The Holy See
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(Vatican, October 11-13, 2000)



We, the participants in the Theological-Pastoral Congress organized by the Pontifical Council for the Family in the framework of the Jubilee of Families in the year 2000, have met, approximately 5,000 of us, in the Paul VI Hall in the Vatican, to deal with the theme: Children, Springtime of the Family and Society.[1] In addition to the Presidents of the Bishops’ Commissions for the Family and Life, most of the Congress participants are married couples from the five continents, appointed for this event by the Bishops’ Conferences, pro-family and pro-life movements, associations and groups.  At the end of our work, we considered it useful to formulate some conclusions and recommendations which were approved by the assembly.

We are aware of the deep strength of the family based on marriage, a communion of love and life, on the threshold of the third millennium. The motto chosen by the Holy Father for the Third World Meeting with Families invited us to focus our reflections on: Children, Springtime of the Family and Society. With deep gratitude to the Pope, we welcomed his guidelines and reflected in these days on the “the joys and the hopes, the grief and the anxieties” (Gaudium et spes, n. 1) that concern children, the supreme gift (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 50) for the family and society.

We are living in an era of growing, systematic attacks on the family and life.  In this context, however, both a paralyzing pessimism and a naive, unrealistic optimism must be avoided. The tendency to doubt the institution of the family, its nature and mission, and its foundation on marriage (a union of love and life between a man and a woman) is somewhat generalized in certain very influential milieus marked by a secularized mentality. This tendency can also be seen in some national and international political organizations; it is present in important means of communications; it disturbs the economic and professional life of many and hinders our children’s perception of the reality of marriage.

The overall situation of children around the world is very far from satisfying. Many children suffer from the evils of war, poverty, sickness, child labor, abominable sexual exploitation and kidnapping, even for the purpose of supplying organs for transplants. Fertility has fallen sharply in many regions, especially where there is great wealth.  The plague of divorce is spreading to countries with a long Christian tradition. Abortion deeply wounds the soul of entire peoples and the consciences of persons. “De facto unions” constitute a grave social problem that is growing daily.  There is the risk that this state of affairs will lead our children to have doubts about themselves and their future, and contribute to a lack of confidence in their ability to love and take on marital commitments.

This crisis reveals a sickness of the spirit that has drawn away from the truth and an erroneous anthropology; moreover, it reflects an unprecedented relativism and skepticism. It shows that man is tempted to close himself to the truth about himself and about love. Before this danger, we must reaffirm our hope in the future and let ourselves be guided by the realism that springs from the Gospel and profound trust in God, without concealing the grave ills that threaten the young generations. It is precisely to disillusioned human hearts that we wish to bring a message of hope, and we address our thoughts to those who will build the world in the third millennium: our children!

Our work was divided into two principal areas: theological and pastoral. We made great reference to the resources of anthropology, sociology and the human sciences.

I. Doctrinal and Theological Contributions

A)    Anthropological and Juridical Contributions

We have turned our attention to human motherhood and fatherhood. In the conjugal communion, the reality and dignity of both are founded on divine fatherhood. The roles of fathers and mothers are complementary and inseparable; they both presume the creation of specific, interpersonal relationships between the parents and the children. Every child has a right to be born of a father and a mother joined in conjugal love.

From the beginning, motherhood implies special openness to the new person, in which the woman finds herself in sincere self-giving.[2] Motherhood is closely linked to the personal structure of the human being and the personal dimension of the gift.[3] A mother’s contribution is decisive in setting the basic foundations of a new human personality. In motherhood, women’s dignity is fulfilled in their sincere self-giving to their children. The father’s task, which is often obscured, is of great importance in the formation of the children’s personality and in the decisive choices regarding their future. The father’s presence in the home is a vital element in education because “fatherhood and motherhood presume the coexistence and interaction of autonomous subjects”.[4] This reciprocal influence of the father and the mother is manifested in the complementarity of the paternal and maternal roles in children’s up-bringing.

The family constitutes a natural reality that precedes any political organization or juridical institution.  Therefore, the originality and identity of the family based on marriage must be recognized by the political authorities.[5] Placed between the private and public spheres, the family must not be reduced to just one arbitrary contractual union among others that can be made and undone at will.  Marriage gives rise to an entirely original community, formed by a man and a woman, which affects the present and future of society. During the Congress, it was noted that there is unfortunately a tendency today both on the national and international levels to weaken rather than strengthen marriage and the family that results from it.  When the family is considered a precarious union of individuals, it becomes more and more fragile.

