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The Family in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
By Cardinal William J. Levada

Valencia (Spain), July 7, 2006


I want to express my great gratitude to the Pontifical Council for the Family for the gift of this International Theological-Pastoral Congress on the Family. In particular, I thank His Eminence Cardinal Alfonso Lopes Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council, for his vision and preparatory work that has brought about this encounter of faith to reflect on the many aspects of the family that are being presented in this program. And I especially thank him for asking me to participate by offering this reflection on the theme “The Family in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

When the Cardinal asked me to speak on this theme, I accepted readily, since the Catechism has been a familiar topic for me over the past 20 years. I hope I can offer you, my audience here this morning, something useful at this Congress whose overall theme is “The Transmission of the Faith in the Family.” In order to fulfill the task assigned to me, I have decided to proceed in three steps.

First, I want to speak about the Catechism itself, not only because I recognize that a book that was born 14 years ago may not be well known to everyone in my audience, but also because I had to try to answer the question, “Why should people who are concerned about the family and involved in the Church’s family apostolate today need to hear about the Catechism?”

Second, I want to tell you how the family fits into the doctrine of the faith of the Church: for that is what the Catechism was designed to present, a comprehensive look at what we believe as Catholics.- or stated another way, what the Catholic Church believes, and like a loving Mother invites her sons and daughters, children and adults, to believe and live.

Third, I hope to show that the Catechism itself, and in a new way the just-published new Compendium of the Catechism, should be an indispensable piece of furniture in the home of each Catholic family, in order to fulfill the mission it has in God’s plan as “domestic church.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Pope Paul VI called the Second Vatican Council the “catechism of our time.” Its sixteen documents provided such a rich treasury of teachings that it is no wonder that, at the end of the Council 41 years ago, the Church’s primary task became the study and application of these teachings. The principal themes of the Council, as expressed in its four constitutions on Scripture, liturgy, the Church, and relating the Gospel to the modem world, presented a major challenge: how to integrate these new insights into the faith and life of the Catholic Church at the end of the second millennium of Christianity.

In 1985, 20 years after the end of the Council, Pope John Paul II called an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to evaluate how the Council was being implemented. One of the major conclusions of this Synod was the recognition of the need for a new Catechism that would help to overcome the confusion caused by divergent interpretations of the Council that were being offered. It was envisioned that such a catechism would aid the Church throughout the world in her work of evangelization and catechesis by providing a common language of the Catholic faith. Here is the recommendation the Synod made to Pope John Paul II: “Very many have expressed the desire that a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals be composed, that it might be, as it were, a point of reference for the catechisms or compendiums that are prepared in various regions. The presentation of doctrine must be biblical and liturgical. It must be sound doctrine suited to the present life of Christians.”

In order to accomplish this task, Pope John Paul appointed a Commission of 12 Cardinals and Bishops, and named Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to be its President. The Commission in turn appointed an Editorial Committee of bishops to oversee the drafting process. It was a great privilege for me to serve as one of these seven bishops, together with Archbishop Estepa Llaurens, then head of the Military Ordinariate in Spain who contributed so much to the composition of the catechism over the subsequent seven years.

Early on it was decided to adopt as a plan or framework inspired by the great tradition of catechisms, in particular the Catechism of the Council of Trent (also known as “The Roman Catechism”), prepared by a Commission headed by the great Archbishop of Milan, St. Charles Borromeo, and published by Pope St Pius V in 1566, This plan builds catechesis on four “pillars” that contain the Church’s doctrine of the faith: the first pillar is the baptismal profession of faith, the Creed; the second pillar presents the sacraments of faith (the Church’s liturgy and worship); the third pillar contains teaching about the life of faith, using the Commandments as its structure; the fourth pillar focuses on the prayer of the believer, especially the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father). In this four-part structure the Catechism presents the faith of the Church in a comprehensive and integrated manner.

The new “Catechism of the Second Vatican Council” went through several drafts, and was subsequently sent to the Bishops of the whole world for comments. Over 25,000 individual amendments or recommendations were sent back to the Committee! I mention this to illustrate how the Commission sought to be faithful to its charge to ensure that this Catechism represented the teaching of the Bishops of the Church, and of the Second Vatican Council. History shows that this was accomplished in a way that expressed both the collegiality of the Bishops and the catholicity of the Church. When it was finally completed, Pope John Paul II promulgated the Catechism with his Apostolic Constitution Fidei Deposition, signed on October 11,1992, the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope John Paul II highlighted the importance of the Catechism as an instrument of renewal and unity in the Church: “In reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church we can perceive the wonderful unity of the mystery of God, his saving will, as well as the central place of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, sent by the Father, made man in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be our Savior. Having died and risen, Christ is always present in his Church, especially in the sacraments; he is the source of our faith, the model of Christian conduct, and the Teacher of our prayer.” He called the Catechism a “service” offered to the whole Catholic Church by the Successor of Peter: “the service, that is, of supporting and confirming the faith of all the Lord Jesus’ disciples (cf. Lk 22:32), as well as of strengthening the bonds of unity in the same apostolic faith.”

