Rorate Caeli

John Paul II’s “Letter to Families”—Remember That One?

How quickly we forget… In an age of ephemeral communications and ever-multiplying pronouncements, even the finest papal documents can get buried in the sands of oblivion. I am as well aware as the next traditionalist of the many problematic elements in John Paul II’s pontificate—but, to be perfectly honest, as time goes on, I find he is looking better and better. It’s amazing what a contrasting backdrop will do for a man’s reputation. As the Polish pope’s overpowering personality and whimsical decisions recede into the background, certain of his writings acquire greater and greater relevance (one might even dare to use the word “prophetic”) for our contemporary situation, serving as tall guideposts for the orthodox and a fearful scaffolding for dissenters. 

One such nearly-forgotten but extremely rich and rewarding document is the “Letter to Families” of 1994, also known by its official Latin title Gratissimam Sane.

This past spring semester, I taught a course to college seniors on Catholic moral theology and social doctrine. For our unit on marriage and family, we read Pope Pius IX’s Casti Connubii (still the single best document overall), John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, Gratissimam Sane, and Evangelium Vitae, with Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est serving as a transitional reading into broader social questions. While the other documents are rather well known, Gratissimam Sane seems to have been forgotten but deserves to be spread far and wide in this age of massive confusion and apostasy. 

Here are some particularly incisive passages:

Quotations from John Paul II, Gratissimam Sane (1994)

Who can deny that our age is one marked by a great crisis, which appears above all as a profound “crisis of truth”? A crisis of truth means, in the first place, a crisis of concepts. Do the words “love,” “freedom,” “sincere gift,” and even “person” and “rights of the person,” really convey their essential meaning?

          A civilization inspired by a consumerist, anti-birth mentality is not and cannot ever be a civilization of love. If the family is so important for the civilization of love, it is because of the particular closeness and intensity of the bonds which come to be between persons and generations within the family. However, the family remains vulnerable and can easily fall prey to dangers which weaken it or actually destroy its unity and stability. As a result of these dangers families cease to be witnesses of the civilization of love and can even become a negation of it, a kind of counter-sign. A broken family can, for its part, consolidate a specific form of “anti-civilization,” destroying love in its various expressions, with inevitable consequences for the whole of life in society.

          This is why the Church never tires of teaching and of bearing witness to this truth. While certainly showing maternal understanding for the many complex crisis situations in which families are involved, as well as for the moral frailty of every human being, the Church is convinced that she must remain absolutely faithful to the truth about human love—otherwise, she would betray herself. To move away from this saving truth would be to close “the eyes of our hearts” (cf. Eph 1:18), which instead should always stay open to the light which the Gospel sheds on human affairs (cf. 2 Tim 1:10). An awareness of that sincere gift of self whereby man “finds himself” must be constantly renewed and safeguarded in the face of the serious opposition which the Church meets on the part of those who advocate a false civilization of progress. The family always expresses a new dimension of good for mankind, and it thus creates a new responsibility. We are speaking of the responsibility for that particular common good in which is included the good of the person, of every member of the family community. While certainly a “difficult” good (“bonum arduum”), it is also an attractive one.…

          In particular, responsible fatherhood and motherhood directly concern the moment in which a man and a woman, uniting themselves “in one flesh,” can become parents. This is a moment of special value both for their interpersonal relationship and for their service to life: they can become parents—father and mother— by communicating life to a new human being. The two dimensions of conjugal union, the unitive and the procreative, cannot be artificially separated without damaging the deepest truth of the conjugal act itself.

          This is the constant teaching of the Church, and the “signs of the times” which we see today are providing new reasons for forcefully reaffirming that teaching. Saint Paul, himself so attentive to the pastoral demands of his day, clearly and firmly indicated the need to be “urgent in season and out of season” (cf. 2 Tim 4:2), and not to be daunted by the fact that “sound teaching is no longer endured” (cf. 2 Tim 4:3). His words are well known to those who, with deep insight into the events of the present time, expect that the Church will not only not abandon “sound doctrine,” but will proclaim it with renewed vigor, seeking in today’s “signs of the times” the incentive and insights which can lead to a deeper understanding of her teaching.

          … The Church both teaches the moral truth about responsible fatherhood and motherhood and protects it from the erroneous views and tendencies which are widespread today. Why does the Church continue to do this? Is she unaware of the problems raised by those who counsel her to make concessions in this area and who even attempt to persuade her by undue pressures if not even threats? The Church’s Magisterium is often chided for being behind the times and closed to the promptings of the spirit of modern times, and for promoting a course of action which is harmful to humanity, and indeed to the Church herself. By obstinately holding to her own positions, it is said, the Church will end up losing popularity, and more and more believers will turn away from her.

          Marriage, which undergirds the institution of the family, is constituted by the covenant whereby “a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life,” and which “of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children” (Code of Canon Law 1055.1; Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601). Only such a union can be recognized and ratified as a “marriage” in society. Other interpersonal unions which do not fulfill the above conditions cannot be recognized, despite certain growing trends which represent a serious threat to the future of the family and of society itself.

          No human society can run the risk of permissiveness in fundamental issues regarding the nature of marriage and the family! Such moral permissiveness cannot fail to damage the authentic requirements of peace and communion among people. It is thus quite understandable why the Church vigorously defends the identity of the family and encourages responsible individuals and institutions, especially political leaders and international organizations, not to yield to the temptation of a superficial and false modernity.

          This kind of critical reflection should lead our society, which certainly contains many positive aspects on the material and cultural level, to realize that, from various points of view, it is a society which is sick and is creating profound distortions in man. Why is this happening? The reason is that our society has broken away from the full truth about man, from the truth about what man and woman really are as persons. Thus it cannot adequately comprehend the real meaning of the gift of persons in marriage, responsible love at the service of fatherhood and motherhood, and the true grandeur of procreation and education.