The spread of drugs, sexual promiscuity and other lifestyles contrary to the Gospel, which are offered to children as a liberation or expressions of modernity, are in reality a trap for many of them and disconcerting for their parents. This becomes a serious obstacle to discovering one’s moral identity.  It is necessary to deepen the family’s educational mission. To all this is often added a desolating emotional and educational deficiency on the part of many parents. Since children need affection and serenity, there is the risk that they will seek to fulfill their deep desire for happiness along erroneous and alienating roads. This danger must be prevented through dedication to a careful and precise education that entails tackling the central problem of values and, in first place, the shortcomings caused by a lack of formation in the faith.

B)    Theological and Spiritual Considerations

We have made extensive reference to the human sciences in order to understand a child’s deep aspirations better. However, it is the science of the faith that makes it possible to shed greater light on the wonderful reality of our children. Children occupy a privileged place in the family, the ecclesiola, the small church, which is the Christian family. Therefore, a substantial part of our work consisted in identifying guidelines for an evangelization of childhood. This is a difficult and urgent task in a world where educational structures are often lacking.  We have to help the young to become friends of Jesus and to make the grace of their Baptism grow. By giving witness to their self-giving to one another and to their children, parents reveal the beauty of conjugal and paternal-maternal love in which a spark of the infinite love of the Most Blessed Trinity shines through.

The family is both the subject and the object of evangelization. We recognize the task of the pastors of the Church whose role is so important in building and guiding the People of God.  In complete harmony with them, parents can carry out better their own duty to evangelize their children on whom, to a great extent, the evangelization of the family in the third millennium depends. With its roots in Baptism, the family is a school of adult Christian life. In the family Christians exercise a baptismal priesthood in a particular way. Through the sacraments of initiation, a person’s life is fully inserted into the life of the Church and the foundations of every Christian life are set. Christ acts through the sacraments and asks us to cooperate by preparing our children for these ecclesial events in life.

The family is the privileged place for the transmission of the faith, and it is also a school of prayer.  Children are called to progress in the faith and to grow in grace. Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist are very important moments in family life. The Baptism of infants manifests the gratuitousness of the grace of salvation in a particular way. Parents have the task of nourishing the life that God has entrusted to them.[6] When this life is enriched through the special power of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, it reaches its ecclesial culmination in the Eucharist. Through the power of the sacraments, the family renews in Christ the sources of its commitment, witness and apostolic life in the life of the Church. Sunday, the Lord’s day, is characterized by the grateful and effective remembrance of God’s saving acts.[7] The Word of God cannot be absent in family life. Coming together around the Word of life thus becomes a privileged occasion when the family, the domestic church, finds itself fully in the Liturgy of the Christian community.

We launch a unanimous call in this Jubilee Year 2000 to evangelization, reciprocal forgiveness, conversion and sacramental reconciliation. Without the conversion of hearts, the difficulties to which families are exposed will be accentuated, and the first victims will naturally be the children because they are the weakest and most vulnerable links in the family chain. Forgiveness within the family and between families renews the Christian spirit of fraternal love. Mutual forgiveness and humbly asking for forgiveness from Christ and the Church in the Sacrament of Reconciliation are events of grace and salvation in which the path of the family’s sanctification is realized together with its prayer life.  It is obvious that prayer life entails a very important personal aspect and always requires an ecclesial aspect.  The family, in fact, is an ecclesiola, the first place for evangelization, the domestic sanctuary, where the family prays together. In difficulties and trials, Christ is discovered and turned to as both teacher and friend.  Through the joyous witness of prayer and Christian life, the family becomes spiritual leaven for the Christian communities. Family prayer is a central aspect of its vitality which contributes to its stability. Children’s prayer, in its purity and simplicity, calls to prayer reflection that can find inspiration in the “little way” followed by Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus. Children must find their principal aid in their parents so that at the end of their adolescence, they will be capable of making a mature choice of Christian life.

II.  Concrete Situations

The doctrinal contributions provided the clarification needed for an analysis of concrete situations and plans of action. These analyses made up the second main pole of our work.

The human promotion and evangelization of children can only be carried out in the context of the culture of life, in the structure of the civilization of love. We were surprised in a positive way to see the number and the diversity of initiatives in this area. This was an occasion for us to perceive the multiform action of the Holy Spirit working in hearts and in families.

