“The Christian Family as a Sanctuary of Love”
Vancouver, British Columbia
November 12, 1999
I’d like to spend just a couple of minutes before I begin my formal talk by reflecting on what we mean by the word, “sanctuary.” One of the images which came to mind when I was preparing my remarks for today is the place where I play racquetball. It’s called the Cherry Creek Sporting Club. But within it, there’s another place called “The Sanctuary Spa,” and at the Spa, they describe sanctuary as a place to escape from the world into relaxation; a place to focus on yourself and your own well being. It suggests a kind of luxury. It’s actually a place where people get their nails done, and the manicures and massages make the clients feel relaxed and beautiful.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being relaxed or beautiful or both, but it’s important for us to see that the idea of “sanctuary” we’re talking about at a conference like this . . . is a very different kind of thing. The sanctuary of the womb where a child grows and develops is a good image. The sanctuary of the church where God dwells in the Eucharist is another good image. The church as political sanctuary in the Middle Ages is another good image. So too the family is a special place where God is encountered, a place where life is encouraged and nourished, and grows. It’s a place where life is protected from the dangers of an aggressive and violent world around us.
And just as Christians don’t spend their whole life in the sanctuary of the church, family members can’t spend their whole life in the sanctuary of the family. They need to have a passion for Jesus Christ; an urgency to spread the Gospel and share their Catholic faith. They need to have a missionary zeal for family, for changing the world, for building the kind of environment which makes real family life possible. And so, with that in mind, let’s begin.
1. “The family as a sanctuary of love.” That’s our theme today. It’s a simple phrase with simple words. And that makes sense. All truth is finally very simple — and also very rich in meaning. Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has revisited the theme of marriage and family again and again in his homilies on the theology of the body; in his apostolic exhortation On the Family; and in his 1994 Letter to Families.
So in a way, everything we need to know about love, marriage and the family has already been preached. And yet, when we look around us, the world obviously isn’t listening. In fact, the world seems to have no interest in listening. The question is: Why?
I think we can start looking for an answer to that question in language itself. Too many of us have lost our moral and sacramental vocabulary, and I think I can prove it. The world and the Church use a lot of the same words. But they no longer mean the same thing. Let’s take as an example, the word “love.” Love for a Christian is rooted in the notion of sacrifice, and sacrifice embodies the mystery of salvation. God sacrifices for us, and then invites us to sacrifice for one another. So, love for a Christian may or may not involve sex . . . but it always involves self-sacrifice. Love on primetime TV almost certainly involves sex, may or may not involve affection, and only rarely involves self-sacrifice.
Here’s another example. How many here can tell me what a vocation is? Quite a few. Good. When the Church speaks of “vocation,” she means the “calling out” of each human person to accomplish a unique task preordained by God in the co-redemption of the world. Every human being has a vocation. God created each individual person with a specific purpose in mind. The greatest satisfaction for a Christian is discovering and pursuing the purpose for which God created him or her. The idea of vocation implies a design to your life. It also implies a Designer, since Somebody greater than you and I must create us for the task we’re meant to accomplish.
Since the world around us does not often reflect on “God,” it rarely even uses the word “vocation.” When it does, vocation is really just another word for a skill or profession. The “vocational” high schools in the United States certainly don’t exist to help young people figure out the larger meaning of life. They’re there to teach basic employment skills . . . like how to be a good auto mechanic.
This big difference in the way different people use the same words, gets even bigger when it comes to a topic like marriage. Marriage is a vocation. When speaking of marriage, we Christians mean a life-long, loving, self-sacrificing, sacramental covenant between a man and a woman. Note the language – it’s not an “agreement,” but a covenant. There’s a difference. Agreements can be passing. A covenant is forever. It can’t be revoked or dissolved. The marriage covenant is ordered toward procreation and mutual holiness. And within it, God plays a very active role as an equal partner – in fact, a more than equal partner — of the husband and wife.
