LOVE AND THE FAMILY IN TODAY'S WORLD
by Cormac Burke
The Pope's 1994 "Letter to Families" should not be quickly
forgotten. It passes a strong judgment about the modern world:
"Our society is a , and is creating profound
distortions in man" (no. 20).The diagnosis could scarcely be more
disturbing; and yet is accompanied by deep encouragement and
First, the sickness consists in the almost total loss of the marks of
a "civilization of love," which is how the Pope characterizes a
civilization that is truly human. We are living instead, he says, in
"a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of 'things'
and not of 'persons,' a civilization in which persons are used in the
same way as things are used" (no. 13).
In society then, and in man, something is seriously wrong. Here the
force of the Pope's diagnosis is matched by the strength of his
optimism. Convinced that the sickness is not due to structures or
impersonal forces, but comes from within man himself, he is just as
convinced that one also finds the basic dispositions and resources
within man to bring about an awareness of the pathology, to provoke a
desire for a cure and, not without God's help, to achieve that cure.
Man, despite himself, is made for truth and goodness. Deep in his
heart, he is more attracted by them-by their beauty and
splendour-than by lies and selfishness. That is the underlying
conviction of all of John Paul II's teaching. ,
for instance, is a powerful call to return to the quest for the
truth, to a hunger for the splendor which it emanates. If one does
turn away from the truth, one loses the ability to discover goodness,
the sort of goodness our hearts are made for; and then one is in
danger of ending up in a life without love.
Today therefore a critical pathology is threatening love: love which
has to be the very dynamism of our being, and which can nevertheless
be choked out of us and killed by self-seeking. This is the sickness
gripping Western societies, because true human health can only be
present in persons who are able to love; and we are forgetting how to
love, forgetting perhaps most of all that we have to ,
or despairing of our ability to do so.
Nothing so destroys happiness as skepticism about the presence or
possibility of love, doubting that one can give love or receive it. I
am too selfish to love others, or others are too selfish to love me.
I love no one. No one loves me. I cannot find anyone to love;
therefore others are not lovable. No one loves me; therefore I am not
lovable. If a person cannot fight off such temptations-and they are
strongly present in the hearts of many people today-the final outcome
may be suicide.
Despite the basic obstacle to love found in personal
selfishness-present in all of us-love in normal circumstances has
always found certain natural and strong supports for its development.
The newness in the pathology affecting modern society is that these
natural supports themselves, of which marriage and family life are
the chief, are in danger of death.
In calling us into existence, God's plan was that we should be
conceived and grow in love; that our life should be matured in a
particular school of love which is the family. God instituted the
family to be the first place where love is naturally learned and from
which it can spread out to others. So, through marriage and the
family God wishes to send love, and with it goodness, into the world.
Whether life for each individual, and for society, turns out to be
good or bad, positive or negative, rich in love or dwarfed by
selfishness, depends fundamentally on the family. Family quality and
family experience are vital if we are to have healthy individuals and
a healthy society where, despite the presence of evil, good is even
more strongly present. One of the most forceful paragraphs in the
Pope's Letter states: "the family is placed at the center of the
great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between
love and all that is opposed to love. To the family is entrusted the
task of striving, first and foremost, .... Every family unit needs to make these forces their own so
that . . .'the family be strong with the strength of God' . . ." (no.
If we examine God's plan further, we can say that the family has such
strength because it is-it should be-that totally special place where
no one is unloved, not even the most unlovable. Parents tend to love
of their children, even and especially the worst. Then the
children learn that there is a love which is not conditioned on
merit, and is not withdrawn because of defects. Children who have
grown up in a family like that, and so have experienced being
unconditionally loved, are in a good position to measure up to the
challenge of love, inside and outside the family.
If children normally do learn to love, it is fundamentally because
they have experienced within the natural setting of the
family. St. Thomas teaches that nothing moves a person to love so
much as to know oneself loved. Children who are loved by their
parents will learn to love in return. The persevering dedication of
their parents will gradually teach them that love means giving. And,
under their parents' constant love and guidance, they too will learn
to love each other. So brothers and sisters gradually learn to be
generous among themselves, to understand, to forgive, to make up.
Then the family really becomes, as the Pope says, "the first school
of how to be human" (Letter, no. 15): a school that prepares the
children for life, in a special way for modern life, where people are
running out of patience with one another, where negative judgments
are rife, where other persons' defects become an obsession, and
forgiveness a rarity, where meanness and intolerance seem to be
gaining acceptance as a code of social behavior. Here one sees the
colossal privilege of the task of parents: not only to give life, but
also to teach love. One could even say without exaggeration that
their mission is to save love, through a work of incarnation that
humanizes it for their children, so that it is not a mere word for
them, but a reality truly present in their daily lives.
