Dr. Christopher J. Thompson is Professor of Moral Theology at the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is also the current Director of of the Undergraduate Program in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas and he serves on the Board of Directors for the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis.
This article originally appeared in the Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis.
Written in 1981 to address the question of the human family and marriage, Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) serves as a summary of the Church’s teachings on the nature and role of the Christian family and the sacrament of marriage.
Its publication marks one of the most significant episodes in the Church’s teaching on marriage and family and can serve as the central source of insight and growth for Catholics today.
The encyclical is divided into four major sections, two of which are especially important.
In the first section, the encyclical addresses the need to take up the question of marriage in the light of the Church’s teaching, especially as our contemporary culture poses so many difficult questions to the modern Christian — questions that have not appeared before in history.
The pope’s words not only will open up to married readers a deeper understanding of their covenant, they disclose the very meaning of all conjugal love between any man and woman.
Married love, when considered from the perspective of God’s revelation, discloses to us the very depths of what it means to be a man or woman. Family and conjugal love, which gives rise to family, discloses to us the very character of what it means to be a human being, created in the image and likeness of God.
In parts two and three of the encyclical, the Holy Father develops his original thinking on this point.
In marriage, he writes, the love between the man and woman reveals the “total gift of self,” the complete and embodied offering of one’s self to another that lies at the heart of our vocation as human beings. “God created man in His own image and likeness,” the Holy Father comments, “calling him to existence through love, he called him at the same time for love.”
The fullest manifestation “in which this self-giving in its whole truth is made possible is marriage,” the pope notes. For this reason, the institution of marriage “is not an undue interference by society or authority, nor the extrinsic imposition of a form. Rather it is an interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive, in order to live in complete fidelity to the plan of God, the Creator.”
The desire to form a covenantal union and to form families is not an accidental cultural expression. It is God’s plan, whereby men and women enter into the depths of what it means to be a human being called forth in love for the sake of love.
Attacks on the integrity of marriage — through social forces that attempt to diminish its significance or through personal choices on the part of the couple — are attacks on the very character of what it means to be a man or woman joined in covenantal love.
For baptized Christians, the conjugal union expresses more than the original order of the creation of the human person. Because of its sacramental character, it also discloses the relationship between Jesus Christ and his Church.
Any effort to diminish the depths of that covenantal love is a serious distortion of one’s Christian vocation. It is in this light that the Holy Father reiterates the Church’s long-standing prohibition against contraceptive practices within marriage.
By its very nature, contraceptive intercourse destroys the human vocation to a total gift of self and negates the openness to children, the supreme gift of marital love. Families have as their primary vocation the responsibility to form a community of persons, an openness toward life, a concern for the social order and the mission of the Church.
The fourth and final part of the encyclical addresses issues of pastoral care, both in terms of marriage preparation as well as the need for ministry to married couples today. It identifies several key issues and responsibilities the church must address in order to fulfill her mission of
bringing the faithful into full union with Christ and his Church.
One cannot underestimate this contemporary summary of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. Clearly among the most important documents on the subject to be issued in this pontificate, Familiaris Consortio ought to become a central component in any marriage program or family spirituality.
Editor’s Note: You may find the text of Familiaris Consortio here.