6.3.1 CST on family: ideals and realities

Back to 6.2.4

Unit 6 Contents



You have now studied quite extensively what Catholic teaching means by natural law.  You have also looked at how the principle of subsidiarity connects this with family life.

We now turn to some of the primary documents of CST directly on the subject of family life in society.

You will be asked mainly to read from a major statement by Pope John Paul on this subject, Familiaris Consortio, which was issued in 1981, the same year as Laborem Exercens.  You may remember that in Unit 3 you read a short excerpt from his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis of 1979.  The topics of these three documents, namely the human person, marriage/family, and working life, were of huge interest and concern to John Paul.

Especially in the early years of his papacy, he spoke and wrote on the bodily life of persons, marriage and family on many other occasions.  A series of 129 addresses on this subject, given weekly to pilgrims in Rome over a five-year period (in the middle of which Familiaris Consortio came out), were published later with the title, The Theology of the Body.  Many have found this material powerful and helpful, although some in the Church have been critical of it.  I shall refer to it again later.  Pope John Paul issued another major statement in this area in 1994, the Letter to Families (Gratissimam Sane), from which I quoted earlier (6.2.3).

As you know from Unit 4, Laborem Exercens is quite a difficult document to read. It is a relief that, relative to that, Familiaris Consortio (FC) is accessible and straightforward.  As the readings below will mainly be from this, we give less attention to the Compendium’s chapter on family than we did to its chapter on economic life in Unit 5.

However, we begin with a short passage in it.  This reading follows on from the last section of this unit because, by way of reference to Gen. 1-2, it presents the family as a “natural society”, that is, one conforming with natural law – and therefore important for human wellbeing.  The family, in the sense of a “community of persons” (#213) in which “the mutual giving of self on the part of man and woman united in marriage creates an environment of life in which children ‘develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny'” (#212)1, is in fact “the first natural society” (#211, heading).

As well as references to Gen. 1 and 2, the first part of the reading gives attention to some other biblical texts that inform Christian teaching about family life.


Reading (3pp)

Compendium, ##209-214 (Chap 5, Part I)




This reading presents a powerful vision of what family life can be.

Yet are there questions or issues it would raise for some people, and perhaps does for you?  What would some people, including some Christians, find controversial in it?


I imagine you are well aware that the subject of marriage and family raises some of the most contested aspects of the Catholic Church’s teaching.  Among these are the following three: that the one proper context for a full sexual relationship is marriage; that a good understanding of the natural law, as this relates to sex, leads to a conclusion that artificial contraception should not be used; and that marriage is ‘indissoluble’ (i.e. that there can never be divorce).

One way to see these three issues, in the context of this module, is that they are at the edge of the subject matter we are studying here, or even beyond the edge.  In relation to the first two of those specific questions, I say this because, while these are referred to in some primary and secondary CST literature, CST is not generally understood as encompassing questions about sexual ethics.  (Indeed some books about CST include no discussion of issues around marriage or family at all.)

In relation to the third of those specific issues, the indissolubility of marriage, this is altogether a larger subject.  While it is basic in Catholic understanding of marriage, and thereby of family, and must therefore be seen as informing CST, it is not specifically a topic within CST, in the way that work and economic life are (for example).  This is because it is bound up, as Familiaris Consortio will show, with fundamental matters of Christian doctrine to do with God’s relationship with creation.  These are certainly relevant to, but go beyond, the scope of what is normally meant by CST.

Given that these three specific issues can be seen as near or beyond the edge of CST, we shall not focus on them in the way that would be needed to study them adequately.  However, what follows will give some attention to both the first and the third.  As the second is generally seen as a question in wider moral theology rather than CST, it is beyond of the scope of this unit to address it here.

These are certainly not the only controversial matters in the area of marriage and family.  Indeed the last reading might well have prompted you to think about another. This is whether Catholic teaching privileges the nuclear family excessively.  Especially #211 in that reading makes clear enough that, in referring throughout to “the family”, the Compendium’s writers have in mind primarily families comprising mother, father and one or more children.

In fact this raises two distinct issues.  One is whether the focus is so much on the nuclear family that the extended family is marginalized, in which case, some would argue, the document reflects a modern Western model of family, rather than an assumption that “the family” means extended family first, as it has and does in many cultures.  We shall see in the next reading that Pope John Paul was very conscious of this issue, and we shall look briefly at how Catholic teaching about marriage bears on it.

The second issue is whether, generally in all its statements, Catholic teaching idealizes family (whether nuclear or extended).  Just after the beginning of this unit, you were asked to reflect on your own experience of family.  Perhaps for you this was overwhelmingly positive, but no doubt for some people that exercise will have brought to mind recollections, and perhaps a current reality, of very poor family life and its damaging consequences.  The vision of family in Catholic teaching can seem so far removed from the reality as to appear entirely irrelevant.  If this is the case, the practical challenge people face is to try to live as well as possible within the fractured, complicated families that are the result of past relationship break-ups, and it can seem pointless to look to an ideal that cannot be recovered.

I’d like to suggest that this question of whether CST idealizes family can be looked at in two opposite ways.  On one hand, it is certainly true that reiteration of an ideal is insufficient for real families in which past events mean they can never attain the ideal.  Here is where all those involved in the Church’s pastoral work have to engage with the realities, without allowing the ideal to seem to mock people.  Although it will not be set as reading in this unit, Familiaris Consortio includes a long section on the pastoral care of families (a quarter of the document, ##65-85).

On the other hand, it is precisely because poor family life can be so hard and harmful, including in long-term ways, that it makes sense, indeed it is urgently necessary, for the real possibility of an incomparably better way to be presented and defended.  One of the astonishing things about family is that, however difficult it might be, each new generation has the chance to start anew.  No doubt one of the most powerful motivations for commitment to good family life and faithfulness in marriage can be the awfulness of one’s own experience in growing up.

Of course for most people family life has been somewhere between very good and very bad.  However, especially given the social trends we looked at near the beginning of the unit (6.1.3), it is surely a good thing to present the vision of what is possible, so that people can see the benefits that could come from radical commitment to doing things well.  After all, the whole point of the natural law, including as this relates to the ‘first natural society’, is that we experience human wellbeing.

Here is an excerpt from the reading you are about to do – would you say this gets the balance between real and ideal about right?

There is no family that does not know how selfishness, discord, tension and conflict violently attack and at times mortally wound its own communion: hence there arise the many and varied forms of division in family life. But, at the same time, every family is called by the God of peace to have the joyous and renewing experience of “reconciliation,” that is, communion re-established, unity restored… (FC, #21)




End of 6.3.1

Go to 6.3.2 Questions for discussion half way through unit


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  1. The internal quotation is from Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, #39