Understanding the Family in the Twenty-First Century

Professor Karin Heller
Newman Institute, Ireland

Charles-Dominic Plater Memorial Lecture
Plater College, Oxford 12th June 2002

At the beginning of this lecture, I would like first of all to express my profound gratitude to Mr. Stratford Caldecott for the invitation to deliver the Charles Dominic Plater lecture here in Oxford. I am extremely honoured to be in Oxford, renowned throughout the academic world for its dedication to research and high academic standards. At the same time, my thoughts go in particular to John Henry Cardinal Newman, who gave the name to the Institute of which I am presently the Academic Director. They also go to the French theologian Louis Bouyer, whose theological work was at the origin of my doctoral thesis in theology and whose life is linked with the Oratory of Oxford and with Newman. And last but not least, I think of Charles Dominic Plater, eminent member of the Society of Jesus and brilliant leader in the British Catholic social movement, who gave his name to this College.

My lecture deals with a theme that would have held keen interest for a son of the Society of Jesus; this, for essentially two reasons. First, for the Society of Jesus, the human being and in particular the education of the human being was and is a paramount priority. Second, the history of the Society of Jesus is fundamentally linked to that of a new evangelisation in Europe due to the Reformation and the expansion of Christianity in the so-called new world.

This evangelisation is brought about by means of the 'pondering' and contemplation of the Gospel by men and women of all backgrounds, ages and times. The understanding of the couple, the family and mankind in general is fundamentally linked with the powerful word of God. In this regard, the place and role of women has to be thoroughly analysed. In passing, we should note the care that St. Ignatius took of women in his own time; this is masterfully highlighted by the brilliant work of Hugo Rahner, editing St. Ignatius' Letters to Women in 1956. Doing so, Ignatius certainly preceded by about 60 years St. Francis of Sales and his famous Introduction to the Devout Life as well as his Letters to Persons in the World. This fact is particularly remarkable when we think of the very difficult human and spiritual conditions of married women in the 16th century. During this period, women were deprived in particular of what the catholic tradition had largely opened up to them, i.e. the possibility to consecrate their lives by vows and to be raised to the altar as models of holiness.

Having said that, the purpose of this lecture is to bring to the fore two key elements concerning the understanding of the relationship between man and woman and the family in the twenty-first century. I mean the importance of the couple and the family within the context of the so-called re-evangelization and the importance of the rediscovery of the nuptial meaning of the body for a renewal of theological research.

Part One: The couple and the Family, core of the re-evangelization

Since his very first Encyclical Redemptor hominis on 4th March 1979, Pope John Paul II has brought to the fore the concept of a 'new evangelisation' or 're-evangelization'. This idea is linked specifically to the upheaval that the old continent has undergone during the twentieth century, marked by previous political, social and economic events as well as by the two world wars. Undoubtedly, eminent theologians like Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, Karl Rahner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Henry Cardinal Newman and many others have prepared the way for such an enterprise. The reflections stemming from the popes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and finally the Second Vatican Council have decisively laid the theological and pastoral foundations for a re-evangelization of the old and the new continents.

As indicated by the term itself, the core of this new or re-evangelization is 'the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who are not yet familiar with the Christian faith or those who are no longer practising their faith'. In his post-synodal Apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici on 30th December 1988, Pope John Paul II defines what he intends by this term:

'This re-evangelization is directed not only to individual persons but also to entire portions of populations in the variety of their situations, surroundings and cultures. Its purpose is the formation of mature ecclesial communities, in which the faith might radiate and fulfil the basic meaning of adherence to the person of Christ and his Gospel, of an encounter and sacramental communion with him, and of an existence lived in charity and in service.' (Christifideles laici, par. 34)

The foundation of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family

This important document was preceded in 1980 – that is, only one year after the election of Karol Wojtyla to the throne of St. Peter – by a Synod of Bishops devoted to the Family. The Synod Fathers called for the creation of theological Centres dedicated to the Study of the Church's teaching on Marriage and the Family. Accordingly, Pope John Paul II responded to the Synod Fathers' recommendation with the establishment of the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family and the Pontifical Council for the Family. The Institute's foundation was to be announced in the Wednesday Audience of May 13th 1981. But we all know what happened on that memorable day. Subsequently, on account of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, the Institute's Apostolic Constitution was given on October 7th 1982 with effect from 14th October 1982. Its purpose 'is to offer the whole Church that contribution of theological and pastoral reflection, without which the evangelising mission of the Church would lack an essential aid'.

