Pope John Paul II was a brave man. Speaking the truth in unstable and unfriendly countries, standing boldly against the popular demise of morality, traveling furiously even when weakened by sickness—no one could deny his courage.
But the pope did more than just model strength for us: He called us to it. His apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World ), was such a call. This papal document sets out the seemingly impossible mission facing every married couple and every family in the world today: It alerts us to the fact that “the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it” and then reveals strategies for overcoming them. It shows a dying society the root of its problems and offers a renewed vision of human life, marriage, and family that will bring healing to a wounded humanity.
Given its urgent call to action, its sense of impending danger, and the fact that the pope himself called it a summa of the Church’s teaching on the family, it’s strange that this document has remained largely neglected since its publication 30 years ago. Why this reaction?
The answer lies in the fact that the teaching of Familiaris Consortio is incompatible with the secular belief system that has deeply affected our culture. The pope showed that there are two incompatible visions of reality. In presenting a biblical vision of man, he challenged the presuppositions of all secular rationalists (whether in society or in the Church) about the nature of man and woman, marriage and the family. In proclaiming “the plan of God for marriage and the family,” the pope called us all to a fundamental conversion, to the “acceptance of the Gospel.” Implied in this call is a conversion from the secular to the biblical view of reality. In this way, Familiaris Consortio stands out in the modern intellectual landscape as a sign of contradiction. While such signs are rarely welcomed, they are, nonetheless, a source of hope.
The Real Danger
Familiaris Consortio gives us a plan of action. First, it identifies the real and present danger: “At the present time, [there are] ideas and solutions which are very appealing, but which obscure in varying degrees the truth and the dignity of the human person…. These views are often supported by the powerful and pervasive organization of the means of social communication, which subtly endanger freedom and the capacity for objective judgment. Many are already aware of this danger to the human person.”
To respond to these ideologies, the pope constructed what is known as a “theological anthropology”—a view of the human person that respects his dignity by respecting his specific created nature. In the early Church, the very nature of salvation was threatened by the Christological heresies: A misunderstanding of Christ’s nature led inevitably to a misunderstanding of the nature of salvation. The Church fought vigorously against those early enemies of the truth. Today, the heresies that have arisen are not Christological but anthropological. Now, the very nature of man and our fundamental relationships with one another, as well as with God, are severely threatened. The pope’s construction of a theological anthropology was his answer to the modern heresies. Secular ideologies have systematically imposed their vision of reality on society. That vision has included a faulty egalitarianism, a reduction of all sexual differentiation to mere biology, and an understanding of the body and sexual relationships as merely instrumental. In this view, life is devoid of any metaphysical dimension (see the pope’s Letter to Families ).
In contrast to these destructive “heresies,” Familiaris Consortio‘s vision of human nature is based on the revelational witness of Scripture and grounded in the theology of creation. Like the Lord Himself, it takes us “back to the beginning” (cf. Matthew 19:1-6). This alone can overcome the false views dominating our society; the enemy must be revealed and a response formulated.
The Enemy Exposed
At the heart of the flawed secular view of reality lies a false notion of freedom. This faulty view leads inexorably to a disintegrative and destructive understanding of the person. Speaking about abortion, divorce, contraception, and other depersonalizing practices, John Paul II astutely revealed their root cause: “At the root of these negative phenomena there frequently lies a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one’s own selfish well-being.”
This distinction is difficult for the secular mind to grasp. As with every age, ours has been seduced by the First Temptation, the temptation to reject creaturely obedience to God and replace it with the lordship of “self.” While this grab for power may initially feel liberating, it ends in the isolation of self-captivity. Familiaris Consortio exposes the truth about the autonomous, self-referential individual. In rejecting his dependent relationship with God, man becomes depersonalized and destructive. Only by a fundamental reorientation toward the Creator and the acceptance of the structure, meaning, and purpose of human nature as it is divinely revealed can man discover his true self. For this reason, Familiaris Consortio begins with a fundamental call to conversion and states that “the Church is deeply convinced that only by the acceptance of the gospel are the hopes that man legitimately places in marriage and in the family capable of being fulfilled.” But a sophisticated modern society finds the simplicity and humility required for such a conversion difficult to accept.
Image and Likeness
Every good battle plan has a strategy. Familiaris Consortio is no different, but unlike the elaborate designs drawn by generals past, its power lies in its fundamental simplicity. The apostolic exhortation shows that the answer to the modern crisis lies in recovering the theology of creation as a vital part of any anthropological discourse. The fundamental reorientation toward the Creator requires our acceptance of creaturely status. Only in this way can the vertical dimension to human existence be rediscovered.
Of course, in a society that worships “self,” it’s extremely difficult to recall people to this saner view of reality—the view that we’re not the creators of our own nature. Nevertheless, Familiaris Consortio unabashedly proclaims that only in his relationship to God can man (and hence marriage and family) ever come into fullness of being: “Willed by God in the very act of creation, marriage and the family are interiorly ordained to fulfillment in Christ, and have need of His graces in order to be healed from the wounds of sin and restored to their ‘beginning,’ that is, to full understanding and the full realization of God’s plan.”