If so many families today are no longer the school of love they were
meant to be, it is almost always because the founders of each family,
the husband and wife, have not well established their own initial
love. Families are not always schools of love; they are as parents
make them. Parents will not give unconditioned love to their children
unless they have been trying to give it to each other.
True love is demanding
Reflections such as these explain why so much of the present
pontificate has centered on a clear and positive exposition of God's
plan for human sexuality, and in particular for marriage and the
family, which are so threatened today, and without whose stability
society can never be Christian or even human.
The Pope's Letter is realistic about this threat; though, as we have
noted, it is also deeply optimistic about God's providential designs.
It is interesting to link the Letter with the ideas of another great
exponent of marriage and the family, the Founder of Opus Dei; for in
Blessed Josemaria Escriva's message one also finds an attractive and
powerful optimism about the beauty of married and family life, when
lived according to the plans of God.
Self-seeking is incompatible with true love, which is a call to come
out of self: to give, not to seek, self. Love therefore is a
challenge; it is never an easy option. "Love is demanding," the Pope
says, and goes on: "Nowadays people need to rediscover this demanding
love, for it is the truly firm foundation of the family" (no. 14).
The Founder of Opus Dei too was well aware that love, just as
happiness, is demanding. A constantly recurring theme in his
preaching is that happiness-on the human level too-is the consequence
of dedication and self-forgetfulness. In one of his books, he writes:
"Only if a person forgets himself and gives himself to God and to
others, in marriage as well as in any other aspect of life, can he be
happy on earth, with a happiness that is a preparation for, and an
anticipation of, the joy of Heaven." Elsewhere he insists,
"Marriage demands a lot of sacrifice; but what well-being, peace and
consolation it provides. And if it does not work out so, then the
spouses are going about their marriage in the wrong way."
To love a person truly is to want his or her good. This no doubt
includes wanting the other person to be better, but it must begin by
loving him or her as he or she ; and-at least in
marriage- by being prepared to love the other as he or she
; otherwise it is not a real person one professes
to love, nor a real marital commitment one makes in promising
fidelity "for better or worse."
Mutual fidelity is easily lived as long as love is kept alive; it can
come to appear as an impossible burden if love is neglected and
gradually let die. Blessed Josemaria often dwelt on this point, and
on the importance of the little things which show and nourish love.
He had original and characteristic ways of advising couples, telling
wives, for instance, that they should maintain themselves attractive
in their dress and person; they have an obligation towards their
husband to do so. "Your husband is delighted when he sees you keeping
yourself beautiful for him. Besides, it's your duty to do so, for you
are his. And then he will keep himself strong and clean for you,
because he is yours."
That spouses must always love one another "as sweethearts," was a
phrase habitually on Msgr. Escriva's lips. They must know how to keep
coming back to that ideal-filled love of their courtship and of the
early years of married life. "It would be to have a poor concept of
marriage and of human affection to think that when one runs into
difficulties, love and happiness have come to an end. It is precisely
then, when the real nature of feelings appear, that self-donation and
tenderness find their roots and are shown in a genuine and deep
affection which is more powerful than death."
The challenges of love
Normally two people marry because they have "fallen in love" with one
another. But a successful and happy marriage does not depend just on
falling in love, but above all on "standing" in love. To fall in love
is easy; to stand in love is not.
The romantic process which usually inspires the decision to marry has
its own peculiar characteristics. Filled with feeling, it tends to
idealize the other person, exaggerates virtues and plays down or
fails to see his or her faults; love indeed "is blind." What is
peculiar about this process is that it would seem to be a deliberate
design of Nature: that "romance," strong in feeling and weak in
perception, should easily lead people to want to bind themselves
together for life. In this, Nature is not playing an unfair trick,
but rather marking the prelude to a deeper plan: that later on, as
romance fades and personal defects come more to the foreground,
spontaneous love has to mature into something more deeply understood
and willed. That is when the spouses should understand that they have
not yet truly learned to love; and that if they don't learn, they
will not stand together.
Thus we read in the Pope's Letter: "Love is not a utopia: it is given
to mankind as a task to be carried out with the help of divine grace"
(no. 15). The Holy Father speaks of "the dangers faced by love," and
adds: "Here one thinks first of all of selfishness . . ." (no. 14).
How true this is. All of us are made for love; and yet all are dogged
by selfishness. Hence comes the constant struggle of life.
