Familiaris Consortio and the Gift of Children

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Thirty-five years ago, early in his pontificate, Saint John Paul II convened a Synod of Bishops to reflect on the mission of the Christian family in the modern world. This 1980 gathering was followed a year later by the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio. This momentous document has guided the Church ever since and will help inform the discussion at the Synod of Bishops in October, which again takes up the question of the family.

In Familiaris Consortio, we find a beautiful vision of marriage and family that corresponds to God’s plan, our true happiness and what we are called to sustain as faithful members of the Church. The family as the foundational building block of society is strengthened by this teaching of the Church and thus the whole human community is helped to thrive. This vision of family life, however, is not always accepted in the secular culture in which we live, resulting in a societal crisis that falls particularly hard on the most innocent and vulnerable among us – the children.

Even from the first moments of their lives, Pope Francis has decried, some children “are rejected, abandoned, and robbed of their childhood and future” (General Audience of April 8, 2015). Where these little ones are not seen as burdens to be avoided or disposed of before they are born, they are viewed as commodities or as objects of experimentation for the benefit of others. In recent weeks, reports of the harvesting and trafficking of body parts of unborn children have come to light. This business, together with the cold banality in which it is described by its practitioners, shocks the conscience.

It is against this background that our whole society can benefit from the teaching of Saint John Paul. The core of his message is love (Familiaris Consortio, 11). When we come to marital love, he affirms, spouses are given “the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to a new human person” (Id., 14).

In our world today, people need to hear again and again what we already know in our hearts, what we know any time we hold a baby in our arms and are touched by the radiant joy of their laughter – children are a gift to be welcomed. They are, attests Pope Francis, “the most beautiful gift and blessing that the Creator has given to man and woman” (General Audience of April 8, 2015).

Each child is valuable and precious in God’s eyes and in our hearts. Each one, created by God, is endowed with a sacred and inviolable human dignity, possessed of the fundamental right to life and to be cared for, including the right to be conceived and born within marriage, not in a laboratory or with surrogates.

When Pope Francis last year visited Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, he said that children are a diagnostic sign indicating the state of health of our families, our communities, our nations. “Wherever children are accepted, loved, cared for and protected,” he said, “the family is healthy, society is more healthy, and the world is more human” (see also Familiaris Consortio, 26). Our Holy Father then asked us to examine ourselves, “Who are we, standing as we stand before today’s children? Are we like Mary and Joseph, who welcomed Jesus and cared for him with the love of a father and a mother? Or are we like Herod, who wanted to eliminate him?”

In our society and culture, especially in those areas where the basic and essential values on which families rest are lacking, the Christian family has a critical mission: “Family, become what you are,” pleads Saint John Paul. Become “a community of life and love . . . a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride” (Familiaris Consortio, 17).

It is no exaggeration to say, as Saint John Paul does, that “the future of humanity passes by way of the family” (Familiaris Consortio, 86). The joyful acceptance of the responsibility and privilege of raising children and helping them to grow in wisdom, age and grace, the personal commitment of a life-long gift of self by spouses in the marriage, the recognition that this action is a graced response to the love of our heavenly Father – all of this helps in the renewal of the world in which we live.