We Catholic Patheosi, in anticipation of the Synod on the Family, will be holding a little synod of our own over the next few days, discussing the Catholic understanding of the family. Accordingly, I’m posting a little two parter I hope will be useful in situating the family in the Church’s theology and in helping to clarify the way in which the good of the family is at the heart of Catholic social teaching.
Here beginneth Part One:
My nephew Tom came home from first grade in anguish. At dinner he could barely keep the tears out of his six year old eyes. When his parents pressed him to find out what was wrong, he replied that “this kid at school says I have a funny name.” His parents glanced at each other, thinking, “‘Tom Shea’ is a funny name?” So summoning their best parental wisdom, they told him to ignore the kid and he would go away.
Of course, this didn’t work. The kid kept it up for another day or two till Tom was really beginning to worry: maybe he did have a funny name.
Finally, Tom’s parents decided it was time to take action. Reasoning that they would have to go talk to his folks, they asked at dinner that night, “What’s the boy’s name, Tom?”
Tom looked at them, blinked his big blue innocent eyes and said, “Farquhar Muckenfussen, Jr.”
Minutes later, after Tom’s parents had crawled out from under the kitchen table (whence they had slid in their uncontrollable convulsions of laughter), wiped the milk off the wall (don’t laugh with your mouth full) and daubed the tears from their eyes, they explained to their little boy what other issues might be driving little Farquhar to bully Tom about his name.
I think of this story often when I reflect on the place of the Christian in the world. For like Farquhar, the world is constantly trying to tell us Christians we have a funny name. Worse still, it is constantly laboring to tell our children the same. Children, say the worldly, should be called “Madonna” or “Beavis” or “Dennis Rodman” or “Miley Cyrus” or “Katy Perry” or “Ted Turner.” They should be victims who can only be helped by the State or consumers who exist to service the machine of commerce. They should be so wealthy they need nobody or they should be so obsessed with equality that they are jealous of everybody. They should be Imperial Autonomous Selves accountable to none or they should be wards of the State dependent upon all. They should be Rugged Individuals or Workers in the Hive. They should join the herd of independent minds and accept the fact that the basis of society is the State… or the Corporation… or the Individual (we’re not sure yet) and get with the program of building the secular Tower of Babel. But they should not be Christians. Christians are strange. Christians–and especially Catholic Christians–have a funny name.
The reason Christians have a funny name is because we are neither fish nor fowl. We think pleasure, wealth and the created order are not gods but gifts. We think that the State, the Corporation, and Individualism are nice things but not ultimate things. And, supremely, we believe that the Family, not the State, the Corporation, or the Individual, lies at the very heart of a healthy social order and even points us to eternity. For we believe that the Family is the Icon or living embodiment of the life of the Holy Trinity Himself, who created the social order and calls us to eternal life.
Catholic teaching says the Family is the basic building block of society. It is the oldest human institution, according to revelation. Older than the state, the Church, Israel, the Patriarchs, paganism and Noah. It goes all the way back to our first parents, Adam and Eve. And it is rooted in a God whose oneness is the oneness, not of singleness but of love between the three Persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not surprisingly, then, the author of Genesis captures this sort of oneness when he writes “in the image of God created he man, male and female created he them” (Gen 1:27). For Genesis, it is male and female together who express the image of God. And just as the union of love between the Father and Son is a fusion of love so real that from it proceeds the Holy Spirit, so we see a sort of shadow of this in the sexual union of man and woman bringing forth children. It is not good for man to be alone, because humanity is in the image of a Trinitarian God. The family images in flesh what God is in Spirit.
Which is, of course, entirely in keeping with the reality that the Word became flesh. God is incorrigibly concrete. He doesn’t send us abstractions. He didn’t send a manual. He sent us Emmanuel. He sends his Son in flesh and blood, with real fingerprints and a definite shoe size. And he crowds his way with a whole train of flesh and blood people, of sacraments, stone altars, smoke, blood, fire and what not to appeal, not just to our intellect, but to our eyes, ears, noses, tongues, and hands as well. In the same way, he sends us families as the very first embodiment of the grace of God we ever meet. It is in the smell of baking bread, the touch of our mother’s hand on a fevered forehead, the stern look of warning for hitting our little brother, the pleasure of a bath, the cheers for our first successful potty training, the taste of fish on long ago camping trip, the pain of facing the death of a grandparent, the secret of an early October morning shared only with your dad–it is in these things that we first encounter grace and are ushered, all willy nilly, into the life of the family and discover that it is pregnant with the great secret of the self-giving life of God.
The nature of the Trinity and the nature of the family are then primordially linked in some unthinkable way. When we are baptized, we are called by name into the life of the Blessed Trinity. But it is our mothers and fathers who are called to teach us our names, not just with word but with their very being. Fathers and mothers are great high priests who stand in the place of God in a way no Pope or bishop could ever hope to do. Families–those great roystering messes of praise and poop, panic and pleasure–give flesh to the vision of the Trinity in the lovely, painful and beautiful expression of real human beings living out the gospel under grace. They are icons, windows on to a miracle. In their faces, we see the first face of Christ we will ever meet. By them, we are enrolled in the primal school of charity. Under their fumbling caresses and awkward disciplines, we are introduced to the touch of God’s own hand. From them, we learn our names and discover that we are not Wards of the State, Slaves of the Corporation or Rugged Individuals but sons and daughters called into the life of the Blessed Trinity with a name we can honor, a home we can love and an eternity we can rejoice in.