Now, every one of these qualities – words like lifelong, loving, self-sacrificing and sacramental — causes discomfort to the modern mind. For many of our young people, change and choice have become a kind of idolatry. Permanence seems stodgy, and sexual roles have become confused.
Homosexual persons now routinely argue for equal status before the law — not just for themselves as children of God, which is justified; but also for their relationships, which is not. Sacrament and mystery have been squeezed aside by technology and materialism. The legal contract has replaced the human covenant. Children are often talked about like products, and even liabilities. Fertility is treated like a disease to be controlled. And the very idea of holiness can seem like a kind of pious delusion. After all, how can holiness — the presence of something “other than” humanity, subsisting within humanity — really be taken seriously when our culture doubts the existence of anything outside the tangible world?
Here’s another example: Think about the word, “God.” Christians believe in a loving, personal, approachable Creator who knows each one of us by name, and who seeks our eternal happiness. Much of the world around us, doesn’t. For the modern mind, God — when He seems credible at all — is little more than an impersonal consciousness, without any real impact on the life of human beings.
The trouble is that — without a personal God — there can’t be a loving plan to creation. Love implies a lover and the loved. For the Christian, all created things have meaning. They’re part of a symphony which gives glory to the Lord of love and life. So when God, the source and sinews of creation, is cut out . . . the harmony falls apart.
Ours is a curious time. At the heart of much of today’s social and natural science is a deep sadness. This flows from our inability — without God — to find meaning in all the knowledge we accumulate. Facts don’t really mean much without the key to unlock what they mean. As a species, we now double our total knowledge every couple of decades. We’re drowning in facts and data, and yet we’re still desperately thirsty for meaning.
2. A few of you may remember the U.S. presidential campaign of 1992, the beginning of the Clinton era. During that campaign, our vice president, Dan Quayle, made “family values” a personal crusade. He argued that the traditional family was under attack; that we needed to protect its privileged role in our culture in order to restore our civic virtue; and that if we didn’t defend the family, contempt for human dignity would continue to grow.
As a result of this, Quayle became the target of almost universal media sarcasm. He and his running mate, President George Bush, were later defeated in the election. But I like to think that Dan Quayle had the last laugh when he read an article which appeared in a prestigious U.S. magazine just five months after the election.
In April 1993, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, writing for The Atlantic Monthly, published a cover story entitled “Dan Quayle was right.” In it – using the same social science methods which are so often manipulated by enemies of the family — she demonstrated that alternatives to the traditional, intact, two-parent family . . . simply don’t work.
And not only do they fail to provide stability within the home; they also have a fatal effect on society as a whole. In fact “diverse models” of the family, which in practice mean single-parent and step-parent families, and now also same-sex families, clearly weaken society.
Studies show that children in single-parent families are six times more likely to be poor, and they stay poor longer. They’re two to three times more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems. They’re more likely to fail in the classroom; to drop out of school completely; to get pregnant as teen-agers; to abuse drugs; and get into trouble with the law.
They’re also at much higher risk for physical and sexual abuse. Children from disrupted families have a harder time achieving intimacy in their relationships, forming stable marriages and holding steady employment. In other words, contrary to the North American mythology of the past 30 years, divorce is a disaster for children. They just don’t “bounce back” from it.
This trauma is deep and long-lasting. And it shows itself in a great variety of ways. Whitehead quotes family researcher Judith Wallerstein as stressing that “Parent-child relationships are permanently altered by divorce in ways that our society has not anticipated.” Not only do children experience a loss of parental attention at the onset of divorce, they soon find that at every stage of their development, their parents are not available in the ways which are urgently needed.
Now, multiply the suffering of these children by tens of millions, and you have a portrait of the social fabric of the United States today. Eighty percent of black children in a city like Baltimore are now born out of wedlock. Illegitimacy and divorce rates are extremely serious. So is gang violence. So is domestic abuse. So is the traffic in illegal drugs.
