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SPECIAL: 'Vital Cell of Society' Is Central and Fundamental

Vatican Compendium on the Importance of the Family

The newly published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church dedicates one of its first chapters to the institution of the family, described as "the vital cell of society."

The opening number of the section of the family begins with how Sacred Scripture repeatedly underlines the importance and centrality of the family. The book of Genesis narrates the creation of the first man and woman, and the family is portrayed as having a central role in creation. Other Old Testament books speak of the love to be found in the family, which is also where children are taught wisdom and the virtues.

The compendium recalls Paul VI's words during his visit to Nazareth in 1964, when the Pontiff spoke of Jesus being born and living within a family, "accepting all its characteristic features, and he conferred the highest dignity on the institution of marriage." (No. 210)

The Church, continues the text, sees in the family "the first natural society, with underived rights that are proper to it, and places it at the center of social life." (No. 211) The family founded on marriage between a man and a woman is important both for natural reasons, as the principal place of interpersonal relationships, and also for supernatural reasons, as a divine institution.

The compendium then explains the importance of the family for society. For each individual the family is the cradle of life and love where they are born and grow. (No. 212) The climate of affection that unites the family is also where we learn about truth and goodness.

Moreover, the family unit is a community of persons where moral values are taught and the spiritual and cultural heritage of society are passed on.

The family is also essential in ensuring people are strong in their commitments, and promote both social responsibility and solidarity.

Given its vital importance the family has priority over society and the state. "Every social model that intends to serve the good of man must not overlook the centrality and social responsibility of the family." (No. 214)

Invoking the principle of subsidiarity the text affirms that public authorities must not take away from the family tasks that it can carry out by itself, or in association with other families.

Marriage - foundation of the family

With regards to marriage the compendium explains that the family is founded on the free choice of spouses to unite themselves. The institution of marriage, while it is regulated by human institutions and laws, is, even more importantly, a partnership established by God and endowed with its own laws. (No. 215)

Marriage's divine character, and the natural right to marriage, places limits on what society can legitimately do in regulating marriage. The dignity and specific characteristics of marriage must be safeguarded. The fundamental characteristics of marriage are: totality, in which the spouses give themselves to each other mutually; unity, created by the union of the couple; indissolubility and fidelity, which a definitive mutual self-giving requires; and fruitfulness, to which marriage is open.

An important part of marriage is the transmission of life through the birth and nurturing of children. Nevertheless, number 218 adds that procreation is not the only reason for marriage and that when a couple is unable to have children the value of communion between the spouses remains.

The compendium also deals with the sacrament of marriage, explaining that it unites couples within the Church according to God's plan. In fact, the sacrament makes the family a sort of "domestic Church" in which the family is called to be a sign to the world. And the love of the married couple is also raised to a new level by the sacramental grace.

Love and the family

The role of love within marriage and the family is another theme dealt with in the text. The family is a place where communion is brought about, and thanks to love each person is recognized, accepted and respected. (No. 221)

Love, affirms the compendium, is essential for human beings. But marital love is more than just emotions or sexual expression. It is a full and total gift, marked by unity and fidelity. Moreover, the nature of conjugal love requires the marital union to be stable. The introduction of civil divorce "has fueled a relativistic vision of the marriage bond" and can be termed "a plague on society." (No. 225)

For those couples who have divorced and remarried the compendium adds that the Church does not abandon them. "She prays for them and encourages them in the difficulties that they encounter in the spiritual life, sustaining them in faith and hope." (No. 226) Nevertheless, they cannot receive the Eucharist until they obtain reconciliation through the sacrament of penance.

The text also rejects attempts to redefine marriage through the introduction of new concepts that see gender as dependent merely on social and cultural factors. "Physical, moral and spiritual difference and complementarities are oriented towards the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life." (No. 224) It is therefore incongruous to demand that same-sex unions receive the status of marriage. At the same time the compendium calls for homosexuals to be fully respected in their human dignity, but also encouraged to exercise chastity. (No. 226)

The compendium is also critical of de facto unions as they are based on a false conception of the freedom to choose. Marriage is more than a simple agreement to live together but is a social instrument and the principal means for helping each person to grow in an integral manner. (No. 227)

A sanctuary of life

Another section addresses themes related to life matters within the family. "Conjugal love is by its nature open to the acceptance of life." (No. 230)

This is particularly the case for Christian families, that by virtue of the sacrament should be witnesses of the gospel of life. The compendium acknowledges the weight of this responsibility, but encourages couples to take decisions based on "a generous acceptance of life." (No. 232)

Excluded, as being morally unacceptable, are anti-life means such as abortion, sterilization and contraceptive methods. Couples, however, may decide to use methods based on periodic abstinence to regulate the number of children, based on a consideration of the personal, family and social factors.

On the other side of the coin the compendium excludes the idea that parents have a right to children. A desire for children at any cost leads to the use of reproductive techniques that are ethically unacceptable.

Nurturing children

The compendium also explains the family's function in bringing up children, "a completely original and irreplaceable role." (No. 239) The parents' love is placed at the service of their children and animates all educational activity. Parents have both a right and a duty to educate their children, which the state should respect. The text also insists that to carry out this function parents have a right to found educational institutions and that the state should provide economic support to these non-public schools.

The primary role of the parents in education is particularly the case when it comes to religious and moral formation. But it must also be respected in the area of sexual education. The compendium stresses the importance of linking sexual education with an instruction in moral norms and the human values.

Children's dignity must also be protected, first of all by protecting their right to be born within a real family. As well, the compendium draws attention to problems such as child labor, lack of health care and sexual exploitation.

The concise and complete treatment of the family in the compendium provides a useful resource for pastors and lay people interested in knowing more about the position of the Church regarding many of the fundamental issues touching marriage and family.

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