Human nature, marriage, and family are not social constructs subject to manipulation for the advancement of specific agendas. Rather, they’re formed and informed by God’s loving plan and interiorly oriented toward Christ. We’re called to be faithful to this will—not to any political expediency.
In calling us to battle, the pope isn’t leaving us unarmed. Familiaris Consortio provides tools that effectively defeat the destructive hold that secularism has on the modern mind. The document’s implicit critique of rationalism is fully developed in Letter to Families. There the pope shows that at the heart of modern rationalism lies its rejection of the metaphysical dimension. “Modern rationalism does not tolerate mystery…. Rationalism provides a radically different way of looking at creation and the meaning of human existence…. What is left except the mere temporal dimension of life?”
In the destructive framework of secularist thought, human nature and human acts have only temporary, utilitarian value. Meaning, if attached to any particular phenomenon, is only subjective. Inevitably, in the area of sexuality, the “other” is quickly reduced to a mere object, and the dignity of the human person is lost. The deeper dimensions of the human person, the marital covenant, and the family are incomprehensible to those who think this way. The modern world, having lost the capacity to reject the self-centered secularist framework, has also lost the language of love. Familiaris Consortio counters this by insisting on our essential identity as creatures made in the image of God:
God created man in His own image and likeness…. God is love and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.
Man is free only insofar as he is faithful to his created nature. Ultimately, he can only know love to the extent that he realizes his relationship to God. The pope showed that at the heart of human nature itself is the vocation to personal love and communion, which is a reflection of, and participates in, the life of the Trinity. This is possible precisely and only because man is made in God’s image. Because of this, human relationships possess a meaning far beyond mere biology. Indeed, “the love of husband and wife is a unique participation in the mystery of life and of the love of God himself.”
Part of our mission in today’s world is to recover the sense that there’s a profound symbolic dimension to the human person. The prevailing ethos is all against this. As Henri de Lubac noted in Sources of Revelation (1968), “If we said that our age repudiated… every kind of symbolism, we would still be stopping at appearances. What it does, rather, is to institute an anti-symbolism.” In contrast, Familiaris Consortio articulates a profound hermeneutic of reality—one that allows for the intersecting of the physical and the spiritual. This hermeneutic is essential if the nature of human relationships is to be correctly understood. In reflecting on the meaning of the spousal covenant, Familiaris Consortio states: “Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the Church… the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross.”
This transcendent dimension to human life has been virtually eradicated by the dominance of scientific rationalism, according to which whatever is not replicable in a laboratory is not real. But human nature, relationships, and actions can never properly be understood as only biological phenomena. They carry meaning far beyond their physical or temporal dimensions. All human reality (and its valuation) is tied to what the pope called the inscribed “vocation to love,” which is, in turn, linked to the divine nature and reflective of it. All of this depends on man’s status as imago dei (the image of God), which John Paul II considered “the most profound truth of man.”
This is incomprehensible to the secular mind. True to its own flawed logic, this view has provided for the development and acceptance of an increasingly depersonalized vision of human sexuality, one that includes contraception, in vitro fertilization, abortion, same-sex unions, embryonic stem cell research, and the like.
To counter this perversion of the human person, Familiaris Consortio confronts the dualistic tendency of our age by “going back to the beginning” and grounding our thinking in the original creative act. The anthropology the pope developed protects the essential dignity of the body and the human person: “In this way sexuality is respected and promoted in its truly and fully human dimension and is never ‘used’ as an ‘object’ that, by breaking the personal unity of soul and body, strikes at God’s creation itself at the level of the deepest interaction of nature and person.”
At issue is the value of the human body and its actions. Precisely because they have transcendent meaning, neither our gender nor our sexual relationships are without consequence. “Sexuality … is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such.”
This is diametrically opposed to secularism’s valuation of the human person and his actions. Love worthy of its name must involve the totality of the person. As Familiaris Consortio states, “Conjugal love involves a totality…. It aims at a deeply personal unity, the unity that, beyond union of one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility.”
The nature of love, the nature of the human person, and the nature of marriage require the total engagement of our human nature and an openness to life. By reiterating these truths, Familiaris Consortio not only explicitly endorses Humanae Vitae, but also provides a cogent theological and psychological defense of it. John Paul II reminded us that the teachings of Humanae Vitae provide the way to engage our sexuality in a fully human manner. “When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman … they act as ‘arbiters’ of the divine plan and they ‘manipulate’ and degrade human sexuality—and with it themselves and their married partner—by altering its value of ‘total’ self-giving.”
Sadly, it’s precisely this cogent defense of the teaching of Humanae Vitae that makes Familiaris Consortio such a hard sell in a secular environment.