Since this date, several sessions of the John Paul II Institute have been established in the five continents with centres in Washington (USA), Mexico City (Mexico), Valencia (Spain), Cotonou (Benin), San Salvador da Bahia (Brazil), Changanacherry (India). In a few days, during the annual Council of the John Paul II Institute in Rome on 24th and 25th June, the request for the establishment of two new sessions, in Australia and Ireland, will be made to the Congregation for Catholic Education. The foundation of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family and the rapid extension of its sister Institutes highlight the importance given to the couple and to family life.

The Institute affords a specific contribution to theological research and evangelisation not only by promoting 'a deeper understanding of God's plan for the person, marriage and the family'. Its specific task indeed consists of combining 'theological, philosophical and scientific reflection with the constant attention to the cura animarum'. Within the Institute's activities careful heed is taken of the perennial interaction between theory and practice, theological reflection and pastoral care, experienced by Pope John Paul II himself while he was involved with young people in the university chaplaincy of Krakow. In this way, the Institute puts into practice what great theologians of the twentieth century such as Henri de Lubac and Louis Bouyer have proclaimed and suffered for, i.e. the reduction of the split between theology and Christian life, theoretical reflection and concrete human existence.

Challenges for a new or re-evangelisation of the relationships between man and woman and in family life

Undoubtedly, the situation of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is forever marked by two firmly established realities.

There is the economic and social independence appropriated by women in the established societies. These centuries are forever associated with the birth of various feminist movements on the social as well as on the ecclesial level. These are the centuries in which there appears, after 2000 years of Christianity, theological reflections made not only in Africa, India or Japan, but also, most radically, by women! Without doubt, these are the centuries that for a long time to come and in spite of decisive declarations will still have to debate about the access of women to ordained priesthood or, more accurately, the place of women within society and the Church.

The 20th century will be forever linked with the introduction of massive fertility control that, on the one hand, has certainly 'liberated' women from submission to male domination, but on the other has also brought forward the most important question of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. In this context, the 21st century will not have finished re-examining the old and recurring of the 'aims of marriage'.

In this context, the call to a re-evangelization and even a new evangelization will be more and more urgent. The tremendous task with regard to a real transformation of minds still exists and has even increased. Undoubtedly, the almost 40 years that separate us from the Second Vatican Council, have not been sufficient to transform from the bottom to the top minds that are resistant to the powerful gospel of the Lord in which, century after century, the teaching authority of the Church is anchored. The repeated, dramatic appeals of Pope John Paul II in a very Christian country like Austria 'not to leave the flock of the good Shepherd', underline the serious difficulties faced by the Church today.

This challenge for man and woman, for the couple and for the family is linked to a new and multifaceted poverty that in spite of appearances, has reached the European continent. I am speaking about a lack of education, a lack of knowledge in general and on a religious level, a lack of maturity. Many difficult human situations are overshadowed by psychological problems stemming from the breakdown of individual men and women as well as of that of broader human social structures.

It was the great task of the Jesuits in the time of their foundation and down through the centuries to the present day, to face similar challenges. Are we today less courageous, less generous, less ingenious than our ancestors with regard to the faith? Charles Dominc Plater's advocacy of workers' study of social subjects as a way to social justice won enthusiastic support from Catholic working men who formed themselves into 'study circles' before the First World War. His most effective contribution to worker education came after his death with the founding in Oxford of the Catholic Workers' College. This full-time residential college for adults, where men and women could be educated in social subjects, was a direct outgrowth of his effectiveness and interest in fighting against the various human, religious and spiritual poverty of his time.

A crisis of identity

The Second Vatican Council, after 2000 years of Christianity, finally stated for the first time in a document stemming from the Magisterium of the Church the equal dignity of man and woman (Gaudium et Spes 29, 2). But we all know how easily declarations written on paper can remain a dead letter, on account of the 'hearts of stone' which resist the life-giving Spirit of God – from Ezekiel's prophecy (Ezk 36, 24-28) to the Paschal events leading us to the complete truth (Jn 16, 13).

The appeal for a new or re-evangelisation means first of all that each of us, whoever he or she may be, man, woman, clergyman, layperson, child or elderly person, must become aware of whatever is wrong in my, in our lives. There are many obstacles particularly encountered by women trying to save, to preserve and to promote life. In these frequently difficult conditions, created by a male will of competition for leadership, women are often led to attempt to be men rather than women! Therefore, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is a real danger that women will develop a distaste for being women within the political, economic and social societies as well as within the Church, the Churches and the Christian Communities.