Many recent initiatives aim at gaining recognition of the dignity of motherhood which is often the victim of a cruel society or an unfavorable context. The feminism of the 70s seems to have lost its impetus today and tends to be replaced by an authentic feminism that asserts women’s rights as mothers. It also seeks recognition of the mother’s irreplaceable contribution to the common good and, at the same time, assistance for motherhood.  In brief, the new feminism asks for recognition of women’s own importance in society. “The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her ‘fulfillment’ as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the riches of femininity which she received on the day of creation and inherits as an expression of the ‘image and likeness of God’ that is specifically hers”.[8]

When in families mothers in particular do not have adequate support for their educational task, spiritual guidance or even material resources, then the cases of abortion and abandonment of the children multiply. Some women conceive children of different fathers, whom they are not able to raise, and the children are abandoned to themselves. The facts clearly show that such children are later subject to abuse, exploitation and falling into the snares of child prostitution, pornography and abhorrent pedophilia.  Moreover, the sorrowful conditions of family life caused by wars and misery are at the origin of grave and irreversible deficits in the up-bringing of children who, without the protection and guidance of the family, are left abandoned on the streets and exploited by criminals.  In this way they themselves become delinquents and even criminals, and the girls often end up on the streets and in prostitution rings. As a result, they are exposed to the risk of early pregnancy and to contracting various sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. Situations of this kind are frequent in the poor countries, but they are not absent in rich countries.  In both cases, the root cause is the same: the moral crisis that is gripping many families and the difficult situation in which parents are living.

The legal aspects of this problem are of exceptional importance. A decisive commitment is needed for the legal recognition of the rights of children.  First of all, there is the unborn child’s right to life, to which abortion and the elimination of embryos are opposed, regardless of the end which is hoped to be achieved through such destruction. The very serious offences against children’s dignity must also be stopped though appropriate legal provisions, both on the national and international levels: sexual exploitation (such as the so-called “child sex tourism”), and the violence of all kinds that is suffered by these weakest human persons who are denied protection of their most fundamental human rights. Aren’t these real and proper crimes against humanity which ought to be recognized as such and punished, not only in the place where they occur, but also in the countries of origin of the authors of these crimes?

We were moved when we learned about a series of initiatives carried out in extremely different contexts, all aimed at saving children from abandonment in cases where both parents are deceased, or where the children are “orphans of living parents”.[9]  Adoption by married couples can be a concrete testimony to solidarity and love.[10] In its gratuity and generosity, adoption is a sign that indicates how the world should welcome children.  Sterile couples who choose adoption are an eloquent sign of exemplary conjugal charity.[11] Unfortunately, many couples are tempted to use immoral techniques of artificial procreation which are part of the mentality of “a child at all costs” and “a right to a child” that goes against divine Revelation regarding procreation as a gift of God, and matrimonial sexuality as cooperation with God the Creator.[12] Responsible parenthood implies a profound relationship with the moral order established by God.[13] Mention should also be made of recent attempts to legalize adoptions by homosexual persons, and this must be strongly rejected.  It is obvious that this is not the situation for authentic up-bringing and personalizing growth. “The bond between two men or two women cannot constitute a real family, nor much less can the right be attributed to a union of this kind to adopt children without a family”.[14]  With regard to foster care and adoption, the great principle to be applied is always the child’s higher interests which much prevail over other considerations.

In considering family life, we examined the relationships between generations, “the genealogy of the person is inscribed in the very biology of generation” (Letter to Families, n. 9). Great emphasis was put on the contribution of grandparents to their grandchildren’s up-bringing.  Grandparents communicate a life and faith experience with special tenderness, and today they are often an important factor in evangelization, especially when, for various reasons, the parents’ mission to transmit the faith is not carried out.  In the transmission of values, and religious values in particular, the role of grandparents appears to be of fundamental importance in view of an educational gap in this regard.

III.  Recommendations

Children are a precious gift for the family and for humanity in all the dimensions of its human and Christian existence, and they are the hope for the future of society and the Church. Keeping this in mind, we present the following recommendations:

1.      We appeal first of all with insistence to the public authorities, both national and international to not transform children into abstract, isolated, windowless and doorless “monads” whose rights have no relation to their real situation of dependence and need for protection. It is in the family that the rights of children are respected best, in accordance with the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. The most effective way to protect children and their rights is to protect first of all the family based on marriage. At times the family is harmed by truly unjust laws and becomes the victim of unfair fiscal or housing policies that are far removed from social reality.

