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Books blog: Revisiting St John Paul II’s dense but magisterial reflection on the family

A group of Cuban children sing for Pope John Paul II in 1998 (CNS)

I have just been re-reading St John Paul II’s Letter to Families, his reflections on the grandeur of marriage and family life, with its foreword by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. It has been republished by the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a project of Sophia Institute Press and founded in 2013 “to renew and rebuild Catholic culture through services to Catholic education.”

The project strives to “provide materials and programmes that are at once enlightening to the mind and ennobling to the heart, faithful and complete…” and suggests that if readers know of Catholic teachers needing support in their vocation to educate young people in the Faith they should direct them to the Institute’s website.

The late Pope’s letter was written in 1994 to coincide with the UN’s Year of the Family. In reading it, two things strike me: the first is that St John Paul II is never an easy read; he writes as a trained philosopher and his prose is dense and closely reasoned, so he can be difficult to follow. The second is that despite this drawback (for me, at least), the Church’s magisterial teaching on marriage and family comes across for what it is: beautiful, good and true, designed to appeal to the highest instincts and aspirations of men and women and to encourage them to see marriage and raising a family as a vocation of dignity and nobility.

Just to highlight a few of its themes – which should come as no surprise – the Holy Father takes as his text the biblical words in Genesis: that from the very beginning of human life “male and female he created them”; the indissoluble nature of marriage; that there are two dimensions to conjugal union, the unitive and the procreative and that they cannot be artificially separated; that marriage is a covenant whereby “a man and a woman establish… a partnership of their whole life”; and that motherhood implies fatherhood and fatherhood implies motherhood.

At the time the encyclical was written, the whole of the secular world, though rejecting the Catholic teaching on contraception, would have agreed that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. In the intervening 21 years western society has “moved on” as they say. As Pia de Solenni STD, Dean of the Augustine Institute, writes in the introduction, today “the family faces an unprecedented onslaught of criticism and abuse. The confusion surrounding the October 2014 Synod on the Family in Rome only confirmed the widespread lack of understanding of the Catholic view of marriage and family, and even of human nature.”

Much has been written about the different views and factions evident at last year’s October Synod, not least the division in the Church between those faithful to the Church’s magisterial teaching and those who want to change it. The recent letter signed by nearly 500 priests in this country, confirming their loyalty to Church teaching on marriage simply reflects this on-going tension. The news in America of a Catholic backlash against Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco for his insistence that Catholic teachers in the Catholic schools in his archdiocese teach the Faith is even more glaring evidence of the struggle – to the death, one might say – between the Church and the world, which is being played out in her own ranks. Popular Catholic blogger Fr John Zuhlsdorf has even taken the step of asking his readers to fast, pray and give alms in order that Archbishop Cordileone will prevail over the furious response to his reasonable (and even a few decades ago, unnecessary) requirement that Catholic teachers should teach what the Church has always believed and taught.

At the conclusion to its reprint of the Letter to Families, the Sophia Institute for Teachers includes some “study questions”. One of them goes: “Contemporary Western culture has separated radically the human body and the human spirit, to the point at which the two are often understood as wholly separate realities that have nothing to do with each other. Does this common mentality affect the way Catholics tend to think about the body, sexuality and marriage? Why and how does this tendency need to be corrected?”

It strikes me that this is the key question that the October 2015 Synod on the Family will need to address. As well as praying and fasting for Archbishop Cordileone we need to start doing the same for the Synod.