Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Extending Family: Is There Really Only One Way to Make a Catholic Household?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Extending Family: Is There Really Only One Way to Make a Catholic Household?

Article excerpt

EARLY IN JUNE, JUST AS THE U.S. SENATE WAS DEBATING a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the Pontifical Council on the Family issued a document that in no uncertain terms rejected that and more. "Family and Human Procreation" not only lamented "gay couples [who] claim for themselves the same rights as those that are specific to husband and wife, [even] the right to adopt" but also heterosexual couples "willingly made sterile" by having only one or two children.

Behind the nuclear issues of same-sex marriage and adoption, however, is a larger, more complicated question: Just what is a family? The Vatican and the U.S. bishops of late have defined it quite simply as marriage between a man and a woman, which Pope Benedict XVI praised in his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, as "the very epitome of love [such that] all other kinds of love immediately seem to fade in comparison." Although I wouldn't want to take anything away from the holiness and importance of marriage, I wonder if in our desire to defend it as an institution we aren't overlooking some resources our tradition can offer us as we struggle with these difficult issues.

Indeed, from the very beginning Christianity proposed a new kind of family, God's "household," that went beyond biology and ethnicity, one that included not only married couples and their children but others as well. Jesus himself, the gospels imply, was unmarried, and he gathered as disciples both married and unmarried men and women. Soon after Pentecost the early church joined both Jews and Greeks in one household (though not without difficulty) in which all was shared in common.

For some early Christians the traditional Greco-Roman household headed by the paterfamilias was replaced either with a form of common desert life, in which the abbas and aromas were spiritual directors rather than biological parents, or with outright isolation. The medieval church saw an explosion of new "families": the monastic movement of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica; the mendicant groups of St. Francis and St. Clare; the Beguine women's communities of the late Middle Ages; the social service orders of the modern period. These religious refer to themselves still today as "sisters" and "brothers" not because they are biologically related but because they share a common commitment and mission. …

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