Marriage, Children, Loss of Faith - Look to the Holy Family
In defense of families and children....A sermon from my pastor, Fr. Leonard Klein -
Today’s sermon pivots on two German last names.
Today’s sermon pivots on two German last names.
The first is Kohler. That is literally a household name. The Kohler Company makes plumbing fixtures of all sorts. In November, while visiting a sister-in-law, I had the opportunity of visiting their museum in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. A plumbing museum may seem like an odd thing, but it was very interesting and full of attractive things.
One part of the museum dealt with the history of the company, and I noticed a number of ads from the 1940’s and 1950’s. They featured a lot of mothers and children. The target was definitely families.
In another part of the museum you could watch a series of contemporary TV ads. They were superbly produced and they were hilarious. But there were no children in sight.
Elsewhere the Kohler Company had turned artists and designers loose with what looked like an unlimited checkbook to design the most luxurious and sybaritic bathrooms you could imagine. None seemed to envision the presence of children.
The change over a few decades was stunning. Adults and their desires were now the entire focus. Children seemed to have vanished from the landscape.
And that leads me to the second German last name of the day: Eberstadt, first name, Mary. She is a serious Catholic writer on matters of culture, theology and politics, and not long ago I read her latest book: “How the West really lost God.” In it she challenges the idea the common idea that many people have stopped getting married and having children because they had already lost faith. In that theory the decline of religion and the rise of secularization preceded the decline of the family.
She acknowledges some truth in that theory, but the point of the book is that there is considerable evidence that it goes the other way as well, that is, when people stop marrying and having children, they lose faith. The weakening of family formation, she argues, is a large part of what is undermining the life of faith in the western world.
When people do not have children, the future becomes less important. They have no one to whom to pass on any transcendent values. There is a loss of purpose and a loss of future. The focus of life shifts to indulgence, enjoyment, and doing what you want here and now. Life becomes all about adult preferences and pleasures – as in those ads and bathrooms at Kohler.
Now at this point I need to mention a few things. I am not claiming that everyone is called to marriage and parenthood. That is not the case, and Catholics should know that very well – we actually have a place for celibacy and are able to assign great value on the single life.
Also because the church is “a field hospital for sinners”, as Pope Francis likes to say, we can respond with grace and compassion to marital failure, a harsh reality for many in this culture which does so little to support marriage and family.
But even when these things have been made clear, it is still the case that when cultures start to reject marriage and children, loss of faith and all sorts of decline follow. All sorts of decline – like the acute fiscal pressure on the Social Security system because there are not enough young people to enter the workforce to sustain it.
And there is one more point Mary Eberstadt makes, a point that has great relevance for this Solemnity of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. She notes that the Gospel is told in part as the story of a family. This is especially the case at this season, but when family formation subsides, the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph don’t make the same kind of sense. Fewer and fewer people understand the context in which the Son of God took on our humanity. An experience of family is an important ingredient in spreading the Gospel. The breakdown of the family makes our work harder.
Today we celebrate the Holy Family, and the Holy Family reminds us and the world that children are a source of endless enchantment and beauty. Jesus is no ordinary child to be sure – yet every child is an infusion of life and hope into the world
Children also teach us the value of sacrifice – any family, the Church, and any sane society will go to great lengths for the good of the children. This may involve suffering. Mary is reminded at the presentation of Jesus in the temple that a sword will pierce her heart. Joseph must move the family from Nazareth to Bethlehem and then to Egypt and back again.
We can see the importance of children; we can see the dangers our culture presents to the family, to children and to the future. But what shall we do?
First of all, we keep our eyes on the beautiful image of the Holy Family held out in front of us throughout this season. We don’t all have children. We won’t all have children. But we are all part of the human family for which God sent his Son. Our investment in the family is huge. The value of the Holy Family for us all and for the human family is infinite. And then there are some important additional things we can do.
We can celebrate, encourage, and praise marriage and child-rearing among our friends, family and acquaintances. When I taught Pre-Cana classes, the diocesan marriage preparation program, a few years ago I would say to the couples in front of me that no one reaches my age and says I wish I hadn’t had so many children. I have yet to find someone who will say that.
We need to understand church teaching and natural law on marriage: Marriage is a conjugal, permanent, exclusive union of a man and a woman precisely because one of its two purposes is bringing about the next generation.
Marriage is not a contract certifying love between two or more adults. The doctrine of marriage will not change no matter how many courts and legislatures abandon its natural meaning and purpose. We cannot as Christians define marriage merely in terms of adult preferences and choices.
Also we need to remember that Marriage is a Sacrament. If God calls you to it, it serves to sanctify your pilgrimage on earth and bring you to heaven. And it sanctifies and strengthens the whole Church. Marriage and Ordination are sometimes called the sacraments of growth because they serve to nourish the life of the whole Church. Just as not everyone is ordained – that would be a very bad idea – so not everyone in the Church is married. But those two Sacraments benefit the whole people of God.
We need to contradict the nonsense about overpopulation. The simple truth is that virtually every developed country and an increasing number of underdeveloped countries (including Islamic ones) are at risk of depopulation because of rapidly declining birthrates. Russia is losing a half million people a year because of the excess of deaths over births.
Single or married, parents or not, the simple truth is that we all benefit from marriage and the family.
Don’t make the mistake of the admen and artists at Kohler. Life it not just about adults getting to do whatever they want . . . . That’s not why God has given us life; it is not why the Word became flesh. We are called to the abiding joy of commitment to the generations after us. Marriage and the family are given to us in our different conditions and circumstances for our good – whether we are married or parents or not.
We all need the family to sustain faith, as we need children to sustain the world. And it was through a family that God came to the world for our salvation. So we thank God this day for the gift of family but most of all for the gift of the Holy Family.
The family is in crisis, to be sure; we deal with it first and foremost by turning our eyes to the Holy Family.