The extraordinary capacity of women to challenge the powers of death and destruction as well as to direct human existence towards a 'better life' constitutes women's honour and opportunity within a humanity that too often ceases to be 'human'. At the same time, the powerful capacity of women to contest the currents of death highlights an anthropological difficulty that challenges men. Women are scarcely recognized by men for what they are. They are easier recognised for what they have done. In these circumstances, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, will women really wish to live in the company of men for all their lives? There is a permanent temptation for men and women, parents and children to live 'an isolated existence', not on account of economic conditions, but because of a constant misunderstanding, a lack of mutual respect and esteem for what each one is in himself or herself. To a large extent, it is this problem of a 'crisis of identity' that I wish to address in my lecture.

Part Two: the nuptial meaning of the body, source for a renewal of theological research

As already highlighted in the first part, one of the greatest challenges to be faced by the Church today, is to recover the unity of theological reflection and concrete existence. Too many people, too many Christians themselves, no longer see the links between marriage and priesthood on the one hand and theological reflection on the other. For most human societies the problem of how mankind might survive in the case of a nuclear war, contaminated food, devastated landscapes or on account of the wearing out of human body parts, has to be resolved by the biological and economic sciences. As regards theological research, this means that theology is generally identified with dogmatic elaborations guided by the Magisterium of the Church and the various opinions of scholars. All these determine in which way God himself and the mysteries of faith are to be expressed. Too rarely is theological research perceived as a very specific way of transmitting life 'from generation to generation'.

1. Man and woman in the image of the nuptial mystery of heaven and earth

To support the thesis – that 'the nuptial meaning of the body is the source for a renewal of theological research' – we need to turn for a moment to the roots of this idea.

For men and women living in ancient times, the economic problem of fertility was always linked to the divine powers. The human being had no power to change the seasons, to assure with certainty bountiful harvests, to be victorious over the barrenness that periodically strikes gods as well as men. There is no way to escape the common fate that produces one day an enormous bounty and, on the next day, death that takes away everything. In this precarious condition of existence, mankind early elaborated rituals supposed to protect an ever-needy humanity from cosmic and political disasters and to please and flatter, even challenge, the mean gods that provide all kinds of good things only drop by drop. Therefore, for the peoples of the Ancient Near Middle East there was no doubt that fertility depended on a certain kind of behaviour, taking due account of the divinities.

This conviction, common to the peoples of the Ancient Near Middle East, was not abolished by the divine revelation to Moses: 'If you love the Lord, your God and follow his way, if you keep his commandments, his laws, his customs, you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to make your own. But if your heart strays, if you refuse to listen, if you let yourself to be drawn into worshipping other gods and serving them, I tell you today, you will most certainly perish: you will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess' (Dt 30, 16-19).

However, if Israel shares with other nations the profound conviction that its own survival is linked with its capacity to live with its God, there is nevertheless a great difference between them. While the nations address themselves to ever capricious and unpredictable gods, Israel confesses a God who is not in competition with man for the accumulation of goods that allow him to survive as long as possible. Israel's God is not in the image of the gods of the nations that have 'appointed death for mankind and kept eternal life in their own hands'. He is the God whom Israel as a nation praises for his goodness and everlasting love, the God who feeds all creatures 'throughout the year, provides the food they eat and with generous hand satisfies their hunger' (Sal 106, 1 and 104, 27-28). This new vision of the image of God creates a capacity for faith and hope that overcomes the vision of a human future limited to the renewal and alternation of the generations. It definitively orientates the couple and the family towards an eternal destiny of love that 'no flood can quench, no torrents drown' (Sg 8, 7).

To return again to my main point. For the peoples of the Ancient Near Middle East as well as for Israel, religious reflection depends fundamentally on concrete existence. For Israel, every theological problem can only be resolved and clarified by living in community with the God of Abraham and Moses, by living within the world and with other human beings. Therefore, I agree fully with the famous French exegete Paul Beauchamp, another son of the society of Jesus, recently called to the Father's House: 'As God has revealed himself through that which he is not, in order to go to him we must take the same way which he has taken to come to us . We must look for God in the world and in human being'.

Accordingly, the existence of man and woman and their mutual capacity to transmit life, was, from the most ancient times at the root of profound religious reflections in the most varied religious cultures of the world. Throughout the ages, the relationship between man and woman has been used to express the mystery of life that allows the whole universe to exist and to continue. Man and woman are perceived in the image of heaven and earth, which are periodically joined together in a nuptial relationship from which all life stems. Very early in the history of mankind, human beings elaborated rituals of which the aim was to celebrate the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage, between heaven identified with a father god and the earth identified with a mother goddess.

