No one in a family should have the experience of being alone and without help. In his recent exhortation on the family, Pope Francis identifies the problem of solitude experienced by Adam before the creation of Eve and proposes marriage (and the family) as the solution. He highlights the practical implications of the theological insight that in marriage “the two ‘become one flesh’, both physically and in the union of their hearts and lives…” (AL, 13) The love of the man and woman leads them to the decision to marry. This is the weight of the “I do” of marriage. Each says yes to the gift of their new life together. Barren solitude gives way to fruitful unity through their “voluntary self-giving in love.” (AL, 12) And this love is fulfilled, “eventually, in a child, who will share not only genetically but also spiritually in the ‘flesh’ of both parents.” (AL, 13) Children cannot be left out of the meaning of married love. “If the parents are in some sense the foundations of the home, the children are like the ‘living stones’ of the family (cf. 1 Pet 2:5).” (AL, 14)
The Pope proposes here a vision of the family, not as a merely functional solution to a problem, but rather as the living expression of God’s creation of man and woman in his image and likeness. God is not a solitude. He created them male and female making them for each other and for the sake of “begetting and raising children” and this task “mirrors God’s creative work.” In this way the family is “a communion of persons in the image of the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (AL 29) This is the key to interpreting the theology of marriage as it is presented in Amoris Laetitia. Love, fidelity and grace build up unity between the members of the family as they reveal the nature of God to one another and to the world.
“The Bible also presents the family as the place where children are brought up in the faith. This is evident from the description of the Passover celebration (cf. Ex 12:26-27; Deut 6:20-25).” (AL, 16) The Passover meal as it was celebrated annually by the Hebrews includes a dialogue between the parents and children which serves to hand over the faith to each successive generation and hold on to the memory of redemption from slavery in Egypt. One of the greatest challenges for the people of the Old Testament is dealing with the results of unfaithfulness. An example of this kind of failure by the families of Israel is found in the Book of Judges. Moses’ successor, Joshua, after capturing the Promised Land in fulfillment of the Lord’s providence, died. Once his generation had passed “a later generation arose that did not know the Lord or what he had done for Israel… Abandoning the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had led them out of the land of Egypt, they followed the other gods of the various nations around them.” (Judges 2:10-12) This example from the history of God’s people highlights the “serious responsibility for this work of education” that parents are called to fulfill. (AL, 17)
It also illuminates the positive meaning of the 4th Commandment to honor father and mother. “Here the verb ‘to honor’ has to do with the fulfillment of family and social commitments.” (AL, 17) Jesus fulfills this truth “in the concern he shows for children – whom the societies of the ancient Near East viewed as subjects without particular rights and even as family property – Jesus goes so far as to present them as teachers, on account of their simple trust and spontaneity towards others. ‘Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 18:3-4).” (AL, 18) Children are the gift of the fruitfulness of marriage and recipients of their parent’s love, guidance and formation and at the same time the great teachers of their parents. Children are to be honored, respected as individuals and protected by their parents. This helps us understand the great emphasis Jesus places on the reality of divorce in his teachings on marriage. There is “a bitter truth found throughout sacred Scripture, that is, the presence of pain, evil and violence that break up families and their communion of life and love. For good reason Christ’s teaching on marriage (cf. Mt 19:3-9) is inserted within a dispute about divorce. The word of God constantly testifies to that somber dimension already present at the beginning, when, through sin, the relationship of love and purity between man and woman turns into domination: ‘Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you’ (Gen 3:16).” (AL, 19)
Jesus’ answer to this great challenge of the hardness of hearts is not to make more rules, or lay a heavier burden on husband and wife. No, his answer is more grace; which flows from the power of the cross and aims at the renewal of our hearts causing us to shun the allure of isolating solitude. We will continue this exploration next time looking at how Jesus proposed a new dynamic within marriage for his disciples that addresses the problems families face in maintaining their integrity and unity.
Dino Durando is director of the Office of Family Life.