeking them in the context of my family, and the marriage it is built on, is in no way a declaration of inferiority or inadequacy with respect to other forms of life.
Finally, I do see a big challenge that the Church (i.e., me too!) faces, which is to find a way for all, who want to, to participate in its life. Cardinal Martini in his last interview gave a clear example: “A woman is abandoned by her husband and finds a new companion who is concerned for her and her three children. The second love succeeds. If this family is discriminated against, not only the woman, but her children, too, will be cut off.” Cardinal Woelki said that he tries to “acknowledge that [homosexuals] take responsibility for each other on a permanent basis, have promised each other faithfulness and want to look after each other, even though [he] cannot endorse their life choices.” And there are many others like them! What is very positive in my eyes is that there are representatives of the Church, who feel the presence of gaps that ought not be there and even though I don't see how the gaps will be closed (without throwing the baby out with the bathwater either), I trust God will help us find a way to make everyone feel welcome in His Church.
1 Thanks to my bestie, CS, for coining this term, which I believe expresses the extent of the love the Persons of the Trinity have for one another spot on.
2 The antithesis of its unbearable variant, so beautifully described by Kundera though.