Blessed Josemaria constantly preached that pride is the worst form of
selfishness, and therefore also the greatest enemy of love. If pride
and selfishness are not fought, they destroy love and unity and
happiness, and place the soul in eternal danger. Humility is one of
the essential weapons for the fight: the humility of constantly
asking pardon of God for one's personal sins; and in married life of
asking one's partner for forgiveness- even if one thinks he or she is
mainly to blame.
Msgr. Escriva knew how to help people realize that if there are
arguments or quarrels in marriage, not just one of the spouses but
both are to blame; and they ought therefore to ask each other
mutually for forgiveness. "Since we are human, some times there may
be a row; but not often. And afterwards, both should acknowledge that
they were wrong, and ask one another: forgive me!"
Loving defective persons
True love, therefore, has to be strong enough to embrace what can
pose the greatest danger to married union: the defects which each
spouse is inevitably going to discover in the other. Here we touch on
a very major point in the spiritual message of Blessed Josemaria.
What encouragement he gave with his constant insistence that God
loves us with our defects; not because of our defects, but
them! We all have defects, and the moment comes when we discover
them, at times in surprising strength. To find ourselves rejected by
others because of those defects produces a crisis: of pride and self-
justification, or of despair. Knowing that one is loved with one's
defects can then become a matter of salvation.
If God loves us so, Christians are called to love in the same way.
That this has a special application to married life is obvious and
elementary, and yet it is forgotten by so many. Blessed Josemaria
understood that this is a basic condition of true human love, and was
firm and constant in his teaching that real and lasting married
happiness depends on this: being generous, humble and persevering
enough to learn to love a defective spouse, being oneself a spouse
full of defects.
"I congratulate those of you who are married. I would advise you not
to spoil your love, to try to be always young, to keep yourselves
entirely one for the other, to learn to love each other so much that
you love your partner's defects, so long as they do not offend God.
Neither of you has the right to complain about the other! If you
complain, then you don't love each another enough, because you will
always have defects. I have defects, despite my years, and I continue
to fight against them. You must do the same."
Talking with a married couple he would often ask, perhaps beginning
with the wife, "Do you love your husband?" "Of course," she would
reply, "Do you love him very much?" " much!" "Do you love him
with his defects?" If there were a moment's hesitation at this, he
would add: "because if you don't, you don't love him." Then he would
ask the same of the husband.
Love, generosity and children
The Pope, while insisting on the beauty of married and family love,
speaks of the dangers threatening it, and the challenges it must rise
to. We have noted how he mentions selfishness as the first among "the
dangers faced by love." He goes on: "Here one thinks . . . not only
of the selfishness of individuals, but also of couples . . ." (no.
14). He is speaking about the danger posed to married love not just
by reciprocal selfishness in relations between husband and wife, but
by the of both-in regard to their children: the
danger of a couple being calculating in their attitude towards
offspring. Children are properly the fruit of marital love; yet it is
a poor love that calculates. Calculated giving, especially in giving
life, seldom expresses-or strengthens-true love. Love, if true, tends
to be generous; and generosity avoids thinking in terms of
So the Pope insists that a special challenge within married life is
also posed to , regarding the possible fruit
of their love. "The children born to them-and here is the challenge-
should consolidate that covenant, enriching and deepening the
conjugal communion of the father and mother.... When this does not
occur, we need to ask if the selfishness which lurks even in the love
of man and woman as a result of the human inclination to evil is not
stronger than this love" (no. 7).
Msgr. Escriva echoes this point: "Selfishness, in any of its forms,
is opposed to that love for God which ought to rule our lives. This
is a fundamental point that must be borne in mind, with regard to
marriage and to the size of a family."
Conjugal love is naturally meant to become parental love. This is
normally a condition of its maintenance and growth. The new
says: "Married love tends
naturally to be fruitful. A child is not something external added to
the mutual love of husband and wife, but stems from the very heart of
their reciprocal self-gift, of which it is the fruit and fulfilment"
(no. 2368). What couple thinks they will not love their children-as a
gift and possession that are totally unique? And yet many today
prefer to postpone this gift, despite the guarantees it offers of
inspiring their love; and they do so in order to acquire other things
that they can never love-or be loved by- in a similar way. What has
happened to make them so blind to the importance of being loved, of
loving, of learning to love? Spousal hearts, of two people turned
just one to the other, are not likely to mature into a faithful
conjugal love, if they do not become parental hearts, turned together
towards their children (cf. Luke 1:17).
Blessed Josemaria spoke with enthusiasm of the privilege of
parenthood, especially in the case of women. In Brazil in 1974, he
said to a large group of married persons, "motherhood is something
holy and joyful, good and noble, blessed and beloved. Mothers:
congratulations!" He would constantly repeat that "motherhood
makes a woman beautiful."
