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The Christian Family As The Domestic Church

March 10, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

The Church teaches that fertility “is a gift, an end of marriage” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 2366). However, as we saw last week, we live in an age in which many see children as a burden rather than a blessing, fertility as a disease rather than a gift. It has aptly been described by Pope St. John Paul II as an age with “the appearance of a truly contraceptive mentality” (Familiaris Consortio [FC], n. 6 § 1).
As a sign of contradiction, the Magisterium has unwaveringly and steadfastly maintained that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (Humanae Vitae [HV], n. 11).
As St. John Paul II authoritatively proclaims: “Love between husband and wife must be fully human, exclusive, and open to new life” (FC, n. 29 § 3). This can be realized only when a man and woman, indissolubly united by the sacred bond of marriage, give themselves totally to one another — including their fertility — in each marital embrace. Why is this true?
Blessed Paul VI explains: There exists an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (HV, n. 12 § 1). A contraceptive act withholds an integral part of the man or woman — their fertility. They “use” one another rather than love one another.
It would be remiss to leave the topic of fertility and procreation without briefly considering Natural Family Planning (NFP). “For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children,” teaches the Catechism. “It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood” (CCC, n. 2368).
As expressed by the Vatican II fathers, such situations can occur when couples “find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 51 § 1). This is precisely where the practice of NFP, as a morally acceptable method of birth regulation, is appropriate.
The moral law obliges couples in such circumstances “to respect the biological laws inscribed in their person . . . which make legitimate . . . the use of natural methods of regulating fertility” (St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 97 § 3). By engaging in the marital act during periods of infertility, “the couple respects the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality” (FC, n. 32 § 5).
Moreover, natural means of birth regulation see fertility “as an integral part of the person and the gift of self . . . [and] are practices that shape the character of the couple, enabling them to grow in self-control and mutual love in their life together” (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World: Anniversary Edition [FC-AE], p. 85).
“These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom” (CCC, n. 2370).
The Catechism concludes its exposition on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony by identifying the family as “the domestic church.” Before delving into this topic, however, it is striking to note that this section of the Catechism fittingly begins by avowing that “Christ chose to be born and grow up in the bosom of the holy family of Joseph and Mary” (CCC, n. 1655).
The Incarnate Son of God, who could have entered the world in any way He wished, purposefully chose to be born into a human family — and that is where He spent the first thirty years of His life on earth.
It was within the confines of the Holy Family that Jesus was obedient to Mary and Joseph and where He “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:51).
Our Lord thus confirmed, by example, the incalculable importance of the family in the salvific plan of God. Moreover, the Catechism continues, the core of the early Church was largely constituted by those who had become believers within their households (see Acts 11:14; 16:31; 18:8).
“These families . . . were islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world” (CCC, n. 1655). The pattern continues today: “In our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to faith, believing families are of primary importance as centers of living, radiant faith” (CCC, n. 1656).
The Vatican II fathers recalled an ancient expression when they pronounced that “the family is, so to speak, the domestic church” (Lumen Gentium, n. 11 § 2).
In Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II elaborated further: “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason too it can and should be called ‘the domestic Church’” (FC, n. 21 § 3).
In a scholarly volume entitled Biblical & Theological Foundations of the Family: The Domestic Church (BTF), Dr. Joseph C. Atkinson of the John Paul II Institute defines what is meant by this fundamental concept in regard to the family:
“Its essential meaning is that the family (the father, mother, and children converted to Christ and baptized into Him) has been endowed with an ecclesial nature. This organic unit is considered to be the smallest articulation of the Church and the sphere in which, in a concrete way, primary ecclesial activities such as catechesis, conversion, and prayer are carried out. In other words, the baptized family has become a church” (BTF, p. 1).
In his recently published work entitled A Catechetical Dictionary for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Dr. Joseph A. Fisher provides an alternative definition:
“The domestic church refers to the Christian family as a community of faith, hope, and charity as a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion. It may properly be called a domestic church because it is a communion of persons and a sign and image of the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It reflects the Father’s work of creation in the procreation and education of children and is called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Christ. It strengthens itself and grows in charity through daily prayer and reading of the Word of God. The Christian family has an evangelizing and missionary task within itself and in the world” (pp. 162-163).
Interesting to note, observes Dr. Atkinson, is that “the term possessed vitality [in the early Church] as evidenced in the writings of key Church Fathers and was an accepted part of the Christian vocabulary by the era of St. Augustine [d. 430]. In fact, both he and St. John Chrysostom [d. 407] used the concept explicitly to denote the family transformed by the grace of Christ” (BTF, p. 2).
Inexplicably, the term disappeared from the Church’s theological landscape for about fifteen hundred years until the debates of Vatican II. At that time, its use experienced a significant resurgence and “has become entrenched in Church teaching, particularly in the writings of John Paul II” (BTF, p. 3).
St. John Paul II describes the family as having an indispensable social role in the world in that it is “the first and vital cell of society” (FC, n. 42 § 1).
It is within the family, “the first and irreplaceable school of social life” (FC, n. 43 § 3), that moral formation takes place and where members learn “to relate to others justly and to build relationships of justice, solidarity, and friendship outside of the home” (FC-AE, p. 96) so as to become a leaven to transform society.
Within the family, “one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous — even repeated — forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life” (CCC, n. 1657). The family, as a “‘Church in miniature’ (Ecclesia domestica), . . . is a living image of the life and historical representation of the mystery of the Church” (FC, n. 49 § 2).

Kingly Mission

It is within the Christian family, as an “intimate community of life and love” (FC, n. 50 § 1), where our “participation in the prophetic, priestly, and kingly mission of Jesus Christ and of His Church finds expression and realization” (FC, n. 50 § 3).
The family acts in a prophetic role “by welcoming and announcing the word of God” (FC, n. 51 § 1), by being a place “where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates” (FC, n. 52 § 1), and by being “a luminous sign of the presence of Christ and of His love…for families who do not yet believe and for those Christian families who no longer live in accordance with the faith that they once received” (FC, n. 54 § 4).
Families exercise their priestly role through their “life of prayer within the home — both individually and together — and in their participation in the Church’s sacramental life” (FC-AE, p. 124). Through faithfulness to prayer and the sacraments, they are empowered to live out their common baptismal priesthood and to aid one another in responding to “the universal call to sanctity” (FC, n. 56 § 3).
The family participates in the kingly mission of Christ through a life of service: “the Christian family welcomes, respects, and serves every human being, considering each one in his or her dignity as a person and as a child of God” (FC, n. 64 § 1).
The family home is thus “rightly called ‘the domestic church,’ a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity” (CCC, n. 1666).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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