Biblical revelation has never abolished the concept of a nuptial relationship between heaven and earth, as one can read in Isaiah in an address to Zion and Jerusalem: 'No longer are you named 'Forsaken', nor your land 'Abandoned', but you shall be called 'my Delight' and your land 'the Wedded'; for the Lord takes delight in you and your land will have its wedding. Like a young man marrying a virgin, so will the one who built you wed you, and as the bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so will your God rejoice in you' (Is 62, 4-5).

A correctly pursued theological analysis of the nuptial relationship between the God of Abraham and his descendants blessed in Isaac, between man and woman, between Christ and the Church, between man and woman joined together by the sacramental bond, will always bring to the fore the strong biblical-theological awareness of the unity between God the Creator and Redeemer of all living beings and the entire creation and mankind. The mysteries of Creation, Redemption and Sanctification are forever linked with the challenging, mysterious and intimate dynamic that develops in the moment when a man encounters a woman and a woman a man. They are expressed in terms of tender love or betrayed love, of fidelity or adultery, peace or war, eagerness to give one's life up for the sake of many, or the monstrous egoism that drives parents and children to devour one another.

2. Communion in Covenant

This intimate community between the divinities and mankind, the God of Israel and the people of God, man and woman, is essentially expressed by two fundamental realties that ground and maintain every human relationship as well as that of God and humanity. We are talking about the word, the capacity to address one another, and food that has always established a special communion between human beings themselves and between human beings and the divinities. There is indeed no marriage without a word creating a man and a woman husband and wife, no conjugal community without a word maintaining man and woman in this particular state of life; there is no marriage celebrated without exchanging a cup of drink or a piece of food between the engaged couple and the whole community gathered together in order to celebrate this exceptional event.

For Israel and the Church, the whole creation of the universe is a nuptial act by which the living Word of God brings every being into existence (Gn 1,1-2,4a). The right understanding of creation is 'inseparable from the revelation and forging of the covenant of the One God with his People. Creation is revealed as the first step towards this covenant, the first and universal witness to God's all-powerful love'. Consequently, if there is love possible between man and woman, husband and wife, parents and children, this love can only stem from God who reveals himself previously as the ever gracious Husband and Father.

The second chapter of Genesis confirms this theological conclusion, when God himself delivers man from loneliness and dumbness by creating woman (Gn 2, 18-23). By doing so, God brings into the world a very complex humanity capable of responding freely to the only Word able to maintain man and woman and the entire humanity in everlasting life.

We all know about the difficulties regarding this response since the beginning of mankind. It is certainly significant that in Genesis 2 the difficulty of verbal communication between man and woman immediately highlights an incapacity to eat in a right way in the presence of one another and in the presence of God. The progressive breakdown of their mutual relationship concludes with the deterioration of their mutual physical exchange. Their relationship created in view of a mutual assistance called further to agape breaks down into a relationship based on eros: 'Your yearning will be for your husband, yet he will lord it over you' (Gn 3, 16).

3. Man and woman revealing theological realities of our time

Since the end of the 20th century, the Christian community in Europe has had to face particular difficulties that, according to the accurate analysis of Cardinal Ratzinger, concern four main areas: the relationship of man and woman linked with the problem of same-sex marriages, procreation, the admission of divorced and remarried members of the faithful to the sacraments of the Church, and the admission of women to ordained priesthood.

The obstacle to reflecting theologically on the relationship between man and woman stems often from a tendency that reduces the issue of gender to a question that has no importance any more and reduces theology to intellectual speculation. Undoubtedly, Holy Scripture itself, the Fathers of the Church, the works of the great theologians of the Middle Ages, as well as the declarations of the Magisterium of the Church, are considered more to be the sources for theological reflection than humanity itself or the difficult, fragile and often conflicting relationships between man and woman, parents and children.

The consequence of this conscious or unconscious undermining of the relationship between man and woman as a theological source, leads the protagonists involved in the various debates to advance more and more their own convictions in the face of the convictions of the other. In this way, the debate is eventually blocked while each of the protagonists is occupied in establishing and strengthening his or her own position. Finally, there is no longer any debate; the protagonists hold on to their respective convictions, living their lives on their own, according to what seems to them right and good. In this way, the 'one humanity' is split up into civil societies and religious communities more preoccupied with damaging their 'opponents' than exchanging all kinds of persons and goods. What happens between man and woman when mutual respect and esteem breaks down happens also on a social level.

