the imaginative conservative logo

Holy Family

The bonds between the Church, the Holy Family, and the “domestic church” founded on the sacrament of marriage are intimate and profound.

In a host of formal and informal pronouncements and teachings, Pope John Paul II consistently underlined the central importance of the family as the basic cell of human society, and sacramental marriage as the sole foundation on which a culture of life can be built.[1] What I propose to undertake here is not a systematic review or analysis of papal teachings on the family, but a theological reflection on certain key points that are important to me as a husband and a father. The title of this paper is deliberately somewhat ambiguous, for “the family” that is indeed at the heart of a culture of life is not merely the family in general, but one particular human family, namely, the Holy Family of Nazareth. It is with this family that I wish to begin. The Second Vatican Council chose to present Mary in the context of a document about the Church (Lumen Gentium). However, mariology still has a tendency to become somewhat separate from ecclesiology. Perhaps a solution might be to develop further theology of the Holy Family in such a way as to integrate both mariology and ecclesiology.

I. The Holy Family

The essence of marriage lies in the covenant “by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life” (Canon 1055). It lies, therefore, in the act of consent or vow by which one person is given to another in an “indivisible union of souls.”[2] Normally, in our fallen world, the marriage act open to the transmission of life is the means by which the communion of two in one flesh is sealed and consummated. In the case of Joseph and Mary, that particular means was rendered unnecessary by the virginal conception of Jesus. Many have read the response of Mary to the angel of the Annunciation (Lk 1:34) as indicating an intention of perpetual continence, no doubt already agreed with her future husband: “How is this to be, since I know not man?” But perhaps Mary understands the angel as speaking of a conception that will take place as soon as he has finished speaking, rather than at some future date, so that her present rather than intended virginity is what leads her to pose the question.[3] In any case, the Catholic and Orthodox tradition is clear that the marriage was never to be consummated in the usual sense. Despite this, the pope affirms with St. Augustine that “none of the requisites of a marriage was lacking,”[4] among which he lists offspring, fidelity and sacramental union.

Gabriel tells Mary, “You shall conceive….” This is the language of fact, or of prophecy, rather than of question or invitation. However, the Church has understood that Mary was not forced to agree but gave her consent freely when she replied, “Be it done to me according to your word.” Clearly, there was no need for God to frame a question if he knew (and Mary knew that he knew) that she had long since given her free assent to anything he might ask of her-an unlimited assent confirmed now by the on which our own salvation hangs. There is something here we can learn about human freedom. Usually today we think of freedom as the ability to choose between alternative courses of action, or the ability to maximize the range of such alternatives (“consumerist” freedom). But freedom in its truest sense is the ability to for a decision or course of action.[5] This is the kind of freedom that exists in God- who is clearly not “free” to sin, or even to act in a less than perfect way. God’s actions, however, are: they reflect and express the entirety of what he is. We are made in that image. Slavery to sin is due to division within the self; it is inability to “make up one’s own mind,” and thus to be able to act without regret or fear. After the Fall, after that original integrity has left us, God offers us the grace to recover our freedom by giving us the power to make a real decision. This seems to be the experience of growth in freedom; that at some point a moment comes when we realize we are, as we have never been before. But this freedom is not between a range of options or paths; it is between forward and back. Or rather, there is only one real decision to take, and we may either take it or refuse. The glimpse of freedom we attain at such moments is a glimpse of the freedom of the Virgin Mary in the moment of the Annunciation. She was not hampered either by original or by personal sin from being able to say “yes.”

The same angel later appears to Joseph in a dream, to inform him that this mystery concerns him also; his role being to name Jesus, to become his true father in the Jewish Law, to live with and protect Mary and the divine Child. Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. To deny this is tantamount to denying the hypostatic union. God the Son reveals himself as : the man Jesus and the Second Person of the divine Trinity have one and the same paternal principle. In what else does the divinity of Jesus consist, apart from his being the Son of the heavenly Father? Joseph is, however, to be the legal father, through whom Jesus is to inherit a title to the throne of his ancestor David. How fitting that the very membership of Jesus Christ in the People of the Law, and his entitlement to all the promises of the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants, should come through a purely relationship to the “just man” who seems to be an incarnation of the Law itself.