I want to emphasize the two-fold aspect of the unity about which the Holy Father spoke. The Catechism aids the Church in ensuring the unity of faith of the Church for which Jesus himself prayed at the Last Supper, “That they may all be one, Father, as we are one” (John 17:21-22), a unity that transcends the enormous differences of culture and language and allows the Church to be sign and sacrament of the unity of the human family created by one God and Father. This unity of the Church today is accompanied by an awareness of the unity the Christian faithful today have with their fellow Christians back to the time of Apostles. The Catechism presents the testimonies to the Apostolic faith from the first generation of Christians until today in the words of Scripture, of the Fathers of the Church of the great Patristic period, of the ecumenical Councils and Church Magisterium through the centuries, of the great theologians, and of the saints and mystics. In these testimonies we hear the echoes of the perennial faith of the Church throughout the ages.

The importance attached to the Catechism can be understood from the solemn affirmation Pope John Paul gave when he ordered its publication by virtue of his apostolic authority, calling the Catechism “a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be - he went on to say - a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion. May it serve the renewal to which the Holy Spirit ceaselessly calls the Church of God, the Body of Christ, on her pilgrimage to the undiminished light of the Kingdom!”

The Catechism’s Teaching on the Family

The family is often called the principal cell or building block of human society. Since we are used to thinking about the family as the place where our Catholic faith is handed on and lived, we sometimes pay too little attention to how the family itself is related to the plan of God revealed in Scripture for the sake of our salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Fourth Commandment

The teaching of the Church about the family is found in the Catechism in the third “pillar” or part, which speaks about how we live “in Christ,” that is, about how what God has revealed in Jesus and given to us in Baptism should be put into practice in our lives by seeking to do what is good and avoid what is evil. This section on the moral life uses as its framework the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, and reaffirmed by Jesus, who said, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). Jesus’ teaching about the two great commandments of love - to love God above all things, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself - sums up the Ten Commandments: the first three concern love of God, and the other seven the love of neighbor.

The Fourth Commandment tells us, “Honor your father and your mother.” The Catechism begins its presentation of this commandment by showing us what the tradition of the Church has understood these brief words to contain: “The fourth commandment opens the second table of the Decalogue. It shows us the order of charity. God has willed that, after him, we should honor our parents to whom we owe life and who have handed on to us the knowledge of God. We are obliged to honor and respect all those whom God, for our good, has vested with his authority” (2197). Here we see in concrete form the passage from the “love of God” to the “love of neighbor,” beginning with the family which the Catechism calls “the original cell of social life” (2207).

“The fourth commandment is addressed expressly to children in their relationship to their father and mother, because this relationship is the most universal,” the Catechism states. But the fourth commandment also “concerns the ties of kinship between members of the extended family. It requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders and ancestors. Finally, it extends to the duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it.” Furthermore, “this commandment includes and presupposes the duties of parents, instructors, teachers, leaders, magistrates, those who govern, all who exercise authority over others or over a community of persons” (2199).

In today’s world, where the framework for public discourse is too often focused on the rights and freedom of the individual, the Catechism looks at the individual as a member of a family, and at the family in relation to society; it speaks about the duties of children and of parents, of citizens and of civil authorities. It emphasizes the social dimension of human existence, and thus provides an important antidote to an increasingly fragmented (and fundamentally anti-social) view of humanity.   The Catechism makes a significant point when it reminds us that the fourth commandment “introduces” - lays the groundwork for - the “subsequent commandments, which are concerned with particular respect for life [Do not kill], marriage [Do not commit adultery], earthly goods [Do not steal], and speech [Do not bear false witness against your neighbor].” Thus it states that the fourth commandment “constitutes one of the foundations of the social doctrine of the Church” (2198).

Marriage and Family in God’s Plan

One of the great challenges that has arisen in recent years is the attempt in secularized societies to change laws which, over centuries, even millennia, have recognized the plan of God for marriage and family as founded in the created order, thus constituting the common patrimony of humanity governed by the natural law. This understanding is confirmed by the revelation God made about creation, marriage and family, starting with the very first chapters of the Book of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible. There we read, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1: 26-28). And we also read, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2: 18,21-24).