I think you see the point. In countries like the United States and perhaps Canada as well, we’ve become confused about the real nature of the family. We’re also confused about freedom. Freedom, to be authentic, must always be rooted in responsibility. Instead, we’ve turned “freedom” into a kind of worship of personal license, where each person defines truth for himself or herself, and no higher authority is allowed to interfere with our personal satisfaction.
As a result, we’re getting farther and farther away from being a community which builds, and lives, a common moral culture. Instead, we’re becoming an collection of individual consumers, competing for our share of material goods, defined by our appetites and possessions — but ignorant about the real nature of human dignity, which is transcendent, rooted in God and eternal.
For more than two centuries, the United States has been a model of liberty for the whole world. And as a child of the United States, I take very great pride in my country’s founding principles. But I’m afraid something has gone deeply wrong with the American social fabric today, and instead of addressing it and attempting to heal it, we exalt and export it.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I really believe that at the heart of the population-control policies advanced by my country, you’ll find two basic impulses: selfishness and fear. We’re hungry to protect our material comforts, and we’re afraid that people of the developing world will take them away from us. So rather than share what we have, we seek to reduce the number of those with whom we might have to share.
Any Christian will immediately see how destructive to the family both of these impulses, fear and selfishness, are. The family — by its very structure — is a rejection of fear and an expression of hope. It is the embodiment of selfless love. Its natural fertility brings the future into human flesh. It’s the engine of life and the doorway by which God enters into humanity.
It’s interesting that so many of this century’s “big” ideologies, from Marx and Lenin to certain kinds of feminism, mistrust the family and seek to limit and control it — to break it down, even when the practical results of that breakdown are so obviously damaging to society as a whole. There’s a reason.
The family is a competing source of identity and meaning. It demands unselfishness. It teaches community. It inculcates higher values, which claim the moral authority to order our material appetites.
And so, in the developing world, good families are the single most important stronghold of resistance to the industrialized nations’ culture of death, embodied by zero population growth and forced population- control policies.
The bishops of Latin America, several years ago, correctly identified population control as “contraceptive imperialism.” Population control is the worst kind of hypocrisy because it pretends to offer freedom while it robs the emerging world of its birthright. It preaches development while it steals the future — which for every culture resides in its children. It claims to empower women while really just making them barren . . . and in doing so, it smothers the family before it can grow, or even begin.
Today, the vocation of marriage is a call both to loving resistance and missionary zeal: resistance to the culture of death, and zeal to spread the truth about the nature of the human person . . . which is fully revealed only in Jesus Christ.
3. It’s very easy to argue that the Church must be right about marriage and the family, because much of the modern world is so obviously wrong. As we’ve just seen, the world has indicted itself with its own statistics.
But there’s much more to Christian marriage and the Christian family than their opposition to the culture of death. Christian marriage is an echo, in human flesh, of the love within the Trinity itself. That love is active. It creates new life. It thereby renews humanity and the face of the entire earth.
Every moment of every day, a mother and father are teaching, guiding and sanctifying each other and their children, while witnessing about their love to the world beyond their home. The structure of marriage — if lived fruitfully and faithfully — naturally points them outward toward the world, as well as inward toward one another and their children. Remember what Augustine said: “To be faithful in little things is a big thing.” Simply by living their vocation, a husband and wife become the most important living cell of society. Marriage is the foundation and guarantee of the family. And the family
is the foundation and guarantee of society.
The family, as nothing else, will serve as a cornerstone of community — not government, not technology, not shared economic interests. This is why Pope John Paul II writes, in his Letter to Families, “No human society can run the risk of permissiveness on fundamental issues regarding the nature of marriage and the family. Such moral permissiveness [can only] damage the authentic requirements of peace and communion among people.”
