Jesus of Nazareth, Family Man: On the Decline of Marriage and Childrearing

Many headlines of the last week announced a fourth century papyrus fragment containing the Coptic phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.…’” While some provocateurs used the occasion to belittle Christianity, commentary was mostly restrained, in keeping with the cryptic and scanty nature of the papyrus, its late date, and lack of additional support. This was hardly a bombshell, although it was the rare media outlet which restrained itself from asking “Was Jesus Married?”

Given how unremarkable the papyrus was, I found myself somewhat confused at all the attention given it, finally concluding that perhaps the media found marriage newsworthy in itself. Maybe the headline “Was Jesus Married?” meant something like “Marriage? Is That Still Around?”

To put this in context, the 2011 Canadian Census revealed that 44.5% of Canadian couples are “without children,” but only 39.2% “with children.” While the percentage of childless couples includes empty-nesters, the census reveals a striking decrease in marriage and childrearing. Almost one-third of Canadian families are either common-law or lone-parent, an increase of almost fourteen and eight percent respectively in a single decade—a significant demographic shift. As for children, a greater percentage (16.3%) now live with common-law parents than ever before.

In other words, while still the majority, fewer people are getting married, staying married, having children, and raising those children together. Like the papyrus, this is not really news, or at least it is old news, for by now everyone knows about the decline of marriage and the social consequences of its loss in developed Western society. Still, the cultural values behind the census were expressed with noteworthy clarity. Take the example of Monica Zeniuk, married for 18 years and a member of “Babes without Babes, an Edmonton social club for child-free women,” who claims “[t]he benefits of not having children are in the driveway, in our closet and stamped on our passports … Kids are expensive….” To paraphrase: “we do not have kids, but we do have an Audi, fashionable clothes, and have been to Sandals.”

While married, Ms. Zeniuk echoes Michelle Lacroix, an unmarried 30-year-old who proclaims the good news of solitary life, the fastest growing form of household in the Western world: “It’s the whole ‘master of my own domain,’ concept … It’s really nice to come home to my own space every day and have that quiet space that’s just me and just mine.”

Note that both women view their status as an achievement, an accomplishment: “perceptions have changed: What used to be regarded with pity is now sought and treasured. Today, living alone is considered somewhat of a status symbol—a luxury … a way to assert independence, individualism and control at a time when relationships and jobs can remain unreliable.” As one commentator noted, solitary life, and the same would be true by analogy for the childless couple, “promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization—all prized aspects of contemporary life.”

Much is revealed about ourselves in these claims, especially our current conception of who we are and why we exist—just me, and just mine. For those who can afford it, a good life is one of personal control, independence, and self-realization, with success evidenced by consumer goods and novel experiences. As William T. Cavanaugh explains in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, freedom is now considered the “absence of interference from others”—as in the exaltation of the freedom from children or from relational entanglements—leaving the will “free” to be manipulated by the greater power of the advertisers and high priests of market consumption.

Compare this vision of the good life—freedom from entanglements so as to pursue luxury—with the Christian vision so aptly articulated by John Paul II in Theology of the Body: “man’s solitude … presents itself to us … as the discovery of an adequate relation ‘to’ the person, and thus as opening toward and waiting for a ‘communion of persons.’” While each and every person is made in the image of God, and thus inviolable and unique in dignity, each and every person is made for others and as moving to others, or as John Paul II puts it “man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons.”

Now this is a newsworthy and remarkable claim, for while our dignity is possessed by each of us in our own being—what the late pope refers to as our “solitude”—freedom points not to personal control and self-realization but rather towards community with other persons.

The telos of communion should be evident to us given the Christian understanding of the Godhead, for while God is One, God’s Oneness is also a “divine communion of Persons,” the Trinity, and it follows that to be created in the image of a divine communion of Persons is to be created for communion with others.

Further, we know both God and humanity through the revelation of Christ, for as perfect God and perfect man Jesus communicates the nature of the divine and the human, revealing in the Incarnation the primacy of the family’s communion of persons. In the Letter to Families (1994), John Paul the Great links the nature of the Triune God, the nature of the human, and the revelation of Christ together intimately:

The only-begotten Son, of one substance with the Father, “God from God and Light from Light,” entered into human history through the family: “For by his incarnation the Son of God united himself in a certain way with every man. He laboured with human hands … and loved with a human heart. Born of Mary the Virgin, he truly became one of us and, except for sin, was like us in every respect.” If in fact Christ “fully discloses man to himself,” he does so beginning with the family in which he chose to be born and to grow up.

Note well the final lines—Christ discloses humanity to humans beginning with the family, through the communion of persons. While some religions insist on a disincarnate god, even viewing matter and bodies as ignoble and base, Christianity proclaims instead, again in words of the 1994 Letter, that the “divine mystery of the Incarnation of the Word thus has an intimate connection with the human family. Not only with one family, that of Nazareth, but in some way with every family, analogously to what the Second Vatican Council says about the Son of God, who in the Incarnation ‘united himself in some sense with every man.’”

Consequently, when we pray for the safeguarding of the family, for the sanctity of marriage, for the dignity of the marital act, or for the place of children with their biological parents, we do not express a merely political viewpoint; we are not pushing a partisan agenda or following custom for its own sake, we are instead proclaiming an essential truth evidenced in nature, knowable to reason, and definitively revealed in the Incarnation by the God made flesh. Put simply, we are made for each other, and in rejecting each other we will not find ourselves, no matter how many of our contemporaries think otherwise.

In rejecting communion, we may find better cars and clothes, bodies less slack and bank accounts less strained, and we may discover a kind of autonomy and status, but those are not fair compensation for losing our very nature and flourishing. This we know from Jesus, unmarried but thoroughly a family man.


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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