Here is the basis for the teaching of the Church which the Catechism presents when it quotes the Second Vatican Council: “God himself is the author of marriage” [GS 48]. The Catechism goes on to say, “The vocation of marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (1603).   And it further states, “In creating man and woman, God instituted the human family and endowed it with its fundamental constitution” (2203).

For this reason the Church has always taught the importance of the family as the basic unit of the social fabric of society itself: “Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society” (2207). The family, therefore, as an “institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it” (2202). Since marriage and family have their basis in the created order, confirmed by the explicit Revelation of God, the Church necessarily opposes the adoption of human laws that would abandon or overturn this order, such as is the case with laws that would recognize same-sex or polygamous “marriage.” Human laws and judicial decisions that fail to respect this fundamental and perennial teaching are contrary to God’s law, and are rightly considered unjust.

In circumstances such as these, it may be useful to recall the teaching of the Catechism about the duties of citizens under the Fourth Commandment, with regard to unjust laws: “The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. ‘Render therefore to Caesar the tings that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Mt 22:21) [As Peter and the apostles responded to the High Priest and his Council in Jerusalem,]’ We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29)” (2242).

It is particularly important today that spouses and parents know the teaching of the Church on marriage and family in order to make their rightful contribution to the political life of the society in which they live. It is part of the vocation of the Christian family to assist in the creation of a society of just laws (cf. Familiaris Consortio n. 44). For this task the Catechism will be an indispensable help.

The Catechism in the Life of the Family

The Catechism tells us that “In the creation of the world and of man, God gave the first and universal witness to his almighty love and his wisdom, the first proclamation of the 4plan of his loving goodness,’ which finds its goal in the new creation in Christ” (315). Here we see the fundamental truth that, in the plan of God, creation itself is ordered to redemption. Thus the family as a created reality finds its full meaning as a Christian family, as a community for whom Jesus Christ himself is Savior. Jesus makes of this community, this family, an instrument of his own saving, redeeming work on behalf of humanity. The Catechism points to this reality when it adopts the teaching of the Apostolic Constitution on the Family [Familiaris Consortio, n. 21]: “‘The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church’” (2204). To see the family as the Church “in miniature,” and to call the Church itself the “family of God,” are ideas that have been present from the early centuries of Christianity.

St. Paul first taught about the mystery of the Church in reference to marriage and family when he wrote his Letter to the Ephesians. in which he urges that the relationship between husbands and wives imitate the self-sacrificing love of Christ for the Church. The family has a high vocation in the Church. The Catechism says that because it is a “communion of persons,” it is “a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” In addition to this Trinitarian image, “in the procreation and education of children it reflects the Father’s work of creation.” Moreover, the Christian family “is called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Christ,” and it “has an evangelizing and missionary task” (2205).

Living out the vocation of a “domestic church” is surely no easy task. But for this reason I want to reverse the title assigned to me in this talk, “The Family in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” to suggest that the Catechism can be a most useful tool for the family in accomplishing its vocation and mission.

In the first place, the Catechism itself has been adapted to serve families in a more effective way. The newly-published “Compendium” of the Catechism has presents the teaching of the Catechism in a briefer, question and answer format to make it more accessible. Its presentation is drawn from the Catechism, and refers to it for a fuller treatment of each question. As such, it lends itself to families in particular as a means for parents, who are the “first catechists” of their children. And as parents and children grow in their appreciation for the beauty of God’s plan of salvation, and see its truth more clearly, they will be better prepared not only for the living witness they are called to give as Christian families, but also for the transformation of the social order. Thus they will be able to be ever more effective collaborators with their fellow citizens in the creation of a just world order.

In addition, the Catechism and its new Compendium can serve as an instrument for a more effective pastoral work on behalf of families (pastorale familiare). Today many families have found the support and Christian formation they need in one of the many new ecclesial movements that have sprung up during the past century. But too often the basic cell of Church life, the parish, has not yet responded effectively to assist families live out their high vocation in the midst of an increasingly secularized world. The Catechism and the new Compendium lend themselves as tools that can bring families together to help each other deepen their understanding of the faith, to realize the ideals contained in the virtues as a way of living “in Christ,” and to challenge each other to live out their Christian faith in love with a truly apostolic, missionary spirit.

Finally, the Catechism in the family can help every member in it realize that primary vocation that each human person has: “to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. This vocation as Jesus spoke it are the words with which the Catechism begins, and sum up its whole purpose: “Father,... this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).