This can be verified by the history of the three fundamental splits that have affected Christianity since its beginnings. We are talking first of all about the separation between Christians from a Jewish and a pagan community. This separation, already deplored by St. Paul himself in his letter to the Romans, marked the history of Europe throughout the centuries until the tragic events of the Shoah. Without question, the generations of the twenty-first century will have a particularly heavy task in receiving this tremendous inheritance that overshadows Europe.

Then, we have the split between the Oriental and the Occidental Church. There is no doubt that every Christian confession expresses its own comprehension of God's Word and that the Word of God himself enables all of them to approach a cohesion leading to full communion in Christ. This was already given during the first centuries to the Christian communities of Antioch and Alexandria, known for their famous theologians and theological schools. Nevertheless, they were not able to reach a unity about the most essential affirmations concerning Christ's humanity and divinity. In the context of the ongoing political strife between Rome and Constantinople, Christians from East and West were drawn into a disastrous separation. It will again be a huge task of the generations of the 21st century to establish connections between the 'two lungs' of Christ's Church in order to enable the entire Body of Christ in this world to take a much-needed deep breath.

Finally, there is the third great split that racked the Western Church about 400 years ago, the separation between Catholics and Protestants with all its disastrous consequences for the old continent. The establishment of two Christian blocks in the Western part of Europe has divided couples, families, countries and kingdoms, pushed thousands and thousands of people on the road to exile in order to escape massacres, executions or slow death in prison or the royal galleys. The consequences of these dreadful events affect not only Ireland today, but have created deep wounds all over the European population.

These are the realities that men and women, couples and families will have to face during the forthcoming 100 years. We all know how quickly mutual esteem is destroyed between husband and wife, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grand parents and grand children, and how many years, how many generations it takes to bring one family together, when this is possible. Just as in the time of the prophet Hosea the disastrous conjugal and family situation reveals the disastrous situation on the political and religious front (Hos 1-3), so today the often tragic history of many couples and families is a practical revelation of our political and theological divisions, followed by the physical fragmentation of our religious landscapes. There is real challenge for us today to read thoroughly these 'signs of the times'.


At the dawn of the 21st century, the understanding of man and woman in their mutual relationship, of family life and of the destiny of mankind has already entered a very complex phase. Every generation receives in inheritance a world created by the previous one and conveys to its children a world that these children have not built. In the midst of a humanity that is losing little by little its traditional reference points, the question of the meaning of life will arise increasingly in a dramatic way.

In this situation, couples and families will encounter every day men and women of other religious cultures and traditions; they will encounter men and women full of faith and hope in the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. They will also mingle with people that do not share this specific faith any more, or have at least distanced themselves from it, to a greater or lesser degree; they will meet people who struggle with this particular faith and trust or simply ignore the message of salvation offered to them.

In spite of the variety of people, couples and families, the Word of God remains incarnate among men. It circulates among mankind with difficulty or ease. Either way, its presence reminds mankind of an extraordinary promise that concerns a homeland, descendants, the resurrection from the dead and everlasting life. The challenge that man and woman, couples and families have to meet is to become a witness to these promises not only in a theoretical, but also in a practical way.

The challenge is to grow every day in order to choose life and to reject a fragile happiness which often, for a couple, consists in remaining close to one another, hand in hand. This kind of happiness passes. From the Biblical and Christian point of view, man and woman, couples, families together have to pursue a kind of life in which happiness is a permanent exodus from solitude. The choice in favour of a fragile happiness or in favour of happiness that is beatitude is fundamentally linked with the will to listen or not to listen to God's Word and to share or not to share together the principle of wisdom conveyed by God to man and woman.

This choice sustains the human capacity to be a couple, to be a family. It leads man and woman, parents and children to live within one unique flesh, that of Christ and the Church. The rejection of such a choice splits up human relationships, splits up families and entire societies and nations. It ends not only in a dreadful loneliness, but also wounds its own flesh. Every generation of this world is called to such a choice: do man and woman, do entire families, follow a personal truth or a truth that in the mouth of others allows them merely to get what they want or simply affords them pleasure for a moment? Or, do they want to encounter the truth stemming from the Word of God who proclaims and always fulfils his promises amid the weakness of the carnal existence of men, women and children who trust, hope and love often in situations where these theological virtues do not exist any more.