The face of the Catholic family has changed substantially since the turn of the century. For many there is serious confusion about what constitutes a family unit, what distinguishes it from other social institutions, and what responsibilities remain within its boundaries.
Despite the proliferation of "styles" of family, there are some basic economic, social and spiritual functions families have in common that are unique to families and cannot be accomplished as effectively in other social groups.
Leadership in the church has been clearing a path in the confusion in two ways: first, it has produced a rich body of teachings about the meaning and purpose of family life, beginning with the documents of Vatican II and continuing into this decade; second, it has provided an environment on parish, diocesan and national levels for families to reflect with one another on their lived experience. In light of the demise of the traditional family structure and the loss of some degree of control over its basic functions, what distinguishes a family from other groups in this highly privatized and individualistic society? What makes a family what it is, whether it is a migrant family moving from place to place for its livelihood, or a suburban two-earner household with a mini-van and a swimming pool?
In Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium, the family is defined as the "Domestic Church,"(1) (In reality, the term comes from John Chrysostom in the third century.) The family's purpose is to "manifest to all the Savior's living presence in the world and the genuine nature of Church."(2)
Such an identity may at first glance seem too lofty for those of us who change diapers, drive carpools and spend long hours in the laundry room.
Families reflecting on their experiences conclude that the intimate and complex relationships of family are the first and foremost place the "Savior's living presence" is actually made known. God reveals Godself as Savior, Creator, Protector, Lover, Forgiver, and Nurturer in the lives of those who love us. We begin to learn who God is, even before language and understanding, through the hands and hugs and breasts of family.
The church defines family as "an intimate community of life and love,"(3) a definition that must be applied to increasingly diverse faces of family bringing children to baptism in the church. A rich part of the Catholic tradition teaches that the family flows from the sacrament of marriage, This sacrament lived out in human lives is a sign to all of the covenant God has made with God's people. Covenant love is not a common term. It means I will try to love you without condition, as much as I am able. It means my love for you is a choice, even if a frail one, and is supported by God's own love. When two people try to live this covenant, they are acting counter-culturally and are a recognizable sign to others of God's love for us.
This "Domestic Church" formed by marriage is not destroyed by death or divorce. For family members who remain faithful to one another, it is an ongoing source of strength; and for those who are dispossessed, it can offer healing and forgiveness.
Domestic churches come in all shapes and sizes. Their structures and economic status vary. Some of the clearest examples of unconditional love and care that reflect God's love come from single parents whose fidelity to children and extended family after divorce or death is nothing less than heroic. Out of this vision and the wisdom of families reflecting together on their lived experience come four particular things families are and do that are fundamental to being family:
Families form intimate communities;
Families create and nurture life;
Families shape citizens for the world;
Families are true ecclesial communities.(4)
Families Form Intimate Communitties
Though individuals belong to a large …