A family is a school of life and of love. But if it does not have a
certain minimum vigor, normally expressed also in terms of size, it
is not likely that individualism and selfishness will have much of
their sharp edges rubbed off. In his Letter, the Pope insists:
"Families today have too little 'human' life. There is a shortage of
people with whom to create and share the common good; and yet that
good by its nature demands to be created and shared with others:
'good is diffusive of itself'" (no. 10).
According to Paul VI in (no. 10), responsible
parenthood has its first expression in the "prudent and generous
decision to have a large family." The new recalls that
"Holy Scripture and the traditional practice of the Church see in
large families a sign of the blessing of God and of the generosity of
the parents" (no. 2373). Blessed Josemaria was constant in his
defense of such families, which he saw as the natural expression and
support of conjugal love and of trust in God's fatherly providence,
as well as the place where children themselves learn tolerance,
mutual help, service and generosity, and so acquire the qualities
that can keep social life human.
He saw procreation as a privilege, a divine mission, and a pledge of
special blessings for married couples. He did not want spouses ever
to get accustomed to that privilege. He was often asked questions
like the following: "Father, I have ten children. When I tell people
this, some of them look at me as if I were a strange creature. What
do you think?" Msgr. Escriva's reply was immediate: "I think that God
has ten times shown his confidence in you. You can tell that to your
wife on my behalf. I bless her ten times with my priestly hands,
because the two of you have not placed obstacles in the way of life,
because you have received, as coming from God, what is the most
Vocation to sanctity
So far we have been speaking of married and family love on a natural
plane. We have taken up the Pope's words on the enemies to love, and
considered too the simple and optimistic psychology of Blessed
Josemaria as to how such difficulties can be overcome. All of what
we have noted can apply to any marriage. But of course neither the
Holy Father nor Msgr. Escriva presents marriage as a purely natural
ideal; nor do they suggest that its challenges and its beauty can be
achieved with natural forces alone. The Pope, like all his
predecessors, insists that marriage is a sacrament for Christians;
and that husband and wife must rely on sacramental grace in order to
live up to their love and commitment as spouses and parents (cf.
, nos. 15, 16).
In Msgr. Escriva's view of Christian marriage we naturally find the
same insistence on its sacramental character. But a new and striking
point of emphasis constantly appears. Marriage is presented as
raised not just to the level of a sacrament, but to that of a
-a personal call to a way of life essentially aimed at
"These world crises are crises of saints," he wrote almost sixty
years ago. The life of the Founder of Opus Dei, to use a phrase often
on his lips, was devoted to "opening up the divine paths of the
earth," to convincing ordinary people everywhere that their secular
jobs and occupations are ways to God and ways of God: that God is to
be found not just at the end of the road, but at every step of these
secular ways, which therefore should be seen in themselves as a means
for finding him and loving him.
Sanctity-the one formula to solve the real crises of the world! For
many people, the most revolutionary aspect of the message of the
Founder of Opus Dei is how he applied this precisely to marriage,
presenting it not only as a sacrament, but above all as a vocation;
communicating to millions of couples the conviction that God calls
them to marriage, and in doing so calls them to holiness; that they
have the great mission to make their conjugal love and parental love
expressions and ways of loving God. Time and again young and not so
young people have paused at length over that other point at the start
of "The Way": "You laugh because I tell you that you have a 'vocation
for marriage?' Well, you have just that: a vocation" (no. 27).
Holy families are the most special need of our times. They can be
formed only by couples who are truly trying to be saints. Only in
such families will good be stronger than evil, and able to overcome
it. Only from such families will that good spread which can save the
world; for only the Saints are strong with the "strength of God."
"For almost forty years," Msgr. Escriva wrote in 1968, "I have been
preaching the vocational sense of marriage. So often when talking to
men and women who thought that a life of dedication to God and a
noble clean human love were incompatible, I have seen their eyes
light up as they heard me say that marriage is a divine way on
Marriage-a divine way: it is certainly a daring statement! Seldom if
ever in the history of the Church has not only the constitutional
goodness of matrimony, but its full sense as a , been so proclaimed.
Blessed Josemaria insisted that love for God, in the case of husband
and wife, is inseparable from their loving one another, and would
help them realize what this implied. One love is a means to the
other. Growth in one love is not possible without growth in the
other. Married people, he repeated, "have been called by God to come
to divine love also by means of human love."