Male and Female
A second hard sell was the pope’s rejection of modern reductionist ideas about gender. Society wants to force a sexless humanity (and the ubiquitous generic “person”) upon us. In contrast, Familiaris Consortio develops the idea of incarnational reality—that is, the belief that the physical can be expressive of a spiritual reality and that these two realities are intrinsically bound to each other. In particular, the body can never be separated from the person. The body itself is expressive of the person and bodily acts affect the person at the most profound level of his being. Secularism’s rejection of this connection has left many wounded in their bodies and in their souls. “As an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit, man is called to love in his unified totality. Love includes the human body, and the body is made a sharer in spiritual love.”
Fundamental to created human nature is gender; maleness and femaleness are not arbitrary but essential to identity. Any reductionism on this point perverts our conception of the person. As Eric Mascal wrote in Man, Woman, and Priesthood (1978): “We have come to look upon sex in far too superficial a way, as if there were a kind of undifferentiated human nature…. Humanity is, so to speak, essentially binary; it exists only in the two modes of masculinity and femininity, and we can only understand it by studying them.”
This led the pope to encourage the genuine advancement of both men and women, but never in a reductionist manner. A proper anthropology allows for, values, and protects the similarity and distinctiveness of each gender. He wrote, “In creating the human race ‘male and female,’ God gives man and woman an equal personal dignity, endowing them with the inalienable rights and responsibilities proper to the human person.” But this never collapses into a homogenous interchangeability. Only by respecting the uniqueness and irreducibility of maleness and femaleness can we secure the positive and rich dynamic that is at the heart of gender. “All of this does not mean for women a renunciation of their femininity or an imitation of the male role, but the fullness of true feminine humanity which should be expressed in their activity.”
This is the great disease of the modern world: the rejection of the truly feminine. An adequate anthropology would prevent this. Similarly, the nature of maleness is unique, and the pope hinted at what this means: “In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family.” To lose the language of differentiation is to lose the language of love. Familiaris Consortio reveals that sexuality and acts proper to it are never only biological but are revelatory of both the human person and God’s relationship with man: “Sexuality … concerns the innermost being of the human person as such…. Their bond of love becomes the image and the symbol of the covenant which unites God and his people.” To nullify the value of the human body and its gendered specificity is not only to reject reality but also to diminish the way in which God’s salvific will is communicated to us. Screwtape himself could not have found a better means of attack.
Family: The Ecclesial Community
The attack isn’t only on the individual but on the context that brings the individual into integrated wholeness; it’s an attack on the family, which is the most basic and essential of human communities. The family must figure prominently in any authentic anthropology because man is never an isolated individual. As the pope stated: “The future of humanity passes by way of the family.” The attack against the family logically proceeds from modernity’s embrace of radical individualism, which pits the individual against any communitarian dimension of the person. Familiaris Consortio overcomes these destructive forces by discovering the original purpose and structure of the family. It urges “the rediscovery of the ecclesial mission proper to the family.”
Just as the incarnate soul can discover its purpose and meaning only in its relationship to God, so the communitarian aspect of man, embodied in the family, is only intelligible by its relationship to God’s will. “The family finds in the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what it is, but also its mission…. Family become what you are. Accordingly, the family must go back to the ‘beginning’ of God’s creative act, if it is to attain self-knowledge and self-realization in accordance with the inner truth not only of what it is but also of what it does in history.”
The modern attacks against the family will succeed if the transcendent nature of the family is not fully grasped. If the spiritual dimension of reality is rejected, and if, like the body, the family is merely instrumentalized, then it can and will be distorted and destroyed. But for Familiaris Consortio, this is a falsification of the nature of family. According to the pope, the true interior structure of the family is found in its relationship to the body of Christ, the Church. “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of the ecclesial communion, and for this reason too it can and should be called ‘the domestic Church.’ … But it is through the Cross that the family can attain the fullness of its being and the perfection of its love.”
The family cannot be understood as a social phenomenon subject to manipulation; to understand it thus is to distort its nature. The true purpose of the family lies in its relationship to the Cross and the salvation that was bought there. Indeed, “the Christian family is grafted into the mystery of the Church to such a degree as to become a sharer, in its own way, in the saving mission proper to the Church.” Attacks against the person, whether in terms of the body, gender, or his corporate reality (in the family), are ultimately attacks on the divine plan.
We’ve been given a mission. Sadly, the secular mind (whether in society or in the Christian community) disregards it because it doesn’t fit with the values of the age. The late pope’s insistence on the authentic value of the body, gender, and family as constituted by God is unacceptable to this mindset. That’s why the first call in this apostolic exhortation is to conversion. Familiaris Consortio confronts us with one of the key spiritual struggles of modern times and asks what vision of reality will win out.
So, the question remains: Will we become what we truly are—families created to reflect and participate in the very love of God Himself? And will we love one another totally with a covenantal love, faithful until death, respectful of our fecundity, icons of Christ’s own self-sacrificial love?
A difficult mission indeed, but for the grace of God.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.