2.      We recommend that more requests be made to public institutions to avoid any ambiguity in the definition of the child and the family. In particular, with regard to the legal definition of a child, the rights of the child during its prenatal life must be recognized. The International Convention on the Rights of Children also invites such recognition when it states that because of their weakness, children need special protection both before and after birth.  Therefore, from the moment of conception, a human being must benefit from this protection.  The need for a complex norm to protect the various rights of the child is necessary also because of the lack of a real family policy that is fully guaranteed by law.  Moreover, efforts should be intensified to recognize the social role of the family based on marriage which is irreplaceable for the common good.

3.      We are troubled by the dramatic lack of esteem for motherhood in our societies.  It would seem that the value and dignity of women is based on their paid profession and that otherwise they do not enjoy great social consideration. The role of mothers as such must be recognized because of the real and effective service they render to society.  Motherhood is not just a job comparable to many other praiseworthy professions; it is much more: it is a life lived at the service of a vocational task of the greatest importance for individual persons, for the family and the whole of society.  Recognition of women’s role in society should not be considered a conquest when it goes to the detriment of their maternal mission (cf. Laborem exercens, n. 19 and Mulieris dignitatem, n. 18).

4.      It is necessary to heighten awareness regarding the importance of the father’s role in the family’s educational mission. This strengthens and integrates the mother’s role in full cooperation for the children’s development.  This role must surely be aided by educational structures, but it can never be adequately replaced.  The father’s role is central in family life.  To belittle the father’s specific task is to destroy the children’s identity as future spouses and parents.  The fear of transmitting life also finds an accomplice and a collaborator in the loss of the father’s function.

5.      With regard to the State’s protection of the family, the true interest of the State coincides with that of the family and of children.  In fact, it is first of all in the family where human capital is formed on all levels: i.e., that marvelous resource which is the human person educated to a sense of responsibility and a job well done. This is what Pope John Paul II states in the Encyclical Centesimus annus: “The first and fundamental structure for ‘human ecology’ is the family, in which man receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness” (n. 39).

6.      The dignity of every child also becomes a pressing appeal to the Christian communities, especially to the parishes, to follow the families closely that have handicapped children. The gift of these children should be recognized by the whole Christian community as an inheritance from Christ on the Cross so that these families, in Christian charity, will be encouraged and helped.  A specialized pastoral care is both necessary and urgent in order to teach courageously to discover a gift of God in every child.

7.      The call to conversion, albeit fundamental, cannot be separated from educational and political commitment. All Christian educational institutions are encouraged to review and improve their role from the dual perspective of parents and children. Contemporary pedagogues unanimously agree that the integral education of children is inseparable from the on-going education of parents. The poverty of families conditions the quality of education and makes it difficult; therefore, any project for improving education must also take the families’ economic level into consideration.  On the other hand, however, while economic difficulties can certainly condition the possibilities for good formation, this cannot be a reason to impede poor families from having children and benefiting from the qualified educational contributions transmitted through Christian values.

IV.   Conclusion

We concluded the Congress filled with hope, in the framework and spirit of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. On the threshold of the third millennium, it is certain that families tend to put themselves on the defensive because they are committed in some countries and on various fronts, to fight in order to keep their social recognition. However, it is in this family –which some would like to see marginalized as something obsolete – that children come into the world, and it is in this family that new-born children find the best conditions for their development. Children represent the springtime, something that flourishes, something new. They are heralds of a promise: the renewal of the world in and through the family. Our children, the springtime of the family and society, are always a sign of hope for the world and for the Church.

[1] This Theological-Pastoral Congress is inscribed in the context of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 and the Third World Meeting of the Holy Father with Families, following the two preceding World Meetings: the first in Rome in 1994, and the second in Rio de Janeiro in 1997.  The theme of the Congress that preceded the First Meeting was: The Family, Heart of the Civilization of Love; the theme of the second Meeting in 1997 was: The Family, Gift and Commitment, Hope for Humanity.

[2] Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, n. 24.

[3] Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, n. 18.

[4] JOHN PAUL II, Gratissimam sane (Letter to Families), n. 16.

[5] Cf. Charter of the Rights of the Family, Preamble, B,D.

[6] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1250-1251.

[7] Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Letter Dies Domini, 31-5-1998.

[8] JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, n. 10.

[9] JOHN PAUL II, Gratissimam sane (Letter to Families), n. 14.

[10] Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Evangelium vitae, n. 93.

[11] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 2373-2379.

[12] Cf. Ibid., n. 2377.

[13] Cf. PAUL VI, Encyclical Humanae vitae, n. 10.

[14] JOHN PAUL II, Angelus, 20-2-1994.