Joseph’s assent is as instantaneous as Mary’s. In the spirit of perfect obedience he steps forward into his role as head of the Holy Family, with authority over both the Son and the Mother of God. Here too there are many lessons for us, both as individuals and as families. The first is this: that true authority flows from humility, power from weakness, dominion from obedience. It is not out of ambition that Joseph assumes his role, but from the humility in which he is well acquainted with his own nothingness. God entrusts himself to the power of Joseph entrusts, as the pope says,[6] the “private” or “hidden” life of Jesus (and thus we may add the interior life of all Christians)[7] to the guardianship of this just man-because he knows that Joseph wishes to be, as all free men are, the willing slave of truth. A heart that is anchored in the truth cannot be lost in the storm. The strength of a reed that remains green in the truth will never break, though it bend to the ground.

The “adoptive” fatherhood of Joseph also reveals the inner meaning of real paternity.[8] This model for all human fathers, this living icon of the divine Father, is not even the biological father of his own child. In other words, a man becomes more what a father should be the more he allows God to act through him in marriage. There is talk today of a “men’s movement,” and of the rediscovery of male spirituality. If we take Joseph as our guide, we will say that true masculinity is ordered to (primarily spiritual) fatherhood, and its rediscovery takes place in “response” to (primarily spiritual) femininity. Mary comes first. It is her humility, her feminine receptivity to God and to the life that God inspires, which Joseph must imitate and follow. In this way he is called to nourish, protect and serve with his own life the One who is entrusted to him. Joseph and Mary are therefore one flesh, one mind and one attitude before God: they cannot be separated. He receives grace from her; she receives it from Christ.

In icons of the Crucifixion, Mary and John are frequently shown standing one on each side of the cross, “linked” by the outstretched arms of the Crucified.[9] This is the moment when the Holy Family is broken open like bread and given to the whole world. Joseph has gone: we have to assume he died before Jesus began his public ministry. Now at the culmination of that ministry, on the cross, the Son is “abandoned” by his heavenly Father too, so that he may achieve his great work of salvation in the loneliness of death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[10] This is the “third annunciation,” when Mary conceives John and all the saints who will follow after him by the power of the Word on the cross: “Woman, behold your son … Behold your mother” an 19:26-8). John, though full grown, enters a second time into a mother’s womb to be born (cf. Jn 3:4). In this act of giving John to Mary as son, and Mary to John as Mother, Jesus cuts all the remaining ties that bind him to earth and knows that his work is “consummated” an 19.28) He has poured himself out, emptied himself, in obedience to the will of the Father and his own divine will. John has become a member of the Holy Family, a true heir of the Father: this is the beginning of the Church.

Finally, the Child. The Holy Family is centered on Jesus and exists for his sake. The Child is their God, their source of life and of happiness. In Unless You Become Like This Child, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes as follows:

If we open up St. John’s prologue, we notice that it nowhere speaks about the cross, but rather about the Word, God’s Son, being in God from all eternity, about his being the creating Light and Life of the world, about his assuming human flesh and giving those who receive him the power of being born from God, that is, the power of becoming children of God together with him.[11]

The whole tragedy of the cross, Balthasar writes, makes sense and “possesses its eternal foundation in God’s triune mystery of childhood.” To be a Child of the Father “holds primacy over the whole drama of salvation,” for the redemptive deed itself can be accomplished only “by virtue of the childlike stance of the God-Man and within the childlike faith of his bride, the Church.”

All ecclesiology, all theology of the Church, is therefore rooted in the living historical reality of the Holy Family. The departure of Jesus through death is necessary to create the mystical womb in Mary where the saints may come to birth, filling the place he occupied; if he had remained on earth, that “space” and the Church herself would not have existed. The physical womb of Mary which bore the Christ Child and the mystical womb that bears the saints are one but not identical, united but distinct, in a relationship comparable to that between the physical body of our Lord and his mystical body. This mystical body of Christ is the Church,[12] viewed as an extension of the individual body he assumed at the Incarnation, its members united with each other and with him by the Holy Spirit who gives life to the whole. The Church is a society ensouled and enfleshed by the Holy Spirit so as to become one theological “person.” Much more than a mere institution, the Church is a Bride arrayed in glory and possessed of the highest freedom to love.

