“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
It was in a time of what he perceived as a real crisis in European civilization towards the end of the 19th century that Pope Leo XIII instituted the Feast of the Holy Family, which feast was then extended to the universal Church by Benedict XV. I like to think that Leo was spurred on to establish this feast and to write his Encyclical Quam Plurimes that made St. Joseph the patron of the Universal Church by the words of Blessed John Henry Newman in his Bigletto speech in Rome when Leo made him a cardinal. For it was Newman who saw so very clearly the real consequences of a civilization permeated by a relativism that denied truth. And it was St Pope John Paul II who on the 100th anniversary of Leo’s encyclical issued his own encyclical on the importance of St. Joseph and the Holy Family, Redemptoris Custos, the Guardian of the Redeemer. That same Pope, reading the signs of the times and aware of a crisis within the understanding of the family, brought about in no small part by the sexual revolution of the 1960s, called a Synod on the Family and issued an Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, at the end of the Synod to explain and deepen the Church’s understanding of and commitment to the family. And in this context we read:
The family—based on marriage (between a man and a woman)—is the first and fundamental unit of society and is a sanctuary for the creation and nurturing of children. Together families form communities, communities a state and together all across the world each human is part of the human family. How these communities organize themselves politically, economically and socially is thus of the highest importance. Each institution must be judged by how much it enhances, or is a detriment to, the life and dignity of human persons.
The attack on the family from an increasingly secularized and antichristian society has certainly reached new points of crisis that Leo and John Paul could not have imagined—and this in a relatively short period of time. So Pope Francis has called for a Synod on the Family, whose Extraordinary session was held last October. The proceedings of the Extraordinary Synod were at once controversial and disturbing. But the Synod did reveal for all to see that there is indeed a crisis in the understanding of the family, but this crisis was not brought about merely by forces outside the Church but within the Church herself.
Catholic families have been trying to cope in different ways with the ongoing disappearance of the family as Christianity has understood it and in a more specific way as the Catholic Church has understood the family and what it means to live as a Christian family and to undertake all of its obligations. One practical example of the current quandary is the difficulty that many parents have in carrying out their obligation as the primary educators of their children. If it were merely a matter of combatting the forces of the New York Times and the local and national Department of Education, that would be one thing. But when the Catholic family is in the situation in which one has not been able to trust Catholic schools to educate one’s children both intellectually and faithfully for so many years now, then fathers and mothers see no way out but than to do it themselves, with consequences that are both positive and negative. The rise in home schooling is a phenomenon that cuts across religious and social lines. But there is no doubt that a significant number of Catholics who would call themselves traditional Catholics have sought refuge in home schooling and often with good results. This is indeed one solution to the current state of affairs, but those who do so must always guard against that exclusivity and lack of contact with the real world that are antithetical to witnessing to the Gospel in a world that prefers darkness to light and needs to hear the message of the Gospel. Protection of one’s children can never negate the missionary effort of the Church to the world that is the vocation of every Catholic, both lay and clerical.
But the struggle to maintain the basis for living the essence of the Christian family has become even more difficult with the rise of gender ideology that denies in the most fundamental way the complementarity of the sexes and, even deeper, the ontological basis of sexuality itself. The love song of Adam sung to Eve when he first saw her: “At last flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone!”, has been transformed into a YouTube video that denies the radical and essential complementarity of male and female and pretends that this complementarity can, however illogically and un-really, be applied to same sex attraction and relationships. Such a novel and self-serving understanding of maleness and femaleness and warped extension of complementarity not only undermines the God-given distinction between male and female—a distinction grounded in mutual love and the act of procreation—but it also imposes an unreasonable and totally artificial understanding of sexual relationships that has absolutely no grounding in any heretofore—and dare we say “traditional” in the broadest transcultural sense—understanding of human sexuality. There is no basis for gender ideology except for that perverse understanding of human freedom that claims that one can define oneself apart from any restraints, especially those imposed by the reality of human nature and the transcendent understanding of what it means to be human.
The insidious translation of sex to gender is one of the most egregious examples of this generation's using language to lie. The denial that sex is ontological and is rather a construct of society that is mutable and fluid is one of the great novelties of our time, a novelty that has no grounding in any reality but rather in a willful determination, fed by an individualistic understanding of human freedom, to define oneself according to one’s feelings and perceptions. Reality demands that we acknowledge the phenomenon of same sex attraction. Charity according to the Christian faith demands that we show mercy and compassion on those who struggle with this attraction. But to pretend that two fathers or two mothers can constitute a family is a slap in the face of the reality of sexuality and of the family. The man is the begetter. The woman is the bearer. These roles that have their roots in the physicality of the human body, and what it means to be male and female cannot be separated from this; the roles of the mother and father in a family cannot be grounded in any way other than the complementarity of the sexes. This cannot be reduced to mere biology. The self-sacrificial love that Christianity insists that is at the heart of the family, while including the physical, the bodiliness of the reality of man, transcends this and is grounded in the Creator who created us male and female as an act of infinite love. And it is the solemn duty of the Magisterium of the Church, the Pope and the bishops to not only reaffirm the Catholic understanding of human sexuality and of the family, but also to do so in an intellectually coherent and compelling way.
I was at the El Greco exhibition the other day at the Met. I had seen most of the paintings in the show at other times. But one I had not seen was El Greco’s depiction of the Holy Family. Many of the artistic depictions of the Holy Family drip with that saccharine piety that has nothing to do either with Jesus, Mary and Joseph or with the reality of the family in this world. El Greco shows the Holy Family as Mary offering her breast to the child Jesus, and Joseph to the right looking on. What El Greco does in this painting is to situate the coming of God in the flesh within the context of a family, a unique family to be sure, but nevertheless within a family, not isolated, but within that unique relationship that constitutes the human family. When God became man he did so within that fundamental structural relationship that is the family, which is the basis of human society. And it is Mary who has the deepest relationship to her child, for she carried this child in her womb, that physical relationship with her child that a father can never know, the bearer and the nurturer in the most physical and wonderful sense. And it is Joseph who looks at them both, Joseph who in the normal family would be the begetter, but here assumes the role of the custos, the guardian, whose love for Jesus is not merely natural, so to speak, but is based on his decision to trust and love this child as if he were the begetter of this child.
The Holy Family is not a cardboard holy card, nor is the Holy Family a Google map search for ordinary families to solve their family problems. The Holy Family is entirely unique, and yet within that uniqueness, which in some mysterious way points to the uniqueness of the Trinity, we see that love, mutual trust, and that letting each other be who he or she is meant to be as a child of God that is the basis for any truly civilized society.
Today is the last day the crèche will be here in the church. After the Mass, go to the crèche, look and ponder what this birth means, what this family means. And there offer your prayers to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that your own family, with its imperfections, its problems, its sufferings, may be joined to the love of God that is at the heart of the Holy Family. And do not forget to offer a prayer for all fathers, mothers and children in this world who struggle to love each other in a world that each day deepens its falsification of love in the name of a false understanding of personal freedom.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, pray for us.