Threats to the Family

March 28, 2006

Prof. Michael F. Hull – New York



The family is the beginning and the basis of all human society. Thus has it been from creation: “Then the Lord God said: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (Gen 2:18). Aristotle has a sense of this when he describes the family as the fundamental community between men and women (Politica I.2). St. Augustine speaks of marriage as “the first natural bond of human society” (De bono conjugali 1.1). Threats to the family are those that imperil this bond, especially when it is sealed as a sacrament. Perhaps the two gravest threats to the family are divorce and artificial birth control. The former destroys the family by tearing it asunder; the latter frustrates natural expansion of the family and the human community.

Civil divorce has become de rigueur in many developed countries and is on the rise all over the world. In most countries these days, divorce is a simple civil matter, easily obtained and no longer socially stigmatized. The breakup of families is common and carefree, with little concern for our Lord’s solemn admonitions against divorce (Matt 5:31–32; 19:3–9; Mark 10:2–12; Luke 16:18; cf. 1 Cor 7:10–16).

In the United States of America, for example, surveys place the current divorce rate at about 40 percent among the general population and 20 percent among Catholics. Interestingly enough, these rates are significantly lower, approximately 10 to15 percent, than they were ten years ago. The reason? Marriage has fallen into such disfavor that many couples elect to live in sin, either temporarily or permanently. Many young adults engage in a number of short-term or even long-term relationships before they marry—if they ever marry at all. Many younger and older couples decide specifically against marriage and opt to live their lives in so-called “common-law marriages.” Surely the Church must minister to the divorced—as is illustrated so well in Pope John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio (November 22, 1981; see nos. 83–84)—but the Church must continue to speak out vociferously against the breakup of marriages and, therefore, families.

                    Like divorce, artificial birth control seems to be the order of the day. On the one hand, it is utilized by those who are married, frustrating or limiting God’s plan of procreation. On the other hand, it contributes substantially to the contemporary malaise of sin by eradicating many of the consequences of immoral sexual intercourse. Both Pope Pius XI in Casti connubii (December 31, 1930) and Pope Paul VI in Humanae vitae (July 25, 1968) put a special emphasis on artificial birth control as a principal threat against the sanctity of marriage and the family in modern times.

Pius was clear: “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin” (CC, no. 56). Paul was prescient when he noted that artificial birth control would “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards” (HV, no. 17). There is no doubt that such unfaithfulness is on the rise as moral virtue declines. Indeed, artificial birth control has opened the way so wide and facilitated such a lowering of moral principles that Paul’s words seem but modest and understated.

In order to defend the family, the Church must be vigilant in proclaiming the sanctity, inviolability, and permanence of marriage, as well as the importance of leaving the marital act open to life. The aforementioned threats to the family are best met by remembering what the family is, namely, the cornerstone of society and the domestic Church (Lumen gentium, no. 11; FC, no. 21), without which man is bereft of his natural and supernatural community.