The bonds between the Church, the Holy Family, and the “domestic church” founded on the sacrament of marriage are intimate and profound. Just as the Holy Spirit weaves together the wondrous body of Christ in the womb of Mary during the first Advent, so he forms the Church in the womb of the cross-the womb whose first child is Mary herself, the Immaculate Conception “preredeemed” by the sacrifice of her Son. But God does not hold back in his act of giving. Even his fruitfulness, his divine “Motherhood,” is poured out to the limits of possibility upon one of his creatures, and Mary is raised up to be the bearer of eternal life through the agonizing labor of Calvary. Like Eve, born from the side of the primordial Adam, the Virgin Mary becomes “Mother of all that live” (Gen 3:20). As the Mother of life, Mother of grace incarnate, “full of grace,” she is the first recipient of every favor which God can bestow on a human creature. Her mission is the mission of the Church in the world and also of every Christian family: to give Christ to the universe.

II. Marriage, Family and the Culture of Life 

We move now to a consideration of human families in general- understood as ultimately ordered to a fulfillment that is revealed in the Holy Family, centered on Christ. The theology of marriage has received considerable attention in the years following the Second Vatican Council. Those who have criticized official teaching have generally accepted it as describing an , but one that is seldom if ever attained in practice. It may be worth making the point here that a is not a mere ideal to be striven towards, but-if it means anything at all-a reality to be recognized. Discussing the question of divorce and remarriage, Charles Williams puts it like this:

Divorce is an attempt to nullify a sacrament actually in operation; as if a man should attempt to begin the supernatural life by being rebaptized. It is not that it ought not to happen; for Christians it cannot happen, whatever formula is pronounced or ceremony enacted. When the work is once begun, for better or worse it cannot be stopped.[13]

The sacrament of marriage involves the creation of a new ontological reality that persists even through the most acrimonious separation, until it is dissolved into the reality of union with Christ through death. As Williams emphasizes, it is “because marriage is a means of the work of redemption that two lovers in whom it has begun are required by the Church to submit themselves to that work to the end”[14] even if physically separated.

John Paul II writes in Evangelium Vitae: the “role of the family in building a culture of life is decisive and irreplaceable” (n. 92). This he explains at greater length in several other major documents of his pontificate, including Centesius Annus (CA, 1991), the Letter to the Families (LF, 1994), and the earlier apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (FC, 1981).[15] We may summarize his position here in five main points.

(1) Firstly, of course, the family is-or should be “the sanctuary of life: the place in which life the gift of God- can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth” (CA, n. 39). The family is the place where human life may be most easily understood as gift. At the simplest level, we are all aware that we do not make or choose our brothers and sisters, our parents and children. “The supreme adventure is being born,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in a justly famous passage from Heretics.

Our father and mother…lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we…step into a world which is incalculable, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.[16]

If life and love are not understood as gift, what takes over is the mentality of control-the desire to manipulate others for our own ends. To respect life as given is to respect its mystery, and the mystery of otherness and freedom present in every human person. The difference between these two positions is profound, indeed it could not be more so, since each determines in a different way the attitude we take to our own existence in the world and the relationships that give a meaning to our lives.[17] This is why the pope has spoken so emphatically and repeatedly on the subject of contraception, underlining and deepening the teaching of Paul VI’s famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae (1968). In sexual intercourse, which expresses and seals the marriage bond, a fundamental attitude to life and to the other person is inevitably embodied. Whenever we take steps to render infertile an act that might otherwise be fertile, we are effectively (if not consciously) attempting to close off that spiritual dimension in which new life may be created. Unlike simple self-restraint during periods of fertility (“natural family planning”), the employment of barrier or chemical contraceptives changes the nature of the sexual act into a form of mutual use.[18]

(2) The second way in which the role of the family is “decisive” is in the field of education, where children are “begotten” in a spiritual as well as physical sense and where the parents together may learn greater humanity from their children, as they share in God’s “paternal and at the same time maternal way of teaching” (LF, n. 16). The fourth commandment of the Decalogue calls to us as children to honor our parents. There is a reciprocal duty of parents to honor their children, the pope says, for the “ ‘principle of giving honor,’ the recognition and respect due to man precisely because he is a man, is the basic condition for every authentic educational process” (LF, n. 16). Through education, culture-whether it be a culture of life or a culture of death-is passed on, transmitted and developed. The family gives birth to culture. In the Letter to Families, the pope connects this point to the one preceding it by defining as “essential” the husband’s recognition of his wife’s motherhood as a “gift.” “Much will depend on his willingness to take his own part in this first stage of the gift of humanity, and to become willingly involved as a husband and father in the motherhood of his wife.” Here again we see the pope “reading” the human family in the light of the Holy Family, and seeing in the example of St. Joseph the much-needed corrective to the spiritual “divorce” that has taken place in modernity between (complementary) male and female roles within the family.