It’s within the intimate, personal community of the family that a son knows he is loved and has value. In observing her parents, a daughter first learns basic values — like loyalty, honesty and selfless concern for others — which build up the character of the wider society. Truth is always most persuasive, not when we read about it in a book or hear about it in a classroom, but when we see it, firsthand, incarnated in the actions of our parents.
Marriage and family safeguard our most basic sense of community, because within the family, the child grows up in a web of intimately connected rights and responsibilities to other people. It also protects our individual identity, because it surrounds the child with a mantle of privacy and personal devotion. It’s interesting that most of the laws surrounding marriage in our culture were developed precisely to protect family members from the selfishness and lack of love so common in wider society. The family is the human person’s single most important sanctuary from mistaken models of love, wrong notions of sexual relationships and destructive ideas about self-fulfillment. All these painful things — unchecked — can be a centrifugal force pulling families apart.
Love is the counter-force. Love is the glue both for family and society. This is why the family must be a “sanctuary of love.” We most easily understand love when we – ourselves — are the fruit of our parents’ tenderness. We most easily believe in fidelity when we see it modeled by our father and our mother. Love lived is the unanswerable argument for God — and also for the value of the human heart.
The gift of children is an essential part of the Christian reflection on marriage. Marriage is transformed and fulfilled when spouses cooperate with God in the creation of new human life. A husband and wife are completed by sharing in God’s procreative transmission of life to their children, who are new and unique images of God. This is why the Church resists population control by contraception and abortion so forcefully.
God uses conjugal love to personalize His creation. And in cooperating with God’s plan, a couple discovers the real meaning of their marriage. That’s why arguing that contraceptive love can be “unitive” and “integrating” for spouses is simply wrong. Think about it: What kind of fulfillment or perfection can come from a couple disinviting God from the love which He, Himself, established for them?
The nature of the human condition is that we’re always either growing or dying. We must choose life or death. There’s no middle ground. In Deuteronomy, God says to His people, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life then, that you and your descendants may live.”
Contraception is an act of refusing life, and deliberately excluding new life is a choice for the culture of death. In contrast, every marriage which makes an act of trust in God and remains open to children is a powerful choice for life. And it’s to the glory of the Church that, in the face of all the hostility of the modern world, she keeps the words of the Creator – choose life — alive in humanity’s heart and conscience.
4. Every vocation is a call to holiness. Marriage and family are maybe the greatest example of that call. But what exactly does holiness mean? In everyday language, we use the words “good” and “holy” almost interchangeably. Holy people are, of course, also good people. But the two words really don’t mean the same thing.
“Holy” comes from the Hebrew word kadosh, which means “other than.” God is holy because He is “other than” us. His ways are not the ways of the world. This is why St. Paul tells us, in Romans, “Do not be conformed to the world.” Pope John Paul II uses the same Scripture passage — “Do not be conformed to the world” — as a foundation stone for Veritatis Splendor, his great encyclical on the nature of truth.
Which brings us back to the ideas of loving resistance and missionary zeal. While we should never be conformed to the world, neither do we have a license to condemn it, or withdraw from it. “Family as sanctuary” does not mean “family as fortified enclave.” We can’t convert the world unless we engage it. We can’t be leaven if we remove ourselves from the recipe.
“Family as sanctuary” means family as source of refreshment, encouragement, renewal, formation and strength for our mission to the world. God put us here to actively help Him complete His work of redemption — because He loves the world. That’s why He sent His Son to die for it. As we struggle and pray for God’s holiness in our personal lives, so too we must work to draw the entire world, and all of creation, into that holiness along with us.
This balancing act of “love for the world” and “resistance to its ways” can be a difficult one. It will never be accomplished until we offer much better programs of marriage preparation to our young people than we’ve offered in the recent past.
Here in North America, far too many Catholic young people marry with good intentions and even a healthy love for God and the Church. But they don’t really understand the sacramental nature of marriage expressed in Ephesians 5, and they don’t see the larger purpose or ecclesial dimension of their covenant. In Ephesians, Paul speaks about marriage as a sacrament of Christ, a mystery — that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the Church.
