Without marriage and family, no better world
I hope it goes without saying that the key to a happier world is our willingness to recognize our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. But the question arises as to how that key turns the lock in natural human terms. Well, perhaps we will not be far off the mark if we memorize this declaration: “Divorce is child abuse.”
I understand that there are some circumstances under which separation of husband and wife is the only solution for an abusive relationship (whether of spouse or children), and that there are a huge number of instances today when one of the spouses in a marriage is victimized by divorce against his or her will. So I make no judgments about any particular person, and I note that even when the family breaks down, Christ can still make us whole because, in any case, only Christ saves. Nonetheless, when a married couple has children, divorce is child abuse.
The problem, of course, runs deeper even than this simple statement, for divorce is not only child abuse but an abuse of the very institution which is, always and everywhere, the foundation of a flourishing society. Here I am referring to the family. Where you have families bonded together in love, society flourishes. Where that bond of love is continually chopped up into pieces that are either scattered or deliberately thrown away, not only do those who were once a family become deeply scarred but society as a whole begins to crumble. When people lose the nurture of the family that makes them whole—whether grandparent, mother, father or children—they are prone to find inadequate substitutes, and they have an ineluctable tendency to be overcome by sadness, anger, a sense of failure or worthlessness, and despair.
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ can compensate, of course. If we have been given the opportunity to know God, and we have turned to God in even our deepest trials, then even a natural ineluctable tendency can be transformed by grace into joy. But even this, without human support, can be a difficult mountain to scale. Nonetheless, with grace comes an uncompromised hope, which is the only antidote to a despair that seeks to eat us alive. To understand what I am talking about, I urge you to read the gently searing account by Kerri Christopher in the February 2023 issue of First Things, Three Christmas Dinners.
Children in Scripture
By nature we are designed to find our origin, security, happiness, and fulfillment in families, and there are a thousand falsehoods generated by our contemporary paganism which undermine this design. When we add that the foundational unit of any healthy society is and must be the family, it is no surprise that in a culture that rejects the fundamental nature and goodness of men, women, children and marriage, the social order is steadily imploding. How, after all, would we define society today: A materially pampered yet deeply unhappy collection of dysfunctional individuals?
This is the disappearance of marriage and family life, and we live in an overwhelmingly selfish culture dedicated to eliminating both. To maintain the fiction that marriage and family life are not the natural foundation of human happiness, we must constantly descend to new levels of denial. Still, just as there are a hundred ways to slip into the depths of despair, there are a hundred ways in which we might be jolted back into a stronger grasp of reality. Today I choose to be jolted by taking a close look at the emphasis on one word in Sacred Scripture. It is the “C” word: Children.
The first verbal blessing by our Creator is the same one he gave to “every living creature that moves”, but he repeated it especially for us, for “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). And so God, Who is a supernatural family referring to Himself as “us” in the first chapters of Genesis (cf. 1 and 3), said, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). The same blessing—and the same commission—was repeated to Noah after the flood.
After that, there is scarcely a book in the Bible in which we do not hear about the joy and the importance of children—or the depths of the abuse of children by those who sacrifice them to Moloch in order to secure their own worldly happiness. Even in Genesis itself, the great gift of God to Abraham is the birth of a son by his wife, the elderly Sarah, so that his descendants might be as numerous as the stars of the sky or the sands of the seashore. But already in chapter 30, we find Rachel weeping for her inability to bear children, a great foreshadowing of the loss of the Holy Innocents, and even of Christ Himself. But when God finally opened her womb, she said: “God has taken away my reproach” (30:23).
In Exodus, God’s people are called “the children of Israel”. In Deuteronomy, these children are told to make known all that God has done for them to their children and their children’s children—a revelation to them and their children forever (cf., Dt 4:9, 30:2). In Judges we have another instance of God blessing and making fruitful a barren woman (13:3), as he also does for Boaz through Ruth (4:12). In Ezra, it is emphasized that the blessings of the chosen people are an inheritance for their children forever (9:12). In the Psalms, prayers of blessing emphasize the fruitfulness of bearing children (17:14), the importance of testifying to our children and to generations yet unborn (78:4-5), and the utter joy of children (113:19, 115:4).