(3) Third, by being born into a family we are born into a society, and thus into a set of personal relationships that provide a context for us to discover our unique personal identity. Growing up in the society of the family, we lay the foundations for social activity in general. The family is, according to the Second Vatican Council, “the first and vital cell of society,” and according to the Letter, “the primordial and, in a certain sense, ‘sovereign’ society.”[19] Its sacramental form as a covenant of self-giving love can and should influence the entire political and economic sphere in which it is embedded. The pope talks, for example, of a global politics of solidarity and the need for an “economy of communion.”[20] These things begin with the way a family lives out its communion of life and property, its mutual subjection and service. Thus: “Through the family passes the primary current of the civilization of love, which finds therein its ‘social foundations’ ” (LF, n. 15). But this current may be impeded, and the waters of life prevented from flowing into society, if a nation structures its economic and political life around a different set of principles (e.g., in terms of competition rather than cooperation).

“A family policy must be the basis and driving force of all social policies.”[21] The culture of life requires families to live out the implications of the sacrament that joins them to Christ, but it also requires government and public institutions to support that way of life. That might be done, for example, through differential taxation to assist larger families, salaries and working hours that make it possible for one partner to remain with the children, transport policies encouraging stability instead of mobility, legislation on weekend trading that preserves a day for rest and prayer, restrictions on advertising that would help to curb rising levels of moral pollution, education policies that would place a high priority on resources and teachers without undermining the role of parents, and so on.[22]

(4) Fourth, a family is a place where the force of eros can be tamed and transformed with the help of grace, and directed to the service of life rather than death. It is, after all, where we learn to be brothers and sisters, children and parents, instead of merely potential mates. It is where a married couple can learn to subordinate their sexual desires to their respect for each other, and relearn from their children the virginal innocence of soul that is the defining quality of the “children of God,” without which no one will either see God (Mt 4:8) or enter the Kingdom (Mt 18:3).

There is nothing naively romantic about all this: it is an empirical fact that such a process of transformation does take place in the most seemingly ordinary of households-albeit often through the experience of great suffering. It is equally a fact of common observance that the process can be distorted, and the results when sacramental grace is driven out of a marriage by unrepentent sin are quite horrific.[23]

(5) Finally, then, a Christian family exists to give birth to Christ-to give birth to saints. It is saints alone who can truly transform society and create a “civilization of love.” This indispensable role of the family in giving birth to a culture of life depends on prayer. It is in prayer that each of us discovers “his own unique subjectivity,” and the “depth of what it means to be a person” (LF, n. 4, also n. 10). The same applies to families, which is where most of us learn to pray: the family itself discovers its own depths in the mystery of God through turning together towards the source of life.

To read sections 13, 14, and 15 of the Letter to Families  is to be well aware of how the pope understands the place of the family in the present crisis of civilization. The “culture of death”-that is, the culture that leads to death-is based on activism and self- will. The possibility of a culture of life is based on the primacy of contemplation, of receptivity and gratitude, true femininity, and “fairest love.” The two types of culture are associated with two very different kinds of creativity; one that seeks to remake the world and in so doing empties it of transcendent meaning, and another that seeks to shape and cultivate the world that has been given to us to love. Each of these generates a different kind of art, a different kind of science. Each promises freedom, but only one delivers. For we can take possession of our own will only in handing it over to the one who gives us existence, to the Father of all. And we lose our freedom every time we hand it over to the idol we make of ourselves when we assume we understand the mystery of our own destiny. In God’s plan, “the vocation of the human person extends beyond the boundaries of time. It encounters the will of the Father revealed in the Incarnate Word: “God’s will is to lavish upon man a divine sharing in his own divine life.” As Christ says, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10)” (LF, n. 9).

Books related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis article originally appeared in Communio (Spring 1996) and is republished here by permission.