We need to see in the love of a husband for his wife, and a wife for her husband, a sign of Christ’s love for us, an unselfish self-giving love. Our young people need to understand the excitement, joy and adventure of this sacrament; to be challenged to love as Christ did; to trust in an unpredictable future out of love for God and their spouse. They have to see love within marriage and family as an adventure, as a participation in the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church. The fact that they too often don’t, is a very serious judgment upon all of us as parents and as bishops. We’ve been responsible for their souls. But I doubt that many of them even know what a covenant is.
Most especially, too many of our young people are not ready for the cross. They don’t understand its importance in every vocation, including marriage. And so when suffering and sacrifice come they see these things not as an opportunity to grow in grace or to witness the spirit of Christ to others . . . but as a failure. Too many of our young married people simply give up. More than 50 percent of all new marriages in the United States now end in divorce.
For reasons we’ve already seen, this is a disaster for our culture. But even more alarming is the fact that Catholics, who are called to be a leaven in society, have the exact same divorce rate. The one very revealing exception to this trend is that Catholics who practice Natural Family Planning (NFP) have much lower divorce rates.
In my years as a priest, I’ve seen again and again that the human heart is made for the truth People are hungry for the truth – and they’ll choose it, if it’s presented clearly and with conviction. But too often we treat our faith like a “compartment” of our life, rather than its organizing and animating passion.
We could survive as lukewarm Christians when the Church was part of society’s “establishment,” and religion was seen as a praiseworthy social habit. But those days are long past, and God has given our generation a very different environment. The world culture taking shape today will not be a friend of the Gospel, at least not for a very long time. The religion of modern, secular society is the practical atheism of technology. It’s aggressive, confident and intolerant. We see all of these qualities in the spirit of recent international conferences like Cairo and Beijing.
And therein lies the need for every Christian marriage to be engaged in missionary outreach. We do our best preaching, of course, by example. A married couple who model a love for Jesus Christ within their family — who pray and worship together with their children, and read the Scriptures — become a beacon for other couples. At the same time though, our families absolutely do need to recover an outward-looking zeal about family life itself, about spreading the Gospel, teaching the faith, and doing good apostolic works. Matthew’s Gospel tells us to “Go, make disciples of all nations.” It does not say, “ . . . unless you’re married.” The Epistle of James tells us that faith without works is a dead faith. It does not say, “ . . . unless you have kids.”
In my home state of Colorado, entire families of Seventh Day Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses often go from door to door in a neighborhood, recruiting for their churches. The doctrines of these groups are really very confused, and their tactics can certainly be frustrating. But I admire the zeal these people show in spreading what they mistake for the truth. And I often ask myself: How would our Catholic families compare to them, in their zeal for the Gospel?
So here’s my final thought, and then I look forward to answering your questions as our time allows: In 1999, at the turn of our century, no Catholic family can afford to be a “sanctuary” in the sense of digging its own little foxhole. God does not call us to burrow in and wait for the rapture. Our God is the God of life, abundance, deliverance and joy. And we’re His missionaries — by nature and by mandate.
No Catholic family can afford to be lukewarm about the Church as the new millennium approaches. No culture is so traditionally “Christian” that it’s heard enough about Jesus Christ, or safe from the unbelief and contempt for human dignity which mark our age.
Catholic families will either passionately live and joyfully spread their Catholic faith . . . or they’ll have no Catholic faith left to share. But of course, we’re here today because God won’t let that happen.
We’re part of His solution. So let’s pray for each other — beginning right now – that this conference, this day, this moment of friendship which the Lord has given us as a gift . . . will become for each of us a new little Pentecost; a new birth of the Church in each of our hearts . . . for our own salvation, the salvation of our families, and the redemption of the world.
God bless you, and thanks.
Printed with permission from the Archdiocese of Denver.