Family Life in Catholic Social Teaching
Having begun by acknowledging the social nature of man, we may proceed naturally to the most primordial of societies, which is the family. The family is the center of Catholic Social Teaching, but in order to grasp its importance we must first understand its parts. This leads inevitably to a discussion of husband and wife, which confronts us with the reality of gender—of man as “man and woman.”
a. Male and female “from the beginning”
“Haven’t you read that in the beginning the Creator made them male and female?” From Christ’s words to the Pharisees, St. John Paul II infers in his Theology of the Body that we have little reason to consider man simply as man, but that we should instead always consider man as “male and female.” Here he is drawing a distinction between historical man and man in the state of innocence, which, for St. John Paul II, was a primordial and therefore pre-historical state.
The saint observes that the first chapter of Genesis is objective, while the second is subjective. In the objective account (Genesis 1) the scriptures, taking the perspective of God, do not speak of “man” as anything other than “male and female.” Thus, from God’s point of view, neither of the sexes precedes or follows the other, but both are created together “from the beginning.”
The second account, on the other hand (Genesis 2), is subjective, which is to say, it is the story of creation from man’s point of view. It dwells on what St. John Paul II termed the “original experiences” of man which go to constitute and explain the human condition. Genesis 2 conveys these primordial happenings in a way that is comprehensible to us. This is why the second account has the character of myth and is essentially supra-historical (although not necessarily non-historical).
Fallen man is “historical man.” His experience of life is valid only as far back as historical man has existed—but this does not and cannot reach into the pre-historical period of innocence. Such is the justification for and the purpose of the creation myth, with the result that, although it relates its details through a chronological scheme in which the male precedes the female, it must be interpreted first and foremost as conveying an ontological ordering of creation rather than an actual ordering of events in time.
The conclusion of all this is that we are not equipped to speak either historically or experientially of man without taking into account his relation to woman. This fundamental bifurcation is indispensable and unavoidable: there is no such thing as a genderless “person.” We must always follow Christ and speak of man as male and female “from the beginning.” Female-ness (and male-ness, for that matter) was not an afterthought based on God’s failed attempt to create a single, happy, gender-neutral human being.
In fact, the proper interpretation of Genesis is born out linguistically in the account itself. When the narrative speaks of the “original experiences”—such as the “original loneliness”—of Adam before the creation of woman, it employs a word which means mankind in general, without reference to gender. Thus, everything that is said of Adam before the creation of Eve must, to a certain extent, describe the experiences of mankind as a whole—including those of women. That is to say, women also have an experiential connection with the “original loneliness” felt by Adam (“mankind in general”) before the creation of Eve.
Thus, if we are not justified in considering mankind as one gender or the other, or as some abstract, genderless “person,” but instead must always consider mankind as the ambiguously complementary gendered dualism, and if we acknowledge that this dualism inevitably produces a third being from within itself (the child), then we come immediately to the family as a fundamental human reality, which is a single unit in love—an earthly reflection of the Triune God.
b. The cell of society—the cradle of life
Just as God is a Trinity, and cannot be considered as three separate Gods each going separate ways, so the fundamental social unit is the family, and not the individual as father, mother or child. The family is the basic unit of political and economic organization in the Catholic tradition. As an association, it is prior to every other. “It is in this cradle of life and love that people are born and grow.” Here the person takes his first steps into his personhood, learns responsibility, and develops his manifold potentialities. The family is the “fundamental structure for human ecology.”
Because man is fundamentally a social being, it can be said that “only insofar as he understands himself in reference to a ‘thou’ can he say ‘I’.” It is in the family that he “comes out of himself, from the self-centred preservation of his own life, to enter into a relationship of dialogue and communion with others.” This is why no law can threaten this institution—the State exists for the family and not the family for the State.
“No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and original purpose of marriage, ordained by God’s authority from the beginning. Increase and multiply. Hence we have the Family; the ‘society’ of a man’s house—a society limited indeed in numbers, but no less a true society, anterior to every kind of State or Nation, invested with rights and duties of its own, totally independent of the civil community…Inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the Family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature…The contention then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the Family and the household, is a great and pernicious error.”