  1. See Peter J. Elliott, What God Has Joined: . . .The Sacramentality of Marriage (New York: Alba House, 1989); Covenant of Love Richard Hogan and John LeVoir, (New York: Doubleday, 1985). See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1061-1666. Cf. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 1984).
  2. St. Augustine and St. Thomas, cited in Redemptoris Custos (1989), n. 7.
  3. See, e.g., Andre Feuillet, Jesus and His Mother (Still River: St. Bede’s, 1984); Ignace de la Potterie, Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant  (New York: Alba House, 1992); Thomas Philippe, Mystical Rose (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1995); John Saward, Redeemer in the Womb(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).
  4. Redemptoris Custos, n. 7.
  5. See Carlo Caffara, Living in Christ: Fundamental Principles of Catholic Moral Teaching  (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987). See also the very important discussion of human freedom in Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington and Edinburgh: The Catholic University of America Press and T&T Clark, 1995).
  6. Redemptoris Custos, n. 8.
  7. See Andrew Doze, Discovering Saint Joseph (New York: Alba House, 1991).
  8. For a profound examination of this theme-though without any explicit mention of St. Joseph—see Gabriel Marcel, “The Creative Vow as the Essence of Fatherhood,” in Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysics of Hope (London: Gollancz, 1951).
  9. Would it be too fanciful to detect a symbolic echo of this in another common way of representing the Crucifixion-with the spear and the sponge in the same relative positions on either side of the cross?
  10. Mark 15:34. See Adrienne von Speyr’s little commentary on the last words The Cross: Word arid Sacrament (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983).
  11. San Francisco: Ignatius Press (1991), 57-65.
  12. See, e.g., E. Mersch, S.J., The Theology of the Mystical Body (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1951); M.J. Scheeben, The Mysteries of Christianity (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1946); Mystici Corporis and by Pope Pius XII. For a contemporary sacramental ecclesiology, see Geoffrey Preston, O.P., The Faces of the Church, ed. A. Nichols (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996).
  13. See Outlines of Romantic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 47.
  14. The Orthodox Church evidently has a different understanding, and a different pastoral approach. In the long run this may prove a significant challenge to ecumenical reconciliation. See Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985).
  15. In what follows, I will be paying more attention to the most recent documents, but the earlier should not be neglected. For a profound insight into the development of the pope’s ideas from his early, philosophical or poetic writing through the vast body of encyclicals and other teachings, see Kenneth L. Schmitz, <At the Center of the Human Drama: The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1993).
  16. Cited in Brave New Family, ed. Alvaro de Silva (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 23. Heretics is reprinted in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, vol. I (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).
  17. See Kenneth L. Schmitz, The Gift: Creation (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1982).
  18. See, e.g., Paul M. Quay, The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985); Janet E. Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991); Marriage and Family: Experiencing the Church’s Teaching in Married Life Pontifical Council for the Family, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989); Cormac Burke, Covenanted Happiness (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1990).
  19. Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, n. 11; and end of n. 17.
  20. See Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae (n. 91). The practical meaning of an “economy of communion” in the modern world is being explored by members of the Focolare movement in communities in Brazil, among others.
  21. This strong statement is taken from Evangelium Vitae (n. 90), and the emphasis, as elsewhere in the quotations used in this article, is that of the author.
  22. The reciprocal question of the regulation of marriage by the state, in the form of legislation permitting or regulating divorce and so on, is extremely complex. The impossibility of divorce in the teaching of Christ stems from the fact that marriage between the baptized is a sacrament. The sacrament is created by the wholehearted speaking of the “vow” whereby each gives his life to the other, accepting the totality of the other in return-that is, until death and including children. Anything less than such a vow cannot create the sacrament, and anything less than a sacrament cannot be indissoluble. The Catholic Church tends to assume a sacramental union unless proven otherwise, and to support legislation that does the same. This makes sense only if we understand the entire creation as from its origin embedded in the order of grace and disposed to fulfillment in the sacramental form of Christ’s marriage to the Church.
  23. These words are being written at the end of a week in which Rosemary West was sentenced to life imprisonment for a series of domestic crimes against innocent life that have blasted and sickened the imagination of Britain. “The worst is a corruption of the best,” and if the culture of life begins at home, so does the culture of death. The reality of evil was never more in evidence, and only a blazing sanctity is able to consume the deepening shadows. Christus vincit. Christus regnat. Christus imperat.
Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Leave a Reply