"Married couples have a grace of state to live all of the human and
Christian virtues which must characterize life lived close together:
understanding, good humor, patience, the readiness to forgive,
tactfulness in mutual dealings. The important thing is not to give up
the effort to live those small virtues, not to let nerves or pride or
personal manias get the better of them. For that, husband and wife
need to grow in interior life, and to learn from the Holy Family to
put great care into living the virtues characteristic of a Christian
home; doing so out of a human and a supernatural motive at one and
the same time." There is great wisdom and power in the
spirituality underlying this passage. The principle that grace builds
on nature is specially true of the graces of matrimony. If these
graces are relied on, they will activate all the genuine expressions
of true conjugal and family love.
The problem with our modern world is that it wants to be happy by
getting, not by giving; something that runs counter to the basic
rules of human living. In the end we cannot and should not want to
ignore the fact that happiness-also the happiness which marriage
promises-is not possible without generosity and sacrifice. Blessed
Josemaria used often to say that "happiness has its roots in the
shape of a Cross." It is the rule and apparent paradox of the
Gospel: only by "losing" and giving ourselves-the essence of love-can
we begin to find ourselves and, even more than ourselves, find the
happiness we are made for.
The new harmony between the ends of marriage
For long in Catholic teaching a hierarchical presentation was made of
the ends of marriage, with procreation being the principal end.
Vatican II, which twice emphasizes that marriage is of its nature
ordered to procreation, does not use the term "primary" end. In two
major documents of the post-conciliar magisterium a clear and
integrated view of the ends of marriage has been articulated. The
declares that these ends are
twofold: "the good of the spouses themselves, and the transmission of
life," which is identical to what was already stated in the 1983
Code of Canon Law (c. 1055). Both ends are presented as
institutional, and both, properly understood, are personalist. Rather
than any hierarchy between them, it is their mutual interdependence
and inseparability which are now emphasized.
Msgr. Escriva constantly stressed the close link between the ends of
marriage, where human and divine love meet and work hand in hand. His
understanding of the connection between these ends appears in the
following passage, where he contemplates them not just in an
institutional but in a vocational light. "It is important that the
spouses acquire a clear sense of the dignity of their vocation, that
they realize they have been called by God to come to divine love also
by means of human love; that they have been chosen from eternity to
cooperate with the creative power of God in the procreation and
afterwards in the education of children."
"They have been called by God"; "they have been chosen from
eternity": nothing can be more personal than such a divine vocation.
And in the purpose he assigns to it-"to come to divine love also
means of human love"-he surely expresses the essential content of the
"good of the spouses." To know the goodness of God, to open oneself
to that goodness, to fit oneself for its possession and eternal
enjoyment: in that lies the ultimate destiny and "good" of each
person. The good of the spouses is found in that combining and
development of all of husband's and wife's capacity for love, both
human and divine. Human love coming from and leading to divine love;
spousal love becoming parental love becoming family love; good
spreading in the family and from the family, with all the power of
God; with that strength that saves the world.
Love can be killed by law-by bad laws, of which we have many today.
It cannot be brought back to life by law, not even by good laws,
although good laws are necessary and certainly help. It is not in
Parliaments, nor in Supreme Courts, nor in United Nations Conferences
that love can be revived, but only in families.
Married couples have to learn to put their own purely personal or
individual concerns into the background; and, together, to overcome
their mutual differences (or to discover how to live with them), to
forgive and to forget, and to love each other, defects and all. If
their love is wise and true, they will not want to remain just a
couple; they will want to become a family. And then, as parents, they
need constantly to raise their minds and hearts-each one
individually, and both together-to what God, once more through the
Pope's Letter, is proposing to them; to what society and the world,
without knowing, needs from them; and to what their children, perhaps
also without fully realizing it, have the right to expect from them.
1 Themes from Pope John Paul II's "Letter to Families," with special
reference to the teaching of Blessed Josemaria Escriva on married and
family life and love.
2 Cf. 1-11, 26, art. 2.
3< Christ is Passing By>, Scepter, 1989, no. 24.
4 RHF 20.159, p. 108 ("RHF" refers to the historical archives kept at
the central Curia of the Opus Dei Prelature in Rome).
5 RHF, 20.770, p. 669.
6 , no. 24.
7 RHF 20.770, p. 108.
8 RHF 20.760, p. 770
9 , Scepter, 1974, 93.
10 RHF 20.770, p. 83.
11 RHF 20.760, pp. 778-779.
12 , no. 301.
13 , no. 91.
14 , no. 93. 15 , no. 108. 16 Cf. , Scepter, 1990, no. 28.
17 No. 2363; cf. no. 2249.
18 , no. 93.
This article appeared in the March 1995 issue of "The Homiletic &
Pastoral Review," 86 Riverside Dr., New York, N.Y. 10024,
212-799-2600, $24.00 per year.