Pius XI affirmed this teaching in Casti Connubii, referring to marriage as “the principle and foundation of domestic society, and therefore of all human intercourse.”
c. The domestic Church
St. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, goes further and establishes that the Family is in fact an active unit in the mission of the Church. He calls it an Ecclesia domestica or “Church in miniature” which is “in its own way…a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church.” The Family is thus a “little Church,” a “domestic Church,” the “Church of the home,” which is “grafted” into the mystery of the Church proper and is therefore a sharer in its mission; and so, while it is true that the family has been present always and everywhere, through Christ it has been baptized and made transcendent.
The family constitutes a “specific revelation” of the mind and purpose of God. In it and through it the highest forms of human communion are realized and presented to the world as a prophetic “sign of unity”—as such, the family is truly a “school of deeper humanity” because in it are practiced all the acts of daily kindness: care for young and old alike, forbearance, forgiveness, and self-giving. Every part of the person is called into play and perfected.
d. Two-fold purpose of the family
After establishing the primacy of the family in Catholic tradition, we can emphasize that the importance of the family rests on its dual purpose: 1) It exists to fulfill the divine command to continue the race—“Be fruitful and multiply.” 2) It meets the basic human need of a close community in which love is paramount.
It must be remembered, however, that while both functions are essential, they must be kept in the order just given. Slight deviations in first principles are responsible for grave deviations in their applications. The propagation of children is the first purpose of marriage; conjugal and parental love is the second. This is but a consistent application of the principle set forth at the beginning of this study, that grace presupposes nature, and that the higher things in life require at least a bare minimum of the lower. Regardless of how noble the emotionally and personally edifying aspects of the marriage relationship might be, its natural basis is prior and is the foundation which cannot be removed without undermining the whole thing.
Moreover, we should note that the family is a biological necessity for mankind even more so than animals, whose offspring often need little to no support before reaching developmental independence. Man’s higher vocation implies a greater natural dependence in order for that vocation to develop, and this development occurs within the family.
This specific call to domestic life, as opposed to the simple act of reproduction, is a peculiar need for mankind. St. Thomas declares that:
“The human male and female are united, not only for generation, as with other animals, but also for the purpose of domestic life, in which each has his or her particular duty.” And he tenderly amplifies the same point elsewhere: “Before it has the use of its free-will, [the child] is enfolded in the care of its parents, which is like a spiritual womb.”
If the importance of the family has not been made undeniably clear from what has already been said, then we need only meditate on the fact that Christ Himself remained concealed within this spiritual womb until the age of thirty, and it was only then that he began his public ministry. If it was deemed proper that the Savior should make full and good use of this institution, then we should probably not underestimate its formative power.
e. The needs of the family are central to CST
Here we must refer once more to the indispensable principle that grace presupposes nature, ensuring that we apply it comprehensively. Indeed it is impossible to over-stress this particular truth, and it is precisely the neglect of this truth which has led to numerous perversions of the social order. With regard to Catholic Social Teaching, the application of this principle means that the lofty and diverse duties of the family cannot be carried out in an economic vacuum.
The family requires for its normal and healthy functioning a certain sufficiency of material goods. If we desire stable families, we require a stable economic substrate within which they can grow and thrive. It is ridiculous to complain, as some have made a habit of doing, that the family is decaying in its moral aspects, while at the same time refusing to make any provisions for its material aspects. Such an attitude turns its own complaint into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Divorce, absentee fathers, and abortion undoubtedly undermine virtue and human flourishing, and are rightfully condemned; but it is undeniable that poverty and insecurity are primary causes of such moral failures. It is short-sightedness pure and simple to condemn the deterioration of virtue while ignoring the economic structures that jeopardize the economic stability of the family, which acts as the training ground of virtue.
 Mt 19:4.
 Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Boston, 2006), pp. 132-133.
 Ibid., pp. 134-136.
 Ibid., pp. 137-141.