In Proverbs we learn that a good man provides for his children (13:22) and that children have refuge in a father who fears the Lord (14:26). Yet we also quickly learn of the desolation of those whose families melt away. Isaiah prophesies a time when women will come to term but have no strength to bring forth children from their wombs (Is 37:3), and he cautions us not to bear children in vain (65:23). Jeremiah proclaims the desolation of the loss of family ties (10:20) and speaks of Rachel weeping for her children (31:15), which is also referenced in Matthew’s Gospel (2:18). Sirach warns that a man will be known by his children (11:28), and Malachi prophesies that the Messiah will turn the hearts of fathers to their children (4:6), a theme repeated in Luke’s Gospel (1:17).
We are Children of God
We must recognize that, even in the Old Testament, spiritual blessings and fidelity to the Lord are considered even greater than the gift of children (e.g., Eccles 6:3; Is 54:1). And in the New Testament, St. Matthew and St. Mark both acknowledge that in the upheaval in men’s hearts occasioned by the witness of Jesus Christ, children will turn on their parents and put them to death (Mt 10:21; Mk 13:12). Certainly, when Jesus is condemned, those who were complicit among the Jews declared, “His blood be on us and our children” (Mt 27:25)—seeking to extend not the blessings of the Exodus but the curse of infidelity through the generations. So we must not only welcome children but form and teach them well.
But there is no question that in the New Testament children are taken as an image of the simple trust with which we should respond to God—a trust the vast majority of modern men and women apparently lack today, as they seek to put immediate freedom and prosperity ahead of family life. Our Lord insists that the children must be allowed to come to Him (Mt 19:14; Mk 10:14,24; Lk 18:16). Indeed, when Our Lord laments Jerusalem’s hard-heartedness—and our own—he exclaims:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! (Lk 13:34)
He also told us that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:26), a saying which gives “Let the children come to me” a whole new meaning. And in John’s Gospel Our Lord calls His disciples, “Little children” (13:33). Indeed, this remarkable nomenclature pervades the rest of the New Testament. To the Romans, Paul wrote that we are children of God (8:6), and that all of us, Jews and Gentiles alike are children of the promise more than of the flesh (9:7-8). To the Corinthians, he stressed that parents are for their children, not the other way around (2 Cor 12:14) (which may also have meant that priests are for their people and not the other way around). To the Ephesians and the Colossians, he proclaims that we must be children of light (5:1).
Indeed, one of the main thrusts of the New Testament is to teach us to adopt some of the most important spiritual qualities of good children. In both Hebrews and the first letter of Peter we learn that, with respect to God and the authority of the Church, we must be obedient children (12:8; 1 Pet 1). But if we are not, Peter points out that we are in fact “accursed children” (2 Pet 2:14). But John, who is nearly always gentle and who lived to a very old age, calls the disciples of Christ “little children”. And he does so repeatedly.
What is the upshot of all this? Surely it is that children lie at the heart of God’s plan, for in fact the Father regards us all as His children. Surely God designed, made and engraced us with both spousal love and a sacrificial love of children very precisely in mind—a sacrificial and fruitful love which would be the foundation of not only our own families but the entire human family, and which, in the recollection that we are all God’s children, enables us to respond in the order of grace also to divine filiation through Christ and His Church.
But all self-seeking, which leads to horrific sins against marriage and family, undermines our perception of the familial nature of God Himself, His spousal relationship with the Church, and His simultaneously paternal, fraternal, and spousal relationship with His human children: That is, his astounding Trinitarian love. Again, one recognizes that marriage and family can break down in many ways without the consent of our will. But clearly that is not the dominant issue today, when an entire culture is rooted in selfishness, rejection of God, and rebellion against nature.
Despite widespread rebellion even within the Church, we did not learn this selfishness, this distortion, in Christ. But since I am not sure what more I can say about it, I will simply let St. Paul say it again:
Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ! [Eph 4:17-20]
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