Sign of Hope
“In its most profound reality, love is essentially a gift; and conjugal love, while leading the spouses to the reciprocal “knowledge” which makes them “one flesh,” does not end with the couple, because it makes them capable of the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to a new human person. Thus the couple, while giving themselves to one another, give not just themselves but also the reality of children, who are a living reflection of their love, a permanent sign of conjugal unity and a living and inseparable synthesis of their being a father and a mother.”
— Pope St. John Paul II (Familiaris Consortio, 14)
The English writer G.K. Chesterton loved pointing out that we are surrounded by seemingly “ordinary” things that are in fact so suffused with beauty and mystery, that we ought by all rights to be walking about in a perpetual state of stunned wonder. As he famously put it: “There is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” What he meant is, that thousandth time, you might slough off your old pereptual habits that took the thing for granted and see the thing for what it is: a pure, mysterious gift.
One of the ordinary things that Chesterton sought to show us in a new light was the family. A quote often attributed to him goes like this: “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” Now, I can’t seem to find a source for this quote. But the sentiment is unquestionably Chestertonian in nature. The fact of a man and a woman falling in love, their desire to unite their lives together with an unbreakable vow, and the children that – God willing – naturally follow: on the one hand these are utterly straightforward things, and on the other, filled with an unspeakable beauty and mystery. These ordinary things are really the most extraordinary things.
However, as Most Reverend José Gomez, archbishop of the diocese of Los Angeles, recently pointed out in a profoundly challenging speech hosted by the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life, marriage and children seem to be becoming “extraordinary” in a totally new way. That is to say, for the first time in the history of our civilization, it seems that a vast, and growing number of people, are consciously rejecting these things, refusing marriage, and consciously avoiding having any children at all.
For thousands of years, just about everyone intuitively understood that it was a good thing to commit one’s life to another in marriage, and then to bring children into the world. But for unusual cases, such as those entering the priesthood, or monasteries and convents, this is what the overwhelming majority of people would aspire to, and expect to do. Now, however, for a variety of reasons, “many young people are debating whether it is ‘ethical’ to have kids,” the archbishop noted. “There is an even larger conversation going on among millennials about the ‘value’ of starting a family.”
The ostensible rationale given for much of the anti-natalist attitude is concern for the natural environment – the fear that more children simply means more resource-hogging humans damaging the earth. We saw this attitude expressed memorably earlier this year by Democrat congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In a Q&A session live-streamed on Instagram to her 2.5 million followers in February, Ocasio-Cortez mused about environmental questions: “It is basically a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it OK to still have children?”
In his speech, Archbishop Gomez didn’t discount the need for serious concern for the environment; however, he suggested that this growing ambivalent – and even hostile – attitude towards children “tells us far more about the state of the family today” than many of the other problems that we usually associate with the crisis in marriage and the family: “contraception and abortion; divorce rates, out-of-wedlock births, people living together rather than getting married…the growth of same-sex unions and the confusion about sex that we see in our society.”
In rejecting marriage and children outright, he said, “Our society has rejected what 20 centuries of Christian civilization considered a basic fact of nature.” He stated: “Now marriage, family, and children have all become an open question, a ‘choice’ that individuals must decide for themselves.”
Recovering the Radical Christian Message
In response to this peculiarly sinister modern crisis, Archbishop Gomez firstly urged the need “to rediscover the radical ‘newness’ of the Christian message about the family.” We have heard the basic Christian teaching about marriage so often that we have lost sight of how radical, and how radically beautiful it is, both in itself, and in the context of historical attitudes towards marriage.
“When St. Paul said: ‘Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her’ — he was announcing a revolution in human thought and human society,” the archbishop said. “Before Christianity, no one had ever spoken about marriage in terms of a love that lasts a lifetime, or as a calling from God, or as a path that can lead to holiness and salvation.”
“It was a new and thrilling idea to speak of man and woman becoming ‘one flesh’ and participating in God’s own act of creating new life.” Indeed, it was through the profundity of their love for one another, and the way they lived that love in concrete ways, that the first Christians spread the Gospel. Not only did they approach marriage as a “life-long relationship of friendship and mutual devotion,” but they rejected the anti-life practices of their pagan neighbors: “They rejected birth control and abortion and welcomed children in joy as a gift from God and treated them as precious persons to be loved and nurtured and brought up in the ways of the Lord.”
Archbishop Gomez went on to quote the early Church Father Tertullian. The quotation is so beautiful, that I feel compelled to include it here in full:
How beautiful … the marriage of two Christians, sharing one hope, one desire, one way of life. They are truly two in one flesh; and where the flesh is one, the spirit is one, also. They pray together, worship together, fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God’s church and partake of God’s Banquet; side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another… they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts. They visit the sick and assist the needy. … Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices.
I can’t help but think how different society would be if all Christian couples lived up to this beautiful vision!
Life is a Gift
However, continued Archbishop Gomez, not only must we recover the radicalness of the Christian message about marriage, but “we need to recover the Christian narrative, the Christian vision for life and human happiness.”
The archbishop lamented that many Christians are taking their cue about the meaning of life from our technologically obsessed and consumeristic society, rather than Christ and the Scriptures. The Scriptures reveal to us the great mystery that even God Himself is a family – a Trinity of persons united in love. “We need to tell this good news to our neighbors — that this God of love, who created the galaxies and oceans and mountains in the beginning, is still at work today, still creating,” said the archbishop. “And God intends his plan for creation, for history, to unfold through the human family.”
Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, entered into history in the womb of His mother, and raised within the beauty and hiddenness of the family. It is this great mystery that reveals to us how we humans are called to participate in God’s loving act of creation. “We are called to help every married couple realize this vocation — to live their love forever in a mutual and complete gift of self; to renew the face of the earth with children, who are the fruits of their love and the precious love of our Creator.”
Within this rich Christian view, children can never be viewed merely as “takers” and parasites, to be viewed with suspicion, and prevented through invasive, immoral means. On the contrary, “Every child who is born is also a sign of God’s love — a mystery, a gift, a miracle. In every child, even those in the womb, we glimpse the mystery of the Christ Child, in whom we come to know God.”
The archbishop warned that a society that does not welcome children is a society that has forgotten the meaning of life and has abandoned hope. “It is not about just giving birth to children. It is about hope,” he said. “It is about living with confidence in God’s Providence, knowing that he loves us and will never abandon us — no matter what this world may bring.”
The archbishop concluded this remarkable speech with this moving expression of his hope for those listening. “If you are married,” he said, “love your spouse with a great affection and raise your children well. Work for them, sacrifice for them; teach them to talk to God and listen for his calling in their lives. We cannot be afraid to call our young people to greatness, to be saints.”
“Life is not ours to sanction or command. Life is a beautiful gift — the child received by a husband and wife is as beautiful and precious as anything we find in nature.”
“By the love in our homes — by the sacrifices we make and the love that we hold in our hearts and pass on to our children — we are called to testify to this God who is our Creator and Father. This God, who holds all of this world — and every one of us — in his loving hands.”
I have nothing more to add to this beautiful and inspiring message. God bless Archbishop Gomez for his courage and fatherly concern in calling his flock (